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If you don't go online, others will do it for you

Bill Lindeke loves being an urban pedestrian — so much so that he's blogged about it for five years at Twin City Sidewalks. The U geography grad student scours the Internet to find anything related to streetscapes, and like many readers, has become increasingly cheesed at dwindling major-media coverage of his issues.

One salvation: the Highland Villager, a high-quality, free St. Paul-based community paper. Lindeke's problem: the Villager steadfastly refuses to go online (save for a skeletal site), making it impossible for him to link to their original, brick-by-brick coverage.

So in late May, Lindeke declared if the Villager wouldn't go online, he'd do it for them:

... the best source of local streets/sidewalks news in Saint Paul is the Highland Villager. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. The editor/publisher Michael Mischke (who I've never met) clearly doesn't like the internet for some reason. But there's a lot of good stuff in this local bi-weekly about developments and street debates.

So basically, I'm going to have a twice-monthly post about what I discover when reading the Highland Villager. Maybe it'll encourage you to go get your own copy, available anywhere that's anywhere in Saint Paul. Or maybe I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to? Either way ... until this newspaper goes online, information must be set free.

Lindeke summarized six stories from the June 3 Villager, and followed it up with ten more from an issue two weeks later. He flashed a bit more attitude the second time around, declaring "I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to."

So is Mischke moved by Lindeke's guerrilla tactics?

"No. Mr. Lindeke's inept effort just makes me shake my head," Mischke says. "What does trouble me is that Mr. Lindeke fails in several comments to accurately summarize the content of our articles and editorials. And in the case of his comment on my recent editorial about Walgreens, he gets it exactly wrong."

Lindeke absorbs the jab with aplomb, noting that Mischke can clear up any translation errors by simply uploading the stuff himself. "Or he can pay me," he quips.

Ironically, Lindeke says he was moved to reprise Village content because he grew frustrated at seeing urban-focused netizens refer to the paper's stories in a haphazard or distorted way.

"The Villager has actual journalists, and their stories are missing from the conversation," Lindeke asserts. "They're the only ones reporting on the Snelling Avenue median issue; I think it's been in every newspaper for months, but you can't find anything online. I wanted to get something out there besides people spouting opinion."

Well, Mike? If you don't like how people aggregate your work, why not do it yourself?

"Rather than ask me why the Villager is not on the the web, you might ask the publishers of the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune why those newspapers are," Mischke responds. "I'm fairly certain it's not because they're making any money doing so. I'm also fairly certain that their presence on the web has harmed that part of the business that is their bread and butter: their printed product."

In essence, Mischke has opted to stay where the profits, not the users, are. (That said, the Villager, an ad-supported freebie, claims 132,000 print readers.)

"In difficult economic times, my well-paid staff and well-paid freelancers are more focused than ever on publishing the very best newspaper we can," he states. "A newspaper that increasingly publishes stories that other newspapers in town ignore — whether for lack of interest or lack of staff — or decide to cover after their decimated staffs read about it in the Villager first. A newspaper that we're happy to report is succeeding in not being non-profit in the face of deep advertising discounts offered by struggling competitors all around us."

Still, Mischke is only so doctrinaire. "Will the Villager ever go online? Probably," he allows.

But not until the economics are clearly there. "The economics of printing and distribution alone will no doubt dictate it. But as long as people enjoy reading the printed word; as long as small, independent, local advertisers support their small, independent, local newspaper; as long as we continue to do well that which no other local news medium is doing, we'll continue to prosper in print."

As the two intransigent combatants glare — or at least smirk — at each other, readers for the moment better off because of Lindeke's cross-platforming.

Mischke, who acknowledges Lindeke's distillations don't violating copyright laws, won't have to take any coin away from his print efforts. Meanwhile, Lindeke not only lances an informational boil but might get a bit more traffic to his blog. He's making the Villager part of the Net's conversation, whether it likes it or not, as long as his passion holds out.

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Comments (11)

I have been frustrated in the past by the Villiagers' Dead Tree Only policies, I was unaware of Lindeke's efforts until I saw this.

In addition to its stupporn refusal to place content online, The Highland Villager had a couple other distinctions:

It was one of the few newspapers in the state that vigorously opposed smoking bans from its editorial pages. To be fair, it's straight news coverage of the local Tobacco Wars was, on whole, fair and well-written.

The paper is also one of the few newspapers to lose a libel lawsuit from a public official. Anyone who had to study "Sullivan vs New York Times" in school remembers just how hard it is for a media outlet to loose a libel lawsuit when an elected official is involved. Yet somehow, the Villager found a way!

The Highland Villager editor can surely ask one of his highly paid staffers to make a PDF of each issue and simply upload that to the Web.

Total staff time: 5 minutes. Less, even, if the physical paper is printed from a PDF that already exists and is sent to the printer electronically, as I suspect is the case.

Total time said staffer is devoting to the Web rather than reporting stories: Negligible.

What's the hang-up, Mischke?

I commend Bill for his efforts. I also think it would be a good idea to think about online news sources as valuable and therefore worthy of our monitary support. Come up with a model that makes economic sense, but doesn't cost the User/Reader a fortune and you've found the sweet spot. If only it were that easy...

I wonder if we just asked people to pony up 25 cents a day (the cost of the PPress in paper form) would that work? Maybe 10 cents a day for a local???

A couple of clarifying points:

It is the Villager, not the Highland Villager, and it has been so for the past 13 years in deference to the many St. Paul, Minneapolis and northern Dakota County neighborhoods our newspaper serves.

David Brauer writes: "In essence, Mischke has opted to stay where the profits, not the users, are." Actually, I've opted to stay where the profits AND OUR READERS are.

Mr. Moffitt writes: "The paper is also one of the few newspapers to lose a libel lawsuit from a public official." That is patently false. The Villager has never lost a libel lawsuit. Period.

Mr. Moffitt also writes: "It was one of the few newspapers in the state that vigorously opposed smoking bans from its editorial pages." True, I personally wrote editorials against GOVERNMENT-DICTATED smoking bans under my byline. I also published numerous guest editorials and letters to the editor in support of them.

Mr. Walker's conjecture is correct: The Villager is printed from a PDF that is sent to our printer electronically. So what's the hang-up? David Brauer neglected to include what might have provided a hint. In an e-mail to him, I wrote: "Your question (i.e., why aren't you on the web?) is one that my staff and I are asked on occasion--on rare occasion even by people who aren't journalists, if you can believe it."

The Villager's content is lifted enough by competing newspapers' journalists as it is. I like journalists. Some of my best friends are journalists. But I see no reason to make lifting our content any easier for any of them.

All that said, I have no bone to pick with Mr. Lindeke. Go for it, champ. Just make sure to get it straight.

I don't have a bone to pick either. The Villager is a great paper, and Jane McClure seems like a very hard-working reporter. I like the support and emphasis on local businesses.

Still, it's very frustrating that the information isn't available to be quoted, forwarded, and discussed on the internet. It's the only place to find out about land use decisions in Saint Paul, about the city council and the planning commission, about debates over transportation policy, and who's who in NIMBY-land. I'd really like it to be online.

On the one hand, papers like this are disappearing (Mpls Observer, The Bridge). I commend the Villager for staying in business. Someone doesn't have to report on this stuff, and we shouldn't take local news gathering for granted.

But if somehow the SW Journal can make money while putting their stories online, I'd think that The Villager can too?

(As for the particular gripe about Mischke's editorial, I guess I just didn't understand it. Though I do live in St Paul, I hadn't heard of this issue before. I try not to spend too much time blogging, as it's not a very lucrative pastime. I don't have time to be more careful, which is one reason that it'd be better if these stories were online, edited and presented in the way they were intended to be read.)

My apologies to Mr. Mischske, his newspaper and the readers of this blog. My memory failed me -- it was the Chanhassen Villager, not the Highland Villager, that lost a libel lawsuit. It was an easy matter to fact-check before I commented, but I failed to do so. Mea culpa.

Mr. Mischke is quite correct to point out that he often published guest op/eds and LTEs (including mine) supporting smoking bans.

Let me conclude that the Highland Village IS an exceptionally good weekly paper, and I always find it a good read, even though I don't live in the area.

Michael Mischke is 100 percent correct in his approach. I am a publisher of business magazines. We use our site to bring in subscribers and advertisers. We do not give our content away free as researcher Bill Lindeke understandably prefers. We have just completed our best subscription drive ever for our 25-year old printed magazine. Our ad revenue is on pace with last year. When we figure our a way to sell ad space on our web site without cannibalizing our printed magazines, we will do it. As Denny's proved with its free breakfasts, many people will gladly take something for free, especially if they previously had to pay for it. The challenge is to get them to part with their money, as MinnPost is finding out. Despite its many months of operation, the only ad I've see on this site today is for Dunn Brothers.

Bill Lindeke

These random comments are on my behalf and not on behalf of any publication I work for or freelance for, the McClure family, the Klemme High School Alumni Association, my cats or anyone else:

*I'd disagree with Mr. Mischke on one thing: If I had a quarter for every time I've been asked why the Villager isn't online, I wouldn't be one of the contributing writers. I'd be out in South Dakota riding horses and herding cattle at the McClure ranch.

*Some posters have nailed the issue and I'll expand on it. Publications rushed to go online without even thinking about how they were going to cover the costs. Now that cow is out of the barn. . .

*As a longtime freelancer and former neighborhood paper editor, I just want to say that there needs to be a recognition that poaching our work without compensation isn't fair. And while I do get paid by the Villager, the Midway-Como-North End Monitor and Access Press (where I am assistant editor), none of us in small media are paid enough to be a free archive for the major media. We may be small media but we work hard and we do good work. It's not my job to present you with a 20-plus year history of Ayd Mill Road or district councils or Central Corridor for free. I pay to use newspaper archives and others should do the same. Yet I've had folks from the dailies get mad when I bristle at not happily handing my stuff over for free.

(I appreciate that the Villager has always considered its freelancers and our rights when they've discussed online content and sharing of stories.)

*I guess the big question is, what is local news worth? Years ago we had volunteers from the Twin Cities Free Net (I think that is what it is/was) calling the Mpls-St. Paul neighborhood papers and basically telling the neighborhood papers if we didn't let them post our content, they'd post it for us. I kept asking what the benefit was and couldn't even get a clear answer. The whole attitude was you won't post it, so we'll do it whether you like it or not. And that, alas, is my impression of Mr. Lindeke.

Jane:

It's worth a lot. It'd be nice if there was a equitable way to compensate reporters and editors for the value they are creating, without treating important public news like the kind of private intellectual property typical of business magazines.

At the same time, the reason local news worth a lot is because the information is valuable to the public. The Villager does do a good job of reaching its audience of people who care primarily about their own neighborhoods. And that is hardly my audience.

But, the debates about public space so well covered by the Villager are part of a much larger conversation. How does state transportation policy (and dollars) affect the kinds of neighborhoods we have all throughout the Twin Cities? How can we work towards building a less energy intensive lifestyle for people throughout Minnesota, not just in the Villager's boundaries?

The stories, debates, and news provided by you and your colleagues are important parts of that picture, missing pieces of the puzzle. The attempts (by me and others) to represent the larger picture of how streets, sidewalks, and neighborhoods is often silent when it comes to covering Saint Paul. It's particularly ironic, because Saint Paul has a long history of neighborhood activism and involvement. My feeling is that this information is important, not just for the people on the Villager's home turf, but throughout the Twin Cities. And, while I understand the motivation behind keeping control over one's content (and revenue stream), there's just no way that they're getting this information under the current system.

Again, my standard disclaimer about why this is my viewpoint and not that of anyone else:

For me the bottom line is the bottom line. If my work goes beyond the Villager print edition and I don't have an agreement to have that work go online, that's a problem. I need to be compensated for that use.
I can't live on praise and lofty talk about civic discourse. When I have to juggle my bills, I don't need to hear about the importance of being part of the public debate. If the information is so bloody special, go to the neighborhood and pick up a newspaper!
Why is it that the one publisher in town who didn't race to go online and who is trying to protect his writers "gets" that - and then is criticized for it?
I'd love to be able to do some online journalism but one local Web site never paid me for some articles and others aren't interested. So you can say what you want but that gives me the impression that my work and my knowledge are of limited value. And that is what it is. I'm a small fish in a market of laid-off and bought-out bigger media folks. I've been told time and time again I'm not a "name." Whatever. I may not be a name but nor am I am a servant. Or as I tell my friends, Mother Theresa is not a Methodist from Klemme, Iowa.
What I get paid by the Villager for my work for the print edition is one thing. But I am not salaried and if my work goes online, I need to be paid more.
When someone comes up in an economic model that works for online community news, count me in. But until you can deal with the issues of economics, and the issues of media access and media literary (I used to edit neighborhood papers in low-income neighborhoods), until you can deal with the language and cultural barriers we face in some neighborhoods in getting even basic information out, good luck with that.

Between Mr. Mischke and Ms. McClure, the Villager may have the most crotchety newsroom of any rag in the state (and that's saying something). Still, I actually find myself agreeing COMPLETELY with both of them. Contrary to the prevailing opinion (spouted as fact) on the internet, information ISN'T free, and DOES have value (Tony Carideo can tell you all about what a quality research report from a reputable investment house costs).

Jane McClure's analogy is apt -- the Strib and other dailies with websites are letting everyone drink the milk from the cow, but only charging a few for the privilege.

I really think you have to rebuild the entire idea of content and who/what pays for it. It USED TO BE that advertising paid for content, but that isn't the case anymore, so get rid of the idea. Advertising now has easier and better channels to get to consumers than newspapers, so bag the "paid for by advertising" model and figure out a way to make someone else pay for content (difficult, I know, since everyone is accustomed to being subsidized by Ford and Verizon and all the other big newspaper advertisers).

The internet is the great disintermediator, so newspapers can no longer be the middle-man between advertisers and consumers.