The News Hole
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
In newspaper parlance, the term “news hole” refers to the amount of space in an issue devoted to news content, as opposed to advertisements, for example. Fearless editors fight tooth and nail to keep that space as broad as possible for the copy their heroic and brilliant reporters bring, panting, to the news desks. At least, that’s what every movie I’ve ever seen set in a newspaper operation shows.
These days, the term could apply to the “hole” or chasm, into which newspapers are falling, never to be heard from again, like Denver’s Rocky Mountain News; others teeter on the rim, like the San Francisco Chronicle. The challenge to newspapers from steadily eroding print circulation and plummeting advertising revenues left many clinging to the hope that their online websites might pick up the slack. But the economic turmoil in which we all find ourselves has left that hope even more fragile than before.
Ironically, more people are reading newspapers these days and younger readers, the ones without a newspaper reading habit who have almost been written off as a lost cause for subscribership, have begun turning to traditional news outlets. Well, let me correct that statement — traditional news sources, but not traditional news formats. Online or bust! And the latest statistics show that even people who have the habit of reading print have begun turning to online. The current belt-tightening underway by even the comfortable could make a print subscription seem a needless indulgence when the same content awaits for free on a convenient website.
But let’s get back to the real problem — the elimination of community news sources. My own relatively upper-middle income community hasn’t had a daily newspaper for decades. Nor has TheLos Angeles Times, the nearest major city newspaper, picked up the slack. For local news, we rely on a greensheet, give-away weekly. Better than nothing, but … well. Now large cities, as well as small communities, may face an absence of local news.
Time to step up, info pros! You serve your community through library websites. Those websites should include a news service that keeps people informed on activities in and around the community. Much, if not most, of the news might only need online gathering and winnowing. Local government announcements on dot-gov sites could become regular feeds. If you still have a local newspaper, then directing people to it through headline feeds could help to swell both the library’s and the newspaper’s web analytics stats. Local bloggers and “citizen-journalists” could provide another feed, possibly tagged with a caveat for opinion-laden submissions. You might also add feeds from Google News and/or Yahoo! News, just to make sure that people know what the outside world is saying about them. Hmm. In fact, you might also append a feed from the databases you license for library use, assuming you have a contract clause that allows access via a library card authentication.
And how, I can hear you ask, am I going to fund or staff this extra effort ITTT (aka In These Tough Times)? Well, for one thing, you might try local advertising. I was talking to a friend the other day about the collapsing newspaper field. The thing she missed most from the lack of newspapers — and this surprised me coming from a news junkie like her — was the advertisements, particularly those announcing special sales or discounts. Just that week, she had driven by a favorite craft supplies store and seen a 50% off placard in the window. Of course, the one-day sale was almost over and all the good stuff probably gone, so she didn’t even stop. How are local merchants supposed to get the news out of what they have to offer these days? I’m sure there are web advertising options, but locals need to put their announcements where locals will see them. If the local library had a website carrying those announcements, I’d bet they could get a lot of support from local merchants — maybe mentions of the local news service in the merchants’ own outreach.
And then there is the ad money the local merchants might pay. At press time, TheNew York Times (alright, alright, NYTimes.com) ran a story on the expansion of a 3-year-old program by Yahoo! to co-sell ads. It’s an interesting project, currently reaching out to about 100 newspapers. You might want to take a look at it, but what caught my eye was some of the ad revenues mentioned that did not rely on the appeal of joint appearances on newspaper websites and Yahoo!. For example, a small daily in California, the Ventura County Star, sold about $1.5 million in online ads in 2008, not even counting the “Yahoo!-too blitz.” The Naples Daily News in Florida was making similar money. Now that’s a fair amount of cash. And, I would bet that some of your local merchants would be willing to pony up some ad support for their friendly local library, especially if their friendly local library would advertise their services.
Librarians may need some help to get the show on the road, but that help may be available. When newspapers go down, so do their libraries. There’s a lot of talent out there these days, talent that could be tapped to teach staff, to research sources, to design website templates, etc. And, of course, that talent wouldn’t need to be entirely local; it could be networked online with webinars and telecommuting. Coordination of efforts in gathering out-of-area advertising revenue would help, e.g., ads from Amazon and other online bookstores, a library website’s natural prey. Hmm. Now who could we get to do that kind of coordinating? Say! Doesn’t OCLC already have working relationships with Amazon and Google and Yahoo! And …? Well, well, well.
An effort to supply local communities with local news that they might otherwise miss, news that could help citizens ITTT and maybe even help break the downward economic spiral and push back to better times, would seem to satisfy the ideal goal of “doing good and doing well.” It would also prove visibly and daily that librarians are the best buy a community can make — ITTT.
Speaking of These Tough Times
No matter how tough times may get, Searcher magazine will continue to supply our readers with the best and most complete information we can. Starting with this April 2009 issue, we are introducing online digital augmentation of articles appearing in print. Go to www.infotoday.com/searcher and click-through to the table of contents. You will see an icon that identifies which articles carry extra, online-only content. The print issue of those articles will carry the same icon in a box identifying the online content. Articles to get the digital supplement treatment are IDed at the end of this Searcher’s Voice editorial in the same box that describes articles with LiveLinks, also available on the website.
Aren’t we lucky to have online handy?!