The online newsman’s lament

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/04/2009 - 04:17 pm.

    Some people call me a “renegade” or an “outlaw” because I just don’t hang around in the social media / blogger world, attending the breakfasts and conferences and happy hours and all the other stuff.

    But the few times I’ve gone to these kinds of things, I eventually get myself into some kind of verbal trouble. Not because I’m rude or obnoxious (correct me if you think otherwise) but because I talk about things like business models and how we can make $$$ off of any of this new media / social media / alternative media stuff.

    Every time I bring it up, you’d think I just cut a very loud odiferous fart. Noses turn up and people back slooowly away. Erik, the “bad boy”, has once again made himself personna non grata.

    The entire scene has this Middle Class Affectation Disorder associated with it, shunning anyone who dares associate the Moste Noble Arte of Media Nouveau with something as crass as *money*.

    Well.

    As someone who is poor, not afraid to admit it, and trying to make a living one way or the other I guess I’m just not one of the self-appointed elites in this field. I want to make money. I also want to see David Brauer and Jeff Achen make a good living as journalists, and if I figure out how I’m sure I’ll tell you.

    But most of this field seems to think that guys like me are somehow dirty and unwelcome for even bringing it up. Until that changes, this profession and all this media is doomed to be nothing more than a Middle Class affection, a plaything for the self-appointed cool kids in the great High School of life.

    That’s a terrible waste – in addition to being very annoying. I’m always looking for people who are serious about quality, business models, and all that other icky stuff that makes the Middle Class crinkle their noses, please contact me. I think it’s time we start doing something about this instead of screwing around like a bunch of spoiled kids.

  2. Submitted by Colin Lee on 12/04/2009 - 05:07 pm.

    I have to say, I appreciated Jeff Achen’s outstanding online journalism in my community and sincerely hope he continues to cover the metro for some local news outlet. Who knows? Perhaps Sarah Janacek at Politics in Minnesota would be interested in expanding her online journalist outfit that doesn’t make their paychecks solely from printing news on pulp? Good luck, Jeff!

  3. Submitted by Larry Werner on 12/06/2009 - 06:43 pm.

    Colin: As both David and Jeff pointed out in their posts on the change we made at Thisweek, Jeff will continue to do his journalism for us and will, in fact, continue to be a multi-media journalist for us. He will be our Apple Valley-Rosemount editor and will continue to produce his weekly television show for our web site, Thisweeklive.com, and for public-access cable in Burnsville, Eagan and Lakeville. Larry Werner, editor and general manager, Thisweek Newspapers and the Dakota County Tribune

  4. Submitted by Alistair MacLean on 12/12/2009 - 07:02 pm.

    “Ultimately, survival is about better stories, even if survival isn’t guaranteed.”

    It’s my contention that better stories have to come crafted from superior beat reporting. Cover everything and anything your planning commission and park board does that affects citizens as well as regular city council action. Consistently stay in touch with your sources. I’ve said it more than once: Burn a hole in the shoe leather.

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