25 June 2012 Comments Off

Digital media: Fertile ground for community newspapers

At a time when daily newspapers in North America are struggling, the  importance and vitality of community journalism was stunningly clear after the recent arrest at a U.S.-Canada border crossing of a man sought in a triple murder. Travis Baumgartner, accused of killing three Edmonton, Alberta, armored-car co-workers and fleeing with $330,000, was apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials when he attempted to cross the border between Aldergrove, British Columbia, and Lynden, Washington.

The first reports of the arrest came on Twitter, from regional and national Canadian correspondents following the story. The next morning, I found good coverage of the story on the websites of the Canadian dailies. No surprise there, since it was a huge story in Canada. What did surprise me was that 18 hours after the dramatic Saturday arrest, The Bellingham Herald, the U.S. daily that serves the border region, still had not covered the story.

The most substantial coverage of the event in the area where it occurred was on the websites of the community newspapers on the Canadian side of the border, the Aldergrove Star and Langley Times.

Community newspapers, often weeklies, have traditionally had a close relationship with the communities they serve, with stories that didn’t make the radar screens of area dailies. Now digital publishing — especially social media — offers community papers an opportunity to draw even closer to their audiences–and to transcend publishing schedules.

I spoke with Marco Morelli (@MMorelli on Twitter), a digital media specialist with Black Press, which owns 75 community newspapers in British Columbia, including the Aldergrove and Langley papers. Morelli, who trains the company’s editorial teams in social media, joined the company four years ago as part of the new media team.

He said the solid coverage of the border arrest was no accident. While he said the company specifically does not see itself as following a digital-first publishing strategy, there is major  support for an expanded digital presence.

“It’s been a huge culture shift” for the company’s 270 reporters and editors, he said, but “in training we show how the Web can be used to gather and share information and that it’s OK to build your story online.”

He also encourages journalists to have a larger social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, because it’s good for the company and staff.

“We encourage staff members to have their own accounts so they can build their brands as journalists,” he said, and “we tell them to bring your own personality to the table.”

That’s good advice for community news outlets that want to become even more relevant to the people and places they cover. I would go further: A digital-first strategy can pay off for both a community paper and its audience in a number of ways.

  • Public service. When the flood comes or the snowstorm blows in, the trusted community news source can use digital media to quickly get the word out on emergency services, evacuations, school and road closures and how to get help. Twitter is a great way to use bursts of information that can serve, warn and reassure a community. And make sure there’s a mobile component, since cell phones may be the only way the audience can tune in.
  • The big story. As we saw in the border arrest, community papers can transcend their publishing schedules and fill in the gaps that national and regional dailies leave.
  • Even more personality. Community papers often have owners, editors and journalists who are well known to their audiences. Inviting readers to share editorial content on Facebook and follow their favorite reporters on Twitter and developing Web-specific content can enhance that.
  • Even more community connection. Weekly newspapers have always been places that cover communities more microscopically than dailies. Graduations, military postings, weddings, births and obits and photojournalism. A digital-first strategy will free you from the confines of time and newsprint–and offer a venue to publish more material produced by the community.
The community paper product probably isn’t going away. It’s still a great way to present longer form journalism and feature photos–and lucrative legal and classified ads. There is also a significant portion of the audience that is very comfortable with it. But practically all of that audience is also digitally connected–especially through their cell phones.
So the challenge to weeklies that haven’t already done so is to take the leap from mailbox to mobile: Develop digital-first and social media strategies that will deliver your unique and highly valued content to where your subscribers actually live: online, mobile and in the social stream.





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