A Newspaper Chain Sees Its Future, And It's Online and Hyper-Local
Monday, December 4, 2006
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Could this be the future of newspapering?
Darkness falls on a chilly Winn-Dixie parking lot in a dodgy part of North Fort Myers just before Thanksgiving. Chuck Myron sits in his little gray Nissan and types on an IBM ThinkPad laptop plugged into the car's cigarette lighter. The glow of the screen illuminates his face.
Myron, 27, is a reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press and one of its fleet of mobile journalists, or "mojos." The mojos have high-tech tools -- ThinkPads, digital audio recorders, digital still and video cameras -- but no desk, no chair, no nameplate, no land line, no office. They spend their time on the road looking for stories, filing several a day for the newspaper's Web site, and often for the print edition, too. Their guiding principle: A constantly updated stream of intensely local, fresh Web content -- regardless of its traditional news value -- is key to building online and newspaper readership.
Myron and his colleagues are part of a great experiment being conducted by their corporate parent, McLean-based newspaper giant Gannett, which is trying to remake the very definition of a newspaper. Losing readers and revenue to the Internet and other media, newspapers are struggling to stay relevant and even afloat. Gannett's answer is radical.
The chain's papers are redirecting their newsrooms to focus on the Web first, paper second. Papers are slashing national and foreign coverage and beefing up "hyper-local," street-by-street news. They are creating reader-searchable databases on traffic flows and school class sizes. Web sites are fed with reader-generated content, such as pictures of their kids with Santa. In short, Gannett -- at its 90 papers, including USA Today -- is trying everything it can think of to create Web sites that will attract more readers.
"Whatever you spend your time and money doing," said News-Press managing editor Mackenzie Warren, "is news."
So Myron sits in the parking lot, hunched over, keeping one eye out for threatening vagrants, and peers through his steering wheel to file a story on his laptop, perched on his knees. The workplace is, at best, ergonomically challenging.
The event he just covered? The signing of a fundraising calendar for the local chamber of commerce featuring the Hunks of North Fort Myers. The event was held inside a gym beside a Winn-Dixie in a strip shopping center.
It had been looking dim -- just three hunks and half a dozen seemingly uninterested middle-aged ladies working out nearby -- when Myron arrived at the gym with his ThinkPad under one arm and a digital camera peeking out of a pocket of his khakis.
Twenty minutes passed before one senior citizen and her husband walked in with two calendars to be signed by the hunks. She agreed to be interviewed and have her picture taken by Myron. He took notes on the screen of his ThinkPad, using an electronic stylus.
Thirty minutes later, sitting in his car with a sense of relief, he has written a short story, cropped one digital picture, written a caption, uploaded it all to the Web and linked to a previous story he'd written on the calendar fundraiser. Traditionally, such a story would barely rise to the level of a newspaper's weekly community insert. Yet this is the third story Myron has written on the calendar.
In the dark, Myron refreshed his browser and pulled up his fresh dispatch on the News-Press's Cape Coral "micro-site," one of several sites-within-a-site focusing on individual communities.