Print is dying. Newspapers are dead. The world has gone digital. This is what Internet intellectuals like Clay Shirky believe. Essentially, they believe that everyone should face the facts, embrace the digital age, and stop hoping that print will survive. But what about the print that continues to survive? That continues to thrive? Print that either ignores digital advancements or only embraces them half-heartedly. Shirky is only correct in saying the unthinkable (that newspapers are dead) when it comes to publications that cater to tech-savvy urbanites who access media using various non-print platforms; people who may want the local news, but who get it easily from their online sources. These newspapers are hoping that digital facelifts will be enough to compete in the age of the net.
But local rural newspapers don’t yet have to face this threat, and may be immune for years to come. In the modern age, when people are turning to the web for their news, and urban print newspapers are dying, local rural newspapers are still proving viable. This is the case for a few reasons: people are inherently more interested in news that directly affects them, and want that inside, credible scoop; local rural newspapers that have launched digital platforms have been met with a lukewarm response; rural populations are largely people over the age of fifty who are not all willing to consume information from the web; and print newspapers continue to be filled with advertisements.
To begin with, the difference between local rural and local urban newspapers is this: people need to feel like they are a part of something. Community newspapers give them this sense of belonging. People have a chance to see themselves and people they know, and a large percentage of the stories will directly affect them. This is not the case with urban communities, as there are more issues, more people, and more chances for single stories to appear on the web, reported by various sources. Urban community newspapers have many more challenges to deal with than just the daily grind of publishing a newspaper.
This is not the case for local rural newspapers, as there are often no other credible sources in these communities. It is hard work to gather the local news and no single individual is going to post it online for free. This is partially because local newspaper reporters glean more information about an event than the average attendee would. Tori Elliott, former reporter and copy-editor for Manitoba’s Virden Empire-Advance said in an interview that, although a number of community members may have attended an event, “they’ll still want to buy the paper to read about it because people would not have gotten the inside scoop”.
Local newspapers also get the current news that community members do not by covering long and often dry evening meetings that only offer scant rewards in terms of newsworthy stories. Chris Bowers, owner and publisher of one of Gabriola Island’s free weekly newspapers, The Flying Shingle, asserted in an email that “this is the reason newspapers exist in the first place…attending meetings that no one else wants to go to”. This, and to accept tips from people who wish to remain anonymous, she said.
The digital platform is often present in these communities, but is not a large threat to the local newspapers. Gabriola Island, for example, has a high-traffic Facebook group with 1,506 members, which represents a significant percentage of Gabriola’s 4,000 permanent residents. This group does discuss recent events and several local businesses do advertise there, but most of the members are posting opinions, highlighting news sources outside of the community, or linking to one of Gabriola’s two papers, the Gabriola Sounder or The Shingle.
The Shingle has attempted to counter the Facebook group’s influence and competition from The Sounder by operating a comprehensive website since 2008, creating a Facebook page and a twitter account in 2012, and updating all platforms weekly, with large news items posted more frequently. Each article receives 50 to 150 views, but the differential from story to story suggests that readers are selecting individual articles rather than reading an entire edition.
Local rural newspapers that use the Internet as a platform may find more digital advantages than disadvantages. It should be noted that both The Shingle and the Sounder are free newspapers, and are therefore not undermining themselves financially by publishing online.
The Shingle’s website features archives dating back to 2008 (when the website was started), and these records assist both readers and staff. The website also provides online readership tracking and analytics, generates continued ad revenue, offers centralized tweets, features colour photos, displays fire hazard information, posts online surveys, covers the weather, and lists information about the newspaper, the community, and advertising options.
It is a good sign that local rural newspapers are utilizing digital platforms and continue to be financially viable. In the article “At Rural Newspapers, Some Publishers Still Resist Moving Online”, Washington State journalism teacher Benjamin Shors reports: “Rural newspapers that ignore online opportunities may be risking their relevancy — and losing opportunities — in their communities, experts say”.
This is not to suggest that any of these platforms are actually necessary in these communities, as evidence by the scarcity of hits per Shingle article.
At the other end of the online spectrum, some local rural newspapers are thriving with no online presence at all. The Virden Empire-Advance has virtually no online platform but remains profitable, said Elliott. The Glacier Media Group communications company that operates the newspaper states on their website that the paper has a circulation of 2,459 in a 3,000-person community. This newspaper costs one dollar, is half-filled with advertisements, wins awards, has a staff of eight, and is extremely lucrative, said Elliott. Virden Empire-Advance started a Facebook group in 2012, but has only garnered 151 likes. Elliott said that these community members are social media users but they do not seek local news online. When Elliott suggested to her manager that the paper could be digitized, the manager declined, as she did not think that the readers would want to consume information online. And judging from the amount of Facebook likes, the high number of subscribers, the large staff size, and the general profitability, she would appear to be right.
Another reason that rural communities may not want local news online is that, according to Statistics Canada, this country’s rural population is older than the urban population. Gabriola Island has a median age of 52.9 years, while Canada has a median age of 40.8, and 16 percent of the nation’s rural regions have a median age of 65 years and older as of 2006. This demographic is evidently accustomed to print: although both The Shingle and the Sounder are delivered to every mailbox on the island, the stacks of papers left at circulation drops are typically gone prior to the arrival of the next edition.
If local rural papers were to go fully digital right now, this would be a serious problem for the demographic that does not read online. Often, the newspaper is the only source of information for community members. It is where they find out about zoning bylaws, BC Ferries schedule and price changes, store hour amendments, and the person who keeps their engine idling in the cold ferry lineup. It is consolidated information that they need. Michael Bean, a retired reporter and managing editor for various daily and weekly newspapers on Vancouver Island, stated in an email that local newspapers will survive for some time due to the nature of local newspaper reporting: “a property owner isn’t going to understand the implications of a local government’s zoning decision on twitter. While there may be local websites that discuss the issue, an objective, authoritative report in a local paper on what that zoning commission or trust council decision actually entails is going to be more important to that property owner because, with any luck and with good reporting, it will be more factual and present the issue in greater depth.”
Clay Shirky believes that interactive online reading will unite people and assist activism. But there is no group more active and united by similar sensibilities than a community coming together through local news stories. This is especially evident right now, in 2014, with the BC Ferries cuts. Every citizen is aware of the community’s mobilization because it is published in the local paper.
Moving south, there is a 2011 Rural West Initiative article from Stanford University entitled “Rural Newspapers Doing Better Than Their City Counterparts”, in which Geoff McGhee explains how rural journalism is thriving. “In an era of precipitous decline for major metropolitan newspapers” McGhee writes, “7,500 community newspapers still hit the streets, front porches, and mailboxes at least once a week … (and) more than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week”. McGhee goes on to quote Al Cross, director for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky: “The community newspaper business is healthier than metro newspapers, because it hasn’t been invaded by Internet competition … Rural papers own the franchise locally of the most credible information.”
The most solid evidence suggesting that local rural newspapers are still successfully countering the influence of the net lies in the area of advertisements. The three rural local newspapers mentioned in this essay continue to thrive due to ad revenue from local businesses. The Virden Empire-Advance is approximately fifty percent advertisements (Elliott), the Sounder is approximately sixty percent advertisements (Gabriola Sounder), and The Shingle (Flying Shingle) is surviving on their one large advertisement with a variety of supplementary advertisements throughout. The Shingle is not as successful as the other two, but this is only due to its leftist slant and its competition with the Sounder; it has little to do with the Internet.
Bowers of The Shingle believes that she could not run a newspaper by herself if it was not for digital technology because she does everything on the computer. And while Bowers admits to losing some ad revenue because a handful of local businesses are posting on the Facebook group, she says print ads are still needed: “At least here on Gabriola, a whole lot of the information folks would once have sent in to the classifieds section is shared on social media. Fortunately there still is a need for hard copy ads, especially as it’s true not everyone has a computer, and more than a few of the over 50 set aren’t enamoured with social media.”
But if local rural communities had digital on the brain, then they would be utilizing the web for their ads and their reading. They are not. Local businesses are still advertising in local newspapers because they are still being read. It is a case of one family-run business supporting another.
Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, an American publisher from the early 1900s, is best known for his quote: “A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe”. This is still the case today, for the same reason that niche magazines are proving successful. People want specific news and information that is relevant to them. People want to be a part of a community. Rural community newspapers still write about that dogfight. Rural community members still read that newspaper.
Bean, Michael. “Re: Newspapers in Digital Age.” Message to the author. 20 Jan. 2014. E-mail.
Bowers, Chris. “Re: Newspapers in Digital Age.” Message to the author. 22 Jan. 2014. E-mail.
Elliott, Tori. Personal Interview. 22 Jan. 2014.
Gabriola Sounder. 27 January. Print. 26 Jan. 2014.
McGhee, Geoff. “Rural Newspapers Doing Better Than Their City Counterparts.” Rural West Initiative. Stanford University. 14 July 2011. http://www.stanford.edu/group/ruralwest/cgi-bin/drupal/content/rural-newspapers
“Seniors in Rural Canada.” Statistics Canada. Bollman, Ray D. Web. December 2008. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/21-006-x/21-006-x2007008-eng.pdf
Shirky, Clay. 2009. “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” Shirky. Jan 12 2014. http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/
Shirky, Clay with Stephen Johnson. 2012. “How We Will Read: Clay Shirky.” Findings. Jan 12 2014. http://blog.findings.com/post/20527246081/how-we-will-read-clay-shirky
Shors, Benjamin. “At Rural Newspapers, Some Publishers Still Resist Moving Online.”Mediashift. 21 Aug. 2012. http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2012/08/at-rural-newspapers-some-publishers-still-resist-moving-online234/
The Flying Shingle. 27 January. Print. 24 Jan. 2014.
“Virden Empire-Advance.” Glacier Media Group. 26 Jan. 2014. http://www.glaciermedia.ca/advertisers/local-newspapers/virden-empire-advance