Online is the present, and the future, isn’t it? Unless, of course, it’s not.
Jeff Achen has been the online editor for Thisweek, three newspapers with a circulation of about 80,000 that cover the southern suburbs. Unfortunately for Jeff, a sharp young guy who came to love online work, his position — though not his job — was eliminated last month. He wrote a terrific, mature reflection here, noting in part:
Over the past two years, I’ve enjoyed the innovation and creative enterprise my superiors have allowed me. I’ve always been treated like a professional and nurtured in all my efforts. But, alas, the amount of money we make online remains the same as the day we started this “experiment” and the company president who appointed me has moved on.
How long could I continue to goof off in my online office, creating videos and podcasts, posting daily stories and frequently asking for new cameras, software or audio recorders before they realized the online office was only producing news and not $$$? Well, they realized it and it’s a luxury this community newspaper has decided it cannot afford.
Back at the dawn of the decade, I was a community newspaper editor. I started out as a web evangelist but eventually pulled back. I know, that seems weird given the cyberspace I inhabit now.
We knew that just like everyone else, our readers were moving online — but not necessarily to read us. Our small and extremely hard-working staff just couldn’t produce enough regular copy to make our site a reader destination.
Our advertising proposition — on every doorstep in our coverage area — remained much more powerful, though not unassailable. Like Thisweek — whose site averaged a mere 110,000 page views a month — our sales staff couldn’t generate squat online, either.
The company created an online editor job after I left, and later axed the position. The very talented writer who got his head chopped off didn’t deserve his fate, but like Achen’s bosses, I understand the prioritization. My old paper hasn’t abandoned the web — the staff is diving in to social networking, which has more potential than lightly watched vidcasts or podcasts — but the future tail doesn’t wag the present dog.
It’s not a happy prospect; print is weakening. I know some web-side genius has a way to cover community goings-on that pays, or at least doesn’t lose, which undoubtedly involves inspired reader-generated content, etc. I hope the results aren’t crap. Thisweek, meanwhile, will merely use money from the shift for better business coverage, Achen writes.
There’s something about that that cheers me, even though the victory might be Pyrrhic. Ultimately, survival is about better stories, even if survival isn’t guaranteed.
Which reminds me: Yes, use video when it best tells the story — Achen still recommends carrying a Flip cam or a video-enabled cellphone for those meaningful moments. But if you’re a community news source and your audience for regular vidcasts and podcasts doesn’t break the low triple digits, please devote your scarce time to newsgathering with more impact.
Achen, a professional videographer, says vidcasts were getting between 20 and 350 page views. (There was a spin-off benefit, though: the work was shown on local cable-access channels.) At the very least, try a different experiment.