Community newspapers: a panel and their use of the Web at PhIJI

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Community newspapers in Philadelphia remain wary of the Web, if any stock is to be paid to a morning panel from a journalism innovation conference held this month at Temple University.

Technically Philly was a partner in hosting PhIJI
Technically Philly was a partner in hosting PhIJI

Their thoughts just might be relevant to community-focused news gathers across the country.

Hosted by Temple’s journalism department, the Philadelphia Initiative for Journalistic Innovation was a day’s worth of smaller sessions focusing far less about the plight of big newspapers and more about smaller, more entrepreneurial ventures. Yes, the future of news just might be a series of conferences about the future of news, but I was happy to see a greater focus on the business side of the industry.

With the help of supportive chair Andy Mendelson, Temple journalism professor George Miller put together one of the first future of news conferences I’ve seen that tried to really pay attention to sustainability through profit. There’s incredible value in that, so I was thrilled to be a part of it.

Along with my two fellow co-founders of Technically Philly, I presented twice a session called ‘Be a Publisher Now’ on free tools that news-organizations and bloggers could make use of to create become more efficient and better prepared. See our presentation slides here.

I also got the opportunity to sit in on a session focused how community newspapers were dealing with the 21st-century’s dramatic paradigm shift in news-gathering. That’s where I was left more than a little puzzled.

“Would you like to know how much money I am making with the Web site?” asked Hernán Guaracao, the founder, editor, publisher and CEO of Al Dia, the 40,000-circulation Spanish-language power player on Philadelphia’s community news scene. “Zero.”

Despite that and fairly modest traffic, Al Dia, which is also the name of an unrelated Latino newspaper in Dallas, has built an altogether sexy Web presence, complete with active Twitter and Facebook accounts.

More after the video. Below watch Miller, the Temple professor who organized PhIJI, describe the conference to Al Dia.

Guaracao was the major player on the panel, which also included former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tyree Johnson, who founded West Philly’s 10,000-circulation Westside Weekly, a business manager from Cambodian bilingual Khmer Post, which has a Los Angeles parent paper, and moderated by Heshimu Jaramogi of the Neighborhood Leader, which gets circulated in North and West Philly.

PhIJI Community Newspapers panel edit
From left: Tyree Johnson, founder of Westside Weekly; Hernán Guaracao, the founder, editor, publisher and CEO of Al Dia; a representative of Cambodian newspaper Khmer Post, and moderator Heshimu Jaramogi of the Neighborhood Leader.

So it seemed Guaracao largely set the tone. And that tone was decidedly uninterested in the Web.

For four journalists serving communities that are likely less connected online than general interest dailies, that tone makes sense for today. But the question I wanted answered — and meant to ask before leaving early after becoming frustrated by a long, vague and, to be blunt, fairly trite digression into the state of big metro dailies — was whether any of the four had thought much about building Web platforms for the future.

  • Had any thought about the power of using mobile technologies now or in the future to bring their audiences to their online presences?
  • What lessons were they drawing from general interest daily newspaper struggles with Web erosion of core business models?
  • Were there any partnerships, relationships or lessons to be learned from the city’s two alternative newsweeklies, which have similar publishing schedules and missions, but far more Web-centric audiences?

On competition

Al Dia founder Hernán Guaracao says there are four steps to larger players reacting to smaller competitors, like the Inquirer and the Daily News in his case, he said.

  • First, they wonder who you are.
  • Second, they celebrate you.
  • Then, they fight you.
  • Finally, they lose to you.

“I once wanted to work for them,” Guaracao said. “Twenty years later, I’m still waiting for that call from the Daily News.”

Both Johnson of the Westside Weekly and the Khmer Post representative made repeated references to their aging audience. It was their primary reason for not putting much stock into the Web. But shouldn’t any product with an aging audience be looking to find replacement consumers?

Jaramogi, the session’s moderator who spoke of a 20-year career filing radio reports for WHYY among others and mentioned utilizing Twitter for reporting, gave in too to the idea that the Web isn’t right for everyone,

I readily understand that these community news-gathering businesses don’t call for Web presences at this moment. Their core audiences pick up their print copy, as they have for years. But I fear these community mainstays — like the Northeast Times — are ignoring the potential for their next generation of readers to find a new place to find news and community online.

Al Dia founder Guaracao, to me, is an outlier. He seemed a very proud man, emblazoned in his newspaper’s logo, a sponsor of the day’s events and carting along a half dozen or more reporters and staff.

He repeatedly deflected a question from Pew Charitable Trusts project manager Thomas Ginsberg about traffic and future plans for Web monetization. The very Web presence that Al Dia has today shows a clear realization that those relationships with future generations of readers need to be met.

Yet, he downplayed the Web, with three representatives from significantly smaller operations. Whether this is a common dialogue among community newspaper publishers elsewhere in the country, I’m not entirely sure.

I had my hand up for the first few minutes of a 10-15-minute question session but soon felt my answers weren’t going to come. Three-quarters of the panel didn’t seem to take seriously any push online — even still, in 2009 and with clear signs of what has happened to others whose audiences forced them through an earlier Web push — and the fourth appeared far more protective of his intentions.

Inquirer lifestyle editor Deirdre Childress, Ginsberg and others quietly filed out early. With a speaker from Temple’s business school upstairs due to start speaking about proft planning, I soon joined them.

Below, watch a report on the PhIJI event by TU Update, the university’s student broadcast club.