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Trendspotting: Online, Think Local


The decline of newspapers opens the door for local news and advertising online.

I started my career long ago at a small-city newspaper that had been owned and run by the same family for 100 years. The editor-in-chief was a sinister character who delivered his weekly editorial every Saturday night like clockwork, swooping through the newsroom bat-like in a black cape over a suit that cost more than he paid us in a month. We copy editors waited eagerly for him, wondering what fabulous outrage Clemmy would perpetrate this time. (We called him Clemmy, for Clement, but not to his face.) In one memorable editorial he called for the US to invade Canada, because we needed oil, and they had oil.

Clemmy had the manners and politics of a barbarian, a gorgeous French wife about 40 years his junior, and not a little of the instincts of a newsman. He died a few years after I left, and I heard that his funeral was poorly attended, although the wife sobbed like a baby. Not long after, the small-city newspaper was sold to a bigger city newspaper, which later sold it to a chain. It has a website now, of course, and it's about as good as any other local newspaper on the web, which is damning it with faint praise.

If that was the golden age of newspapers, I for one am glad it's past.

But Clemmy and all the other news mini-moguls in cities and towns across America got one thing that's escaped all of the later news barons who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and the would-be news barons who started out on the web.

They understood the power of local, for news and advertising. Despite the fact that the Internet has many qualities that make it vastly superior to print, neither the print folks nor the web-only folks have figured out how to use the medium as an effective vehicle for local news or local advertising.

So, now we have a web that has empowered an infinite number of virtual communities, but fails to serve the real communities in which we live. That may be one reason why news sites seem unable to keep a loyal audience or steady usage numbers.

Sure, all the newspapers have websites. They regularly dump their local stories into a template, hit the send button, and go back to wondering what happened to their print circulation and ad revenues, never mind their stock prices.

And it's ugly to contemplate: In the last three years, Gannett Newspapers (GCI) shares have gone from about $60 to under $20, while McClatchy (MNI) dropped from about $35 to under $5, and The New York Times Co. (NYT) went from the high $20s to about $11.

Meanwhile, here's a prediction: Sometime in the next couple of years, a company will create an online newspaper prototype that can be cloned and tweaked in cities around the US, until everybody finally has their own community news source to use and abuse, just like in Clemmy's heyday.

There are nascent efforts underway. AOL's (AOL) is an example, with a few dozen local sites in four states up and running, and more in various stages of development.

Here are some of the strengths of traditional newspapers that this local website will have:

Contextual local advertising:
Readers of the print version of the New York Times can count on finding some critical pieces of local information in a predictable place in the daily paper. That is: this week's specials at J&R Computer World (back page of the Technology section); what's new at ABC Carpet & Home (full page Home & Garden section); and what's on sale at the One-Day Macy's Sale (A section). And, of course, the all-American classic: the Wednesday supermarket coupons. None of these local ads can be found on the Times online, at least anywhere near the pages that interested readers would look for them.

Classified advertising: How did Craigslist, which is pretty crude aesthetically and functionally, steal one of the newspaper business' steadiest revenue streams? Craig Newmark won by doing it backwards: He created a free local community events listings service and discussion forums for anything people wanted to talk about, and the paying customers followed the crowd.

The Micro Edition: Old-style newspaper people knew that the most important story is the one you can use. It was high-school basketball scores and school menus, zoning issues and tax assessments, church bean suppers, lost dog announcements and the new movie opening near you. They served this need with regional editions. Now, they could be serving it with the limitless space of the web, and the limitless energy of unpaid but enthusiastic contributors and commentators. Most of the pieces may already be out there, on blogs and on Twitter and spread around on a million forums. But no one has yet created the personalized local "My Yahoo" (YHOO) or Google News (GOOG) "edit" function that brings it all together.

So far, there's at least one place on the web where you can find some of these elements emerging, and it's going to be fascinating to watch:, the first traditional newspaper to convert entirely to the Web, just one year ago.

The site, owned by Hearst, offers free classified postings to readers, but charges for its job listings. It looks like they're attracting local advertising, too. Neighborhood news is provided by a team of bloggers.

It apparently has yet to turn a profit, but it's a start.
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