Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Experts say digitally nervous rural newspapers ignore online opportunities at their peril

Rural newspapers that ignore online opportunities may be risking their relevancy, and losing opportunities, in their communities. And what's worse, Washington State University's Benjamin Shors writes for PBS MediaShift, a recent survey suggests rural citizens are going online to look for news but struggling to find local content. That, he writes, leaves rural papers at a crossroads: To leap or not to leap to the Internet. And if they do, what content do they take with them?

"It's a 24-7 world and they come out 52 times a year," Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told Shors. "The worst day to die in a rural area is on a Thursday; your obit won't be printed for a week." Digitally savvy rural journalists, the University of Kentucky professor said, could quickly publish breaking community news. "They rightly have been wary of putting information online for free because that cannibalizes their print content," he said. "But I think there is a way to go online ... You put things online that you can't put in print," such as official documents, videos, audio recordings, extra photographs and so on, to maintain the local-news franchise that is the newspaper's reason for being.

Cross said some rural papers could even jump directly to mobile platforms, as phone technology rapidly evolves and cellular networks continue to spread. The Federal Communications Commission reported Tuesday that about 14.5 million rural Americans — or nearly one-fourth of the 61 million people living in rural areas -- had no fast Internet service, or broadband, available at home. In contrast, only 1.8 percent of  Americans living in non-rural areas had no broadband access.

Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents about 130 community newspapers in the state, told Shors that community newspapers are struggling with the same digitally driven economic challenges that have decimated larger publications. At a spring roundtable in Washington state, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, several initiatives were discussed to increase digital literacy among rural journalists and their readers. (Read more)

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