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Hometown paper blues

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There's been a great deal of talk—and hope—by local newspaper owners about the prospects for increased ad revenue in 2010, largely due to the expectations of an improved economy coupled with a congressional midterm election year that may prove to be the most expensive one yet. However, media outlets that are still clinging to their printing presses shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief believing that the worst is over and that the “good old days” are coming back. They're not. The reality is that newspaper circulation has and will continue to drop at a record pace—not for a lack of ads or even because of reduced content, but for the simple fact that news is not news if it takes 24 hours to get it out. Today's information environment requires a seismic shift in traditional local media's distribution strategy. Effectively making this transition requires significant investment in strong, mutually beneficial partnerships and technology. Think of it this way: Google empowers users all over the world to search for and obtain information about people, places and things that exist in their backyards—as well as around the world—in nanoseconds. Doing so has given the $21 billion search company a large readership and advertiser following at the expense of the traditional newspaper business. The issue is even more challenging, but not insurmountable, for local media outlets. Not only must the news be delivered in near real-time through traditional Web browsers, e-mail and mobile devices, it must also be relevant to specific niche audiences. That means investing in content, as well as customizable ways to deliver it to readers. This will require a keen understanding of each subscriber's tastes and desires. It will also mean leveraging social media, podcasts, video feeds and other interactive platforms to provide what today's consumer demands: information that is both enlightening and engaging. Another shift is that readers have become news sources themselves, offering comments and blog postings on issues that matter to them and, most assuredly, to other subscribers. Sponsors stand to gain from local media that leverage such technology and distribution strategies because they provide greater opportunities to target local audiences with pinpoint accuracy. Unfortunately, the majority of local papers have failed to capitalize on this trend and instead see their Internet properties as a place to post their print stories the next business day instead of as the news happens. What's more, very few outlets offer subscribers the chance to hyper-segment news by region, demographic or psychographic preferences. As a result, newspapers are losing readers in droves. Valuable lessons can be learned here: Traditional media outlets are no longer the only voices in town, but they are one of several credible resources that customers seek to obtain valuable content at a time of their choosing. Technology and content partnership are the drivers here that will draw more readers and, subsequently, more advertising dollars. The sooner the local news industry understands that, the better off it will be. Barbara Bry is co-founder and executive editor of the San Diego News Network (www.sdnn.com). She can be reached at barbara.bry@sdnn.com.
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