Small town newspapers can have a great web presence

There is a high probability that what’s contained in this post will be conceived as another old media versus new media argument over who’s better than who or which one will die out first. That’s not my intention, even if does point out a newspaper’s website presence.

Basically, it boils down to this; I want information on what’s going on in the small town of where I grew up in Iowa. My only option? The local newspaper that has been operating their print publication since 1879.

What’s the point of online presence if you don’t do it well?

The newspaper in question does have a website, but it’s highly outdated in terms of how it is constructed and updated. In fact, the basic foundation is something I helped to create in the mid-90’s when my parents owned and operated a website business during that time, giving me my first, professional gigs that have transformed into the sixty4media projects of today.

Nearly a year ago, I contacted the newspaper in hopes that I might be able to urge them to move beyond their current methods. My email follows with minor edits to protect the identity of the publication because my intent is not to slander them as much as I hope to promote positive change.

As a former member of your little league team for three years back in the 90’s and now living in Vancouver, B.C.(Canada), far from my home town where I grew up, it pains me that the only way I can get news about [my hometown] is through your website.

Simply put, your website is seriously outdated and missing functionality that would boost your online presence. There is a extreme lack of photography on your site, which is much easier to have published online than it is in print, not to mention cheaper. Additionally, you have no RSS feeds to subscribe to, making the distribution of your information easier to reach interested audiences such as myself.

Instead, I have to visit a site that is difficult to navigate while it is designed with highly outdated methods of programming. On top of that, I have to remember that it’s update[d] once a week, which is not always at the top of my list of priorities. Even then, there is not enough content on your site to make it worth the time. Especially during problems with high river levels and flooding, there is very little in getting information from your website.

Even though I don’t live in [my hometown] anymore, I still hope and wish for a day when you have a website that is much better at letting me know about my hometown.

What follows next is the response that I received from one of their co-publishers, only edited to protect the newspaper’s identity.

John, you are absolutely correct about the lack of content. First and foremost, we are a newspaper. If former residents need to keep up on the news they need to subscribe to [the newspaper]. We depend on subscription sales, not on a FREE website to pay my bills. I know, I know, newspapers will be an outdated form of news dispensing in a few years. Just what I was told ten years ago yet our subscription sales are better then they were just five years ago. If we put everything on our website that is in our outstanding newspaper, who is going to subscribe? Who is going to support my advertisers? I don’t know of anyone looking online for grocery ads. And both grocery stores in town are my biggest advertisers. The website we have does need work but we really are not that concerned with it at this time. It is there JUST so we have a presence. We can send the paper to Canada and would welcome you as a subscriber. Yes, it may take a few days to get there but it is a weeks worth of news. I guess I could charge everyone to read content on the website and put more on it but that would take hiring another employee and economics tell me that I would probably lose money on just such a venture. So for now our focus will stay in print. That is where we stated in 1879 and it seems to be working for us. Thank you for the feedback, [the newspaper’s co-publisher]

In all honesty, I didn’t know what to expect when I sent my original email, but the response I received was beyond disappointing. I had hoped that perhaps my inquiry might spark a conversation over what could be done better, how that might happen, and potentially nominate myself to aid in that process.

I was so let down by this response that I wrote back to say that I can’t support their newspaper anymore. I’m not interested in giving any monetary support to an organization that looks, behaves, and has a mindset like so, and it’s purely a personal opinion. I know I should help support my hometown and not be down on my roots, but loyalty can only go so far.

And truth be told, this initial email exchange actually took place in June of 2008. I’ve often thought about making this post since then, but the hope was that up to now, the site would have improved to some extent.

It hasn’t. Their “JUST so we have a presence” of a website is still the same.

As a newsprint publication, I find this very depressing. I’m not asking that everything they publish in their newspaper be put online. The point is to take the content they currently publish online to a more accessible and web friendly level.

Giving away the big idea

So, here’s my idea so that it’s in the public domain and there for the taking, just in case anyone, be it consumer or publisher, finds themselves in a similar situation.

WordPress. I know, big surprise, right? But look what you get out of the box: clean URL’s, SEO, easy media uploading, easy content publication, archived content, and search-ability. Being that WordPress is free, the only investment would come from the template implemented on the site.

And your advertisers? Why not include that in the package that you already sell to your sponsors in your print publications? Sure, the local grocery store might print their weekly specials in ink, but why not give them a generic, graphic ad for their business on the website? It doesn’t have to be timely as much as helping sell your presence as an official news source of the community. You might even attract out of town advertisers and expand your client base. Depending on how you want to shape the business model, anything is really possible.

An example of WordPress running a radio station’s website

I’ve already built a site that is putting these mechanics to work using WordPress.

When we were in a pinch at my day job, management looked to me to help build a better website for one of the radio stations, The Beat 94.5, here in Vancouver. The prior site was built on old infrastructure that had become so outdated that hardly anyone could work with it. Knowing my abilities to do such projects, I was given a design and built the site on WordPress in about two weeks.

The promotions staff add content based on categories, custom fields, and the Post Expirator plugin. Ads are populated using the Ad-minister plugin, and I handle any theme and code tweaks as they present themselves. The system works fairly well and is meant to be temporary until the original, envisioned version of the site can be built and implemented at some point in the future. As well as this works for the site right now, the urgency for that changeover has lessened.

Anyone could do this

The basics of this WordPress framework on a radio station website is about a stones throw from what a newspaper would need or want. It’s not a simple copy and paste, but it’s do-able and more effective when you get an infrastructure in place that nearly everyone in your organization can interact with. Why would you limit it to just one person with server access and an ancient version of a website editor?

Being that this isn’t too hard for anyone with some intermediate web design skills to implement, big and small newspapers should take more focus on this concept. Citizen journalists and bloggers are often scoffed at in these discussions, but I think I’ve already proved how this could be implemented into the professional realm.

If someone like myself were to team up with a bunch of trained journalists and photographers, and then littered the site with Google ads and other legitimate advertisers while publishing quality content, my presence in your town might start hurting your presence down the street. Not offering something that fulfills what your audience wants can be a huge negative effect, even if you have been around for over a hundred years.

So what?

Presence is key, and it’s better to have some rather than none. At a certain point, you should consider the quality of the message that your presence presents and how that reflects upon your business, organization, or group. As a self-proclaimed news source, even if it is the only one by luxury of default, this shouldn’t be ignored.

And in this case, I was a potential customer of someone’s presence and was told that I wasn’t right. To me, this is near business suicide, and so I choose to not be a consumer of my hometown’s publication at all.


10 Replies to “Small town newspapers can have a great web presence”

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. And I avoided getting into the topic of various frameworks that you can use other than WordPress just due to the number of them out there that you can use.

      ExpressionEngine, WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc. There are so many CMS frameworks out there that there is no excuse these days not to be using something of the sort.

  1. Funny how VanSun etc have large web presence yet… people still subscribe to their papers!

    People still love having the physical paper. Its nice to be able to flip through the pages etc. The web allows you to easily look things up or get headlines out quick etc.

    If you were to subscribe to their physical paper, would they mail it to you even though you’re pretty far away from them now?

  2. @Tyler: As stated above, they would mail it to me for sure. If they had a better online presence where I could get a preview of what would be arriving in the mail, that would make me more interested in seeing what’s in the full version when it showed up via Canada Post.

  3. What I found interesting in the reply was the talk about people not looking at ads online, especially when it comes to groceries – not only 5 minutes ago, Marnie was at Safeway’s website looking at some of their current deals, something she went to after hitting up the Richmond Review online edition. If it’s done right, the online aspect can not only complement a print edition but supplement it.

    Just sayin’..

  4. I always get asked (by freelancers, journalists, traditional media types) if there’s money to be made in online writing… often these questions are asked with a look of fear or impending doom in their eyes. The answer is, of course (but that’s not to say it’s easy).

    It’s not about blog vs newspaper. It’s about HEY there’s a new way to get your message across to people online and you should be embracing it. If you don’t grow with technology and go where your audience is, then you may just lose your audience, which is heading that way. Adapting and using the new ways of producing quality content online is key. Advertisers are already online, I think we all know that. Sponsors are there too. People still love their physical papers but if the papers are going to move their content online as well, they may as well do it right.

  5. John,

    Thanks for calling this to my attention. I am, of course, dying of curiosity about which town/paper you’re writing about. I have written frequently ( on my blog about the folly of publishers who think that giving away content online is hurting them (or refusing to give it away is protecting the print edition). This publisher’s refusal to develop a web presence is not going to prevent people in his/her community from going elsewhere for information (and to do business) online. A much wiser approach would be to pursue my Complete Community Connection ( approach and seek to move beyond advertising and start to provide the digital marketplace for the community. I think you’ve made a worthy suggestion to help a small paper get moving in the right digital direction. But I do have a problem with treating online ads as a throw-in. That devalues digital advertising and limits your potential digital advertisers to those already advertising in print (research has shown many digital advertisers are online-only customers).

  6. Love the bit about grocery coupons. Of course he doesn’t know anyone who goes online for them – he’d be the one putting them online, and he won’t!

    I’ll bet he doesn’t know many people who go online for local news, either.

Comments are closed.