Rural Newspapers in the 21st Century

In the remaining few days before the November elections last fall, I went online to do some final research on candidates. I found almost everything I needed through The Oregonian and OPB’s website, except for information on specific local candidates such as Mayor. For that I went to the local newspaper’s website, hoping to find an informative article or even an editorial backing. While the paper’s website has never been a stellar source of information (or hell, decent graphic design), I was optimistic I’d find something useful.

Imagine my slack-jawed disbelief when, on the night before the hotly contested election, I found not a single mention of the election on the purportedly “news” website.

So I submitted the following Letter to the Editor, which started a debate on the place of rural newspapers in a world of rapidly changing media and ruffled some stiff feathers within the offices of the paper and its publishing company.

My Letter to the Editor:

“I feel The Dalles Chronicle has missed a huge opportunity to maintain relevance in today’s rapidly changing world of media by not offering a specific Election section on its website.
I don’t subscribe to The Chronicle because I access most of my news elsewhere. However the few times I do come to the newspaper’s website to access local information, it constantly falls short. Not by inches, by MILES.

Sure, I understand the thought process behind limiting content to maintain revenue gained from the print publication. It’s inconvenient for me, sure, but then again I’m still not subscribing.

However, to have absolutely NO MENTION of the Election on the homepage the night before our ballots are due is incredulous. I actually came to you to hear your point of view, and found snippets in the password protected archives after digging for an inexcusable amount of time.

The Chronicle, you missed the mark once again. Please join us in the 21st century, you might actually do well there.”

I forwarded that email to a few friends who do or have worked at the Chronicle (those are arduous, painful tales in themselves), and at their urging sent the following letter to the newspaper’s publishing company, knowing that my letter would never be published and they needed to be publicly called out on their giant journalism fail.

“To Whom It May Concern:

I am highly disappointed in the online coverage offered by The Dalles Chronicle. Up until this morning there was no information regarding the current election on its homepage whatsoever, and (after I submitted a Letter to the Editor last night) an incredibly late arriving, single election article appeared on the page… but it’s a generic piece from the AP wire. I came to the Chronicle’s website to find out more about my local candidates and spent nearly 10 minutes digging through password protected archives before a simple Google search found what I needed, rather than the paper.

I should note that I am not a subscriber to the newspaper. I get most of my news from online sources, but am regularly defeated in my quest for online local news because of the Chronicle’s antiquated and woefully neglected website. I think there is a huge potential to move into the 21st century, work with the changing tides in the rapidly moving current of news media, and take advantage of the niche in providing topical, local news. Instead there is extremely limited information online, and the homepage is devoted to horrendous looking ads rather than useful journalism.

I highly encourage a reassessment as to the priorities in the website for The Dalles Chronicle. I want to have a place I can rely on for local breaking news, thought provoking journalism and sensible coverage of important topics, such as the election, and I know I’m not alone. I can go anywhere online for AP articles, but nowhere for quality coverage of local issues. If there is a website that accommodates these needs, the ad revenue will pay for itself.

Thank you for your time and consideration. “

In response I received a brief note from the publishing company saying that the above email would be forwarded to “the publisher of our publication in The Dalles, as well as our president and board of director rep for this property.” Then I received inside word that a flurry of meetings were taking place in the Chronicle’s office, and suddenly some hastily taken photographs of people collecting ballots and a couple brief articles were tossed up on their webpage. Then the newspaper’s (in house) publisher emailed me a response.

“Dear Stephanie,

I appreciate the constructive criticism of our web site, I feel much the same about the confusion of our web site. The Dalles Chronicle web site is currently under new construction, and will hopefully provide easier navigational tools for our readers. The site will offer several pages of free information, but after an initial promotional period, an e-version will be placed behind a paywall.

I understand you read free online news sources, but I will attach a one-month free subscription to this email. If you would like to have a free month of The Dalles Chronicle, just let me know and I will begin a subscription for you.

As much as I would love for advertising to pay for online content, the truth is, revenue from news web sites nationally fall way below what it requires to pay for a staff. The Dalles Chronicle through the printed publication this fall has covered local political issues and people running for office extensively. There are many ways of supporting community involvement, and I believe, as I should, that community journalism does need to be supported by our readers. The only means of showing that support is through a subscription to the newspaper.

Best regards.”

Woo! A one month subscription to a paper that prints an unnecessary number of editions over the course of a week! My reply:

“Thank you for your reply and generous offer. As a landowner and taxpayer here in The Dalles, like many I have a vested interest in our community. I hold a large amount of love and respect for our town and hope it continues to grow and progress. I know that as a small town paper, The Dalles Chronicle is a integral resource for news and information for many here.

I’m sure you’re well aware that the face of news media is rapidly changing and small town newspapers are at odds with what to do, and how to retain both relevancy and solvency. I want our paper, as it is representative of and a resource for our community, to work with the changes and evolve into something more dynamic and community focused. I’m sure you want the same. The old journalism business model simply isn’t going to work anymore, as many like myself simply don’t get our news from print media anymore. We get it online from Google News, from the Oregonian’s breaking news updates on Twitter, from OPB updates on our phones… something that grows and works with us on our time.

While the web might not be your huge moneymaker, I think overlooking its potential is not only denial, but a gross misstep, and I hope that from its undergoing construction comes an outlet more progressive and interactive. You have the chance to get directly involved with a significantly larger portion of your audience (because really, how many new subscribers does the paper get a year?) and make that much bigger of an impact. That equals more advertisers, more relevancy and a more positive reputation as a leading source of local information. Your audience wants to be engaged with their local news. They want to hear it, to talk about it, to learn more about it. They want to speak with you (the paper), with their fellow community members, with business owners. It’s not a simple one-way conversation anymore.

The Tri-City Herald is a great example of this… not only is their website chock full of wonderful information (some of which is free, some of which requires a paid membership), but their Facebook page regularly offers additional content and lively community conversation. They even hosted a live election night chat that was a resounding (and surprising) success. I believe The Chronicle can do this, and I hope you acknowledge that there is a large need for this type of conversation in our community. A local news website bereft of accessible, election-based content the night before was a huge failure, no matter how much content you choose to keep offline.

As well, there are many residents of The Dalles that due to their current location cannot receive the paper, even if they wanted to. From those that are serving in the military to kids away in college to former residents in other cities… these people would still like to know what is happening in their town, and having a resource for that would be highly valuable to them.

While monetizing a newspaper’s website is a hotly debated issue across the country, there are many other organizations that are doing a stellar job at it, and I can only hope that our paper does the same in a functional and aesthetically pleasing fashion. As a person in marketing I would then find advertising with the Chronicle a worthwhile endeavor.

Thank you again for your time. I will happily accept your offer of a month’s subscription.”

And what was the response to what I felt was a very logical, practical and forward thinking letter? The following:

“Stephanie,

I will need your address to start your subscription. Once again I appreciate your comments.”

That was that. I almost immediately began receiving the newspaper, which inexplicably publishes five days a week with limited local content and a lot of AP articles. The weekends I was out of town they piled up on my doorstep, announcing to the world that I wasn’t home. The adorable boy who delivered my paper threw it in the wet bushes half the time (although he was the sender of my first holiday card this year!). I tried to read the paper, I really did, but damn, five papers a week is far too much. They did nothing to compel me to “do my civic duty” and subscribe to their publication.The Hood River News (owned and operated by the same publishing company) does a much better job providing a publication chock full of local content an economical two days a week.

I should note that behind this series of communiques, I’ve heard the experiences of quite a few people who’ve worked for the newspaper and how soul crushing it is to work in a place that stifles new ideas and adamantly sticks with the old ones. Progressive is the antithesis of this newspaper, in a time when it’s almost life or death to remain so. I’m sure it can be said the same for many newspapers across the country, but if one local paper can get it right, and another so drastically fails, that tells you something about its internal structure. I’m also swayed because I have a degree in journalism, and while I (smartly) chose to never work in the profession, I hold a great deal of respect for journalists who do the job well. That all combined with being a landowner in a small town for which I hope and pray and cheer for its molasses-like modernization… I wanted action to provoke real change.

To this day the website is still in its sad, sad state, and I’m still not advertising in or subscribing to it.

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