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Survival Of The Smallest by Chris Morrill
posted by: Chris Morrill <>, on: Thu, September 10, 2009
filed under: Goldfarb Center

This week, I’ve been reading “What Would Google Do”,  a digestible book that takes the rather obvious approach of suggesting we can all learn tricks from the world’s most successful search-engine company.  The author, Jeff Jarvis, is a well-know media guy, college professor, blogger and self-promoter.  He  reminds readers that the mass media world  is quickly fragmenting into thousands of niche products, fueled by consumer’s  individual interests and the cheap content-creation tools on the web.
Jarvis’ point got me thinking more closely about the fate of America’s smaller newspapers, which  have gotten little attention compared to big-media company woes  (newsroom reductions, bankruptcy court filings and threats of closure).  I’ve long been a believer that these smaller daily and weekly papers would be insulated from a lot of the pain being felt upstream. They don’t carry the debt load, have invested conservatively, and can boast of meaningful relationships with local advertisers.  

But now I’m getting worried for them too. Why? Google searches now take readers directly to sites and/or reviews about local businesses.  Many print stories feel stale in our age of Tweets, Facebook updates and push e-mail. Some smaller papers have been slow to get online, given technical hurdles and fears of content cannibalization. And they face new low-cost competition from community bloggers and ambitious online startups that have low-cost structures.

Of course, the startups face their own challenges. While they may find some foundation money to get rolling and some benefit from non-profit status, they too will have to cope with small, time-starved audiences and the apparent lack of good advertising solutions.

What matters to me is the survival of small-town journalism, and if newspapers can’t evolve and succeed with new models, there will others ready to try. And there are bright spots:

  • There are many experienced journalists willing to practice their craft for less money, especially outside the corporate realm. Some of them will turn their energies to hyper-local sites.
  • Surprisingly, many universities report continued high interest among students in journalism majors. Pair these hungry, ambitious graduates --  who’ve been trained in multi-media journalism -- with more experienced newspaper exiles, and it might be a winner for smaller news organizations.
  • There is potential to network lots of these sites together in all sorts of ways, including platform-sharing, technology expense and advertising infrastructure.  Some newspapers, once reluctant to partner with “the competition”  are now sharing news with each other  as they struggle to trim costs.
  • “Local news” is always going to be relatively important to consumers, no matter how dominant the big national players like Google, Amazon and Craig’s List become.  If local advertising, delivered with a print product, is no longer viable,  maybe we’ll all find ourselves willing to pay a little more to be well informed online.  Here are a few papers, including one in Newport, Rhode Island, leading the way in getting readers to pay.

Chris Morrill ’81 is Associate Director/Syndication for GlobalPost, a new international-news organization based in Boston.