When I was at AEJMC in Chicago at the beginning of August, Howard Owens, the digital strategist for Gatehouse, handed me a card with "the batavian.com" on it.
"Been meaning to tell you about this. We're getting ready to unveil it," he said in that stealthy way that intrigues without giving too many answers. I stuck the card in my pocket. The semester began and the usually routine of classes, and it wasn't until this weekend that I got to look at it.
Most interesting. And my timing seems to be fortuitous, because Owens is out this morning with the "unveiling." (The site actually launched in May.)
Scott Karp has a full post today; he's been in on it for several months And there was more a few days ago from The Fighting 29th a blog in the area.
What Gatehouse is doing is experimenting with the idea of creating a community news site without having a newsPAPER and built around the core idea that community contributions to the site are just as valuable as those of the "professional" journalists. With lower initial and operating costs (without being tied to "big iron"). the chances of success are improved. I'm not going to spend time getting into all the ins and outs of the site -- read Karp or read Owens' post on the site about its philosophy.
I want to talk about a bigger-picture meaning for a moment: What this means for smaller newsPAPERs.
I have said for years now that smaller community newspapers, even if their finances have been pretty good till now, are in as much danger as their big-city counterparts. The world is going digital. Period. Whether you are in South Succotash or South L.A., those 15- to 35-year-olds are increasingly carrying iPhones and similar devices. They are used to maneuvering digitally. It does not matter if you are the "most trusted source for local news" in your three square miles of this Earth.
A recent study here at the University of South Carolina found the state of community newspaper sites to be abysmal (sorry I can't link, but this is the academic publishing business, folks, which sometimes makes newspapers look like screaming centers of innovation - the paper, I hope, should be available in a few weeks at the AEJMC site on AllAcademic.com. Search for Mitchell, K., Collins, E., & Saunders, A. (2008). Finding it, storing it, discussing it: A
content analysis of weekly newspaper Web sites).
The Daily News, Batavia's local paper, would be the poster child. A Web site that has nothing on it but how to subscribe and how to buy ads. And a link if you want to buy some of its old stories from the archive. (One might playfully criticize Owens for picking a too-easy target.)
The point of all this is that it is too easy for competitors to come in, as Gatehouse has done in Batavia, and undercut you, especially by building ties to the growing digital community in your area (and if you think it isn't growing, then what's that farmer in his tractor doing with his iPhone while he plows). And it is remarkably easy to reverse print from the digital content.
Such sites grow community. We have see it in Hartsville with Hartsville Today, a vibrant online community that was done in conjunction with the newspaper but that has taken on a life of its own.
Even my friend and director of the S.C. Press Association, Bill Rogers, a sometimes curmudgeon about "bloggers," realizes some realities here. He's experimenting with creating a template of a site that smaller papers can use to more easily post to the Web. He and I may disagree on how to do it -- he's using Dreamweaver templates, so 2005, when he should be looking into the myriad online tools already available through Wordpress, Drupal and such (because they all are much more compatible with using widgets to greatly expand the power of a site). But the core idea is the same -- no one, not even the tiniest paper in the tiniest town, can afford to ignore the Internet and the opportunities it gives to broaden and deepen community and your ties to it.
To do otherwise merely invites another Batavian to suddenly appear on your digital doorstep. (Tim Windsor even has coined a name for it -- To "Batavian," "to snatch a market away from the snoozing competition with an online-only play.")