Secor is a small farm town not far from me. With a population under 350, it’s exactly the kind of place where people always say, “nothing ever happens here.”
Until a man was murdered and his body dismembered there just over a week ago.
I first read about it on Peoria’s Journal Star website Thursday morning, and early Thursday afternoon I read about the two people arrested in connection to the crime. A live-in caregiver and her boyfriend allegedly shot a 74-year-old man and tried to dispose of the body. Details are still being withheld, but it appears the killers dismembered the body, leaving a portion at the home and a dumping the rest off a bridge into a river just over the county border. Authorities were waiting on DNA test results to confirm the body parts go together and verify the identity.
Later that afternoon, I got home from work and pulled our local weekly paper out of the mailbox. The murder made the front page, which is not a surprise. However, it was already way out of date. It said a man was missing and a body had been found in the river, but there were no suspects yet.
It’s a perfect example of the challenges faced by print media and the increasing irrelevance of small, local newspapers when it comes to reporting major news. My wife and I subscribe to the local paper because it’s the best way to get coverage of our town, such as village and school board meetings and notices from local groups. However, because of the way the paper tries to protect itself, it’s the only way to get that news and information in a timely manner.
See, this newspaper does have a website. It also has breaking news on the case, but it’s all culled from the paper’s parent, Bloomington’s Pantagraph newspaper. Unfortunately everything else is unavailable for about a week after the local paper is printed and distributed. Some other big stories have been exempted from the rule, but for the most part, delaying the news has been their alternative to putting up a paywall.
It’s sad, really. I understand there’s a business side to running a paper and reporting local news. Reporters need to be paid, and whether we’re talking print or Web, there are costs involved in distribution. We can talk about how information should be free and people deserve the news, but unless we’re willing to cough up more taxes to pay for it, we’re out of luck. (Not to mention we’d then be dealing with government oversight of the media, which is the last thing we’d want. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)
I got to thinking, though: what really pays for the newspaper? Ads. This is why just about any given interior page is at least 3/4 advertisements, and at least one or two other pages (in our small paper), often the back page, is a full-page ad. How do you get ad revenue? Guarantee eyeballs. How do you guarantee eyeballs? Subscribers. Sales in stores and out of corner machines probably vary somewhat, but a paper can cough up an exact subscriber number at any given time.
This is the problem news websites face. The web advertisement arms race, where ads get more obnoxious and browser-based ad-blocking software gets more aggressive, is frustrating on both sides. Paywalls, meanwhile, are a huge turnoff because sometimes a reader just wants one story or isn’t local to that paper.
Also, the Journal Star’s paywall is laughably easy to defeat: after a reader has read 15 articles for the month, a pop-up ad asks for a digital subscription. If the reader refuses, he is dumped to the front page. However, I’ve discovered if I hit the browser’s stop button after the page loads but before the pop-up arrives, I can keep reading. If they fix that, I’d bet dumping or blocking cookies or using a proxy would still get me past the paywall.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and it’s these small, local papers that are going to suffer. Our local reporter is nearing retirement, and I can’t imagine it’s going to be easy to replace her. The pay can’t be great, and the beat is far from glamorous. They’re going to need someone who cares about the area, otherwise we’ll get someone out of Bloomington or Peoria covering the area part time and our news will be secondary to whatever city story he or she is working on at the time.
Papers really need to start thinking outside the box, leveraging both emerging technologies and the desire to reach local audiences (and for local businesses to reach their local populace), or they’re going to die. This isn’t news to them, of course, but the locals don’t have time to wait for the bigger outlets to figure it out.
So yes, here I am with a half-assed suggestion: mobile apps and subscriptions. A tablet app local news outlets can push news, ads, obits, classifieds, etc., to. Readers buy the app, subscribe to the content.
On a personal level, the local paper’s website is useless, and it’s not worth paying for the Pantagraph or Journal Star (even if I couldn’t defeat the paywall). Pay what, $2.99 or so for the app (for the developer), then around $1.99 per month for the content (for the paper)? Sure, that’d be worth it to me. I don’t know what our subscription cost is, but I’m sure it’s less than buying the paper for $1.00 per week in stores. I’d just as soon read on the tablet if I can get the same content, including things like the high school’s monthly newspaper.
Speaking as a tech, I’m seeing a lot of folks picking up tablets. Not just the students who are bringing more and more tablets to the school I work for, but their parents and grandparents, too. Every year, more staff members, both current and retiring, are buying iPads when we do our annual bulk purchases. Staff members who are not computer savvy are purchasing iPhones at the behest of their children. I also see parents and grandparents bringing tablets and e-readers to the karate dojo.
Tablets are perfect for people who have no use otherwise for a computer. The elderly are buying them or receiving them as gifts in greater numbers because they can do email, Facebook, and basic web surfing without the hassle—real or perceived—of a laptop or desktop. With the Nexus 7 priced at only $230, it’s very affordable.
Design the pages right, and we could get local, relevant ads in an unobtrusive manner, making local businesses happy and generating more income for the paper. Small ads around the content, larger ads on a full page to swipe past, just like a real paper.
Hell, if I knew anything about app design and programming, I might try to develop a relationship with the local paper and take a crack at it myself. I’m not a business man, but it seems to me a developer catering to hundreds of local papers might do at least as well as a major paper developing its own in-house app.