Community Newspapers in the Digital Age: A Survival Guide


We are living in an ever-changing, ever-evolving world in which consumers are in control of how they consume media, how they get their news. News consumers have expectations of the news media and each individual news medium has two choices: 1. Respond to consumer demand and expectations in order to remain a viable source for content, or 2. Continue business as usual, not looking outside the centuries-old paradigm that is leading to the quick and painful death of some media.

Shifting consumer behavior and increased expectations are a both a challenge and a significant opportunity for the weekly community newspaper. Traditionally, “weeklies” (as they’re known in the industry) only focused on feature stories, fluff stories, events calendars and photos of your friends and neighbors. This is what consumers wanted and expected. It’s also what the publications could do under the limitations of only publishing once per week. Running hard news, breaking news and weather alerts were hardly practical for a paper that publishes after those stories are long forgotten.

Today’s landscape, however, is a different one. Digital media, social media and mobile behavior have made every news medium a 24-hour, seven-day-per-week operation. It’s not a choice. It’s a reality, and yes, it’s a challenge.

The newspaper industry as a whole has done a fair job of recognizing this. Third-party objective researchers like Price, Waterhouse, Coopers see it like a blazing sun on the quickly-approaching horizon. “The newspaper publishing industry is facing a structural challenge in which paid titles have seen a long-term decline in circulation volume,” noted PWC in Moving into Multiple Business Models: Outlook for Newspaper Publishing in the Digital Age back in 2009. “Advertisers have been moving from newspapers to online channels and into new formats.” They saw the shift happening four years ago, as did many newspapers. Sadly many papers either didn’t see it or didn’t know how to deal with it.

The papers who don’t see the shift or who deny it or write it off as a passing fad are choosing business as usual. For weeklies, that means offering outdated content once a week in a format whose penetration has been on a steady decline for at least a decade. Pew Research reports that the number of Americans who say they read print newspapers has dropped from 41% to 23% in the last 10 years.

Yet, digital news consumption is on the rise. According to Pew, 70% of computer owners, 51% of smartphone owner and 56% of tablet owners get their news on their digital devices. These numbers are conservative compared to current mobile and digital consumption boom.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for the publications who are ready to embrace the change and those who aren’t quite sure how to deal with it. In an on-the-go, on-demand, in-control world of consumers getting news and information instantaneously at their desks and in the palms of their hands, weeklies have a chance to own a segment of the market.

The success of weeklies in the antiquated days of print was largely based on their ability to be hyper-local. The Anytown Journal (a hypothetical weekly covering a fraction of a county) could cover the pancake breakfast at the local firehouse that The Metropolitan Times didn’t have time to cover. The Metropolitan Times (a hypothetical daily) reaches a coverage area large enough that hyper-local content isn’t what its readers want. That’s what The Anytown Journal owns. Now, the Journal must embrace that ownership and take it to the next, digital level. And it’s not as hard as the editor thinks it is.

It’s all about an adjustment, but not even a complete shift in paradigm. When I was Vice President of Digital Media for a company that published a regional daily and several weeklies, I heard something that summed up the weekly’s place in the digital world. I was meeting with the three-person editorial team at one of our weeklies explaining how to embrace digital to retain readers and win new ones. “We’re online every day whether we like it or not,” I said. “Readers don’t only go to our Web site one day a week.”

A young reporter responded, “So, we’re an online daily with a weekly print supplement.”

Yes. That’s the philosophy. That’s the paradigm. That’s the strategy.

That’s also what got a young reporter a promotion to Online Editor, overseeing digital content distribution for all the company’s publications … and a nice fat pay increase.

Okay, so we have the philosophy and the paradigm, but how do we execute the strategy with a staff that was built for a once-a-week publication of features? It comes down to a change in workflow and better use of available resources.

There are a few key basics in keeping a news Web site fresh every day and engage readers:

1. Publish online as stories are completed. Don’t hold them until print day.
2. Run news releases online as they come in. Remember, there’s no worry of space, extra pages or paper and ink expense on your Web site.
3. Become the alert authority using content directly from credible sources.
4. Run a photo or two each day with a caption.
5. Three words: User-generated content.

Let’s look at each of these items.

When a reporter completes a story and the editor finds it suitable for publication, run it online immediately. Why would you hold it? Many papers are afraid of risking their print readership by running stories online first. Your print readership is sinking like the Titanic while your online users increase every day. That’s not going to change. Do I need to explain the simple logic?

Daily newspapers, weeklies, television newsrooms and radio stations are flooded with news releases about a wide variety of happenings in the local community. Many (often most) never see air or print because of time or space restraints. Those limitations do not exist online. When you get a news release about the high school production of “Anything Goes” next weekend, run it online! Include the cast photo that the school submitted. The TV stations don’t have time to do this, weeklies do. This is hyper-local content and it takes minutes to proof and upload.

We live in a world of alerts. From severe weather to breaking news to sports scores to power outages to traffic issues, the consumer wants this information … now. Weeklies can easily become the authority for alerts in their hyper-local area without sending a reporter to write a story. It’s simple. Each reporter and editor, whether the staff consists of 10 or one, should subscribe to the following alerts, all of which can be customized to a hyper-local geography. We’ll use Pennsylvania an example starting point.

– Severe weather from the National Weather Service.
– Traffic alerts and road conditions from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
– Power outages and estimated restoration times from PPL Electric Utilities.

You can also follow each of these sources on twitter for alerts. Once a reporter or editor receives an alert by twitter, text or email, they simply cut and paste from their computer or mobile device to push it out on the weekly’s Web site and social media.

While a weekly may only publish one day a week, reporters and editors work at least five (even if there is only a staff of one). Snapping a photo of something in the community each day, writing a caption and uploading takes seconds and keeps content fresh.


User-generated content can quickly and easily create a robust Web site of photos and videos of particular interest to the local community. Remember, though, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Use your site, social media and even your print publication to encourage readers to submit their content. A quick review by an editor puts it online in minutes.

These few steps represent the starting point for a weekly, the beginning of survival. Embrace the change and you will quickly engage, interact and connect with your readers and, most importantly, keep them online as they disappear in print. There are many more things a weekly can do, but let’s start here.

Digital media is 24/7. Survival means offering content when and how the consumer wants it. You aren’t’ necessarily who or what you think you are. Don’t make that assumption. You must be what the community needs you to be.

I live in a very small community with two weeklies. In the past several months there have been three major power outages and neither publication made any mention online or on social media. I went there first and was forced to go somewhere else for the information I wanted.

Weeklies still have a trusted news brand, but if they don’t offer the information their readers need, that trust will quickly erode.

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