For all the Internet's many wonders, a lot of folks aren't yet ready to give up the tactile, personal experience that printed news delivers, Asheville resident Johnnie Grant maintains. "We still need to feel that paper in our hands," she asserts.
But the fact is, more and more people now get their news online. A Pew Research Center study, released this past August, details that 40 percent fewer people read their news in print, on a typical day, than did 10 years ago. In the past two years, the use of online news sources has grown by about one-third.
"There's a paradigm shift in [how we] present the news and how we deliver it," says Grant, who publishes The Urban News, an Asheville-based monthly. Her paper added a Web site a few years ago, and like many other local print-news outlets, she's caught up in the major changes rumbling through the industry. "You find the trend and you adjust," says Grant.
But the Internet revolution isn't the only challenge facing the news business today: In the last few years, print newspapers worldwide have grappled with declining ad sales, rising paper costs, sinking subscription numbers and, most recently, a tanking economy. Apparently in response to such pressures, the Asheville Citizen-Times recently laid off 16 staffers and announced plans to close its local printing facility (which employs some 60 people) in January, shifting operations to another Gannett-owned printing plant in Greenville, S.C.
In the midst of such adjustments, however, many papers both in Asheville and elsewhere have also made a mad dash to build an online presence, creating Web sites, hiring techies, teaching old-school reporters how to do multimedia and turning traditional columnists into bloggers.
No doubt about it, the Internet has changed the way we work.
To be sure, the Asheville area still boasts a lively and diverse array of print-news sources (plus assorted other niche-market and lifestyle publications), all of them vying for local advertising dollars and exploring new revenue sources. But since Xpress Associate Editor Nelda Holder wrote several years ago that "feisty independent local journalism appears to be thriving here in Asheville" (see "Reading From Left to Right," June 8, 2005 Xpress), at least two publications have disappeared from the streets: the nonprofit Asheville Global Report, which is now online only as The Global Report (theglobalreport.org), and Mountain Guardian News & Opinion, which has ceased publication.
To get a handle on the current situation, Xpress surveyed eight print-news outlets in Buncombe County, including our own staff: the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Asheville Daily Planet, La Voz Independiente, Mountain Xpress, OIA, The Asheville Tribune, The Blue Banner and The Urban News. (Note: we omitted the Black Mountain News which, like the Citizen-Times, is a Gannett publication, and the Weaverville Tribune, produced by the same folks who bring us The Asheville Tribune.) We asked a dozen questions, ranging from a simple request for each outlet's Web address to an overview of its online content to the big question: How has the Web changed your mission?
The answer to the latter, of course, is ever-evolving, but here are some highlights from the responses we got (for complete results see sidebar, "Print to Web: What Local Papers Say").
Testing, testing ...
As an initial assay of each company's level of Web savvy, we sent our original requests via e-mail.
Within minutes, La Voz Independiente Publisher Robert McCarson called us. But other responses only gradually trickled in, and a few editors and publishers had to be pestered the old-fashioned way (by phone or even by a personal visit). Several responded completely by e-mail, and one -- the Citizen-Times, owned by the Gannett Co. (which owns USA Today as well as many other papers) -- respectfully declined to participate.
Along with La Voz, however, we did hear from The Asheville Tribune, The Blue Banner, The Urban News and OIA (aka Out in Asheville), as well as our own staff. Xpress has also been exploring the topic of journalism's future in our online forums, working such threads as "The death rattle of print journalism?" and "Should Xpress convert to online only?" (See www.mountainx.com/forums.)
Alexander resident Ralph Roberts, for example, wrote: "I have been the publisher of several papers and years ago saw the faint handwriting on the wall and gave up my periodical ways to go into book publishing. I may have misread that pale scribbling [on] that, but [I'm convinced] the place to be now is the interactive media -- the Internet and video."
And as for jettisoning print entirely, Xpress Multimedia Editor Jason Sandford wrote that such a move would be premature but not necessarily nutty, "considering that The Christian Science Monitor, for one, recently announced that it's going online-only."
At this writing, however, none of the publications that responded has chosen to completely exit the world of ink and paper.
Points on the World Wide Web
Nonetheless, at some point, all of them apparently came to the same conclusion reached by Asheville Tribune co-founder and now Editor-at-Large David Morgan: "You've got to have a Web site like you've got to have clothes."
But what resources do you allocate to it, what features do you offer -- and how do you make money from it?
Some local print-news media limit their online presence to simple templates; other sites, designed in-house, offer a host of features. All provide free access to current and recent content, although the Citizen-Times charges fees for archived material. Most sites allow reader comments, but few have extensive social-networking features. All offer some level of online advertising -- but none says it gets a significant amount of direct revenue from it.
OIA Editor Lin Orndorf admits that the LGBT-community newspaper launched its Web site a few years ago by simply posting PDF files of the print edition. The resulting online experience was akin to scanning microfiche at the public library. This summer, however, the monthly gave its site a major face-lift, introducing multimedia and other online-only content, a blog and a video feature called "oiaTV."
The payback, she says, has been modest but growing traffic at www.outinasheville.com.
"We have begun to think in reverse, putting more emphasis on the Web site and updating the print product to reflect Web trends rather than vice versa, as well as honing our advertising approach to encourage online-exclusive advertising [and] online-only content," Orndorf reports.
Still more online-only and interactive features are in the works for the new year, when OIA will rebrand as Stereotypd, she notes. Orndorf says her publication is also edging into nonprint territory by expanding "oiaTV" to present interviews with "local, regional and even national celebrities, politicians and entertainers."
A similar blurring of media boundaries is increasingly evident at UNCA's Blue Banner. Online editor Jason Herring reports podcasting links, a video-news broadcast ("Mountain Highlights") and original audio documentaries ("Storyville"). "We're striving to include more multimedia options ... that highlight the diverse talents [on] the UNCA campus," says Herring. The Web, he concludes, "has simply given us greater options for supplying our audience with campus-related news." Of course, as a college paper, the Banner doesn't rely on ad revenue for its survival, though state belt-tightening recently mandated by Gov. Mike Easley resulted in a $900,000 trimming of the university's 2008-09 budget.
Morgan of The Asheville Tribune admits to being a little more old-fashioned than most. He leaves the blogging to his younger cohorts at The Weaverville Tribune, a sister publication, and his Web sites have remained just as simple as the print versions, though he does regularly provide additional articles online. Morgan deems fancier sites "an artist's expression of the news."
And though he first said the Internet has had no effect on the Tribune's mission, he quickly amended that, saying the Web has "enhanced it, but it hasn't changed how we do the news." Morgan compiles news he finds interesting and regularly runs longer pieces, both online and in print. The Web, he says, helps him keep informed, particularly with news around the country that provides context for how Asheville "fits into the bigger picture."
Interestingly, the Tribune's bare-bones Web site draws almost as much traffic as OIA's more ambitious Web presence.
As a weekly whose content changes more rapidly, Mountain Xpress gets a good deal more Web traffic than these monthlies -- about 76,000 unique visitors per month, Web Manager Jason Shope reports. The section seeing the most growth right now is the online forums, where readers can post questions, ideas and observations and engage in dialogue with one another. But the forums, notes Shope, are still evolving, and Xpress does not offer much in the way of social networking.
Managing Editor Jon Elliston, on the other hand, points out that Xpress has used the Web to break away from the limitations of weekly publishing. "We can report [news and events] almost instantaneously. And there are virtually no space limitations on the Web."
But with those enhanced capabilities come new challenges: "It makes for more work," Elliston notes. "We're running what are in essence two publications -- one online and one in print -- but with more and faster interactivity with readers."
One possibility in that direction may be linked to cell phones. Many La Voz readers don't have home computers, McCarson notes. He's investigating mobile-messaging options -- the next step in news delivery, he argues -- to complement the online version of La Voz.
Grant agrees, demonstrating how she's been using her own BlackBerry. "People are finding it easier to view their news online," she says. A publisher who doesn't take advantage of such trends, Grant maintains, "is missing the whole point."
Despite the financial stresses and profound uncertainty amid dizzying fundamental changes, however, the message from local journalists remains hopeful.
When asked the big question -- Where do we go from here? -- Elliston at Xpress emphasizes that the publication's long-standing goal hasn't changed, saying, "A core part of our mission is to engage active, thoughtful citizens and draw them into an informed dialogue about local matters, and the Web provides multiple tools for doing just that."
Meanwhile, Xpress Forum Administrator Steve Shanafelt wrote in a recent post: "I'd like to see Xpress start thinking of itself as a Web site with a newspaper, rather than a newspaper with a Web site. (Or, as [Publisher Jeff Fobes] would probably correct me, a community resource with a Web site and a newspaper.)."
And Fobes himself, speaking about his paper's online efforts, writes, "We're all in a learning curve here." But after noting the challenges of shifting resources to the Web and evolving from "print habits," he goes on to say:
"I urge reporters to think less about 'owning the story' and see themselves as servants of the information society, helping bring sense to all these newly empowered storytellers emerging from the grass roots. Besides, there are only a few of us reporters (and with the current economic climate and death rattle of print media, there are fewer and fewer), but there are multitudes of citizens who have lots to say.
"This is a wild and exciting time to be in journalism/media."
And while this is hardly the first time a new technology has fundamentally altered the media landscape -- witness the advent of motion pictures, radio and television over the last century or so -- it may be worth considering that all of those media are still with us, if in somewhat altered form.
Grant -- who lived on the North Carolina coast for about 25 years -- says one valuable aspect of Internet journalism is its ability to draw traffic from other cities, states and even countries. Ashevilleans, for example, can tap into the The Urban News online and get the home news they're missing while on the road or living elsewhere.
Morgan adds that we're increasingly confronted with a deluge of information, and it remains the journalist's mission to get at something resembling the truth. Web-savvy journalists, he believes, can continue that mission -- and, of course, his own son now downloads news on his BlackBerry, Morgan confesses. Nonetheless, he feels journalists would still do well to remember a tale longtime friend, radio host and Tribune Senior Editor Bill Fishburne once shared from his college days. "A professor told Bill: 'You know what it takes to put out a newspaper? Words!'"
And in the brave new world of Internet journalism, that's one resource that seems to be in more abundant supply than ever.
You can reach Contributing Editor Margaret Williams at email@example.com