How to Be a Local News Tycoon

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A while back, I had a dream that I won the lottery. In the dream, I didn't quit my job and buy a private island. No, I used my lottery winnings to buy the local newspaper where I started my journalism career. It's a small weekly with a long history of serving my hometown, and it has a negligible web presence.

A few things led me to dream about that newsroom. The first is that I recently realized the paper has a Facebook page that could seriously benefit from someone's social networking expertise. Then Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. Finally, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong made news for firing a Patch employee on a conference call; subsequently, Patch was getting a lot of attention for ... well ... failing.

I've always been confused by Patch. It seemed to take the "local" out of "local news." The thing about being a community news organization is it doesn't work unless you're part of the community, and it was silly for anyone at AOL to think that, no matter how many locals they tried to hire, Patch would ever truly be a part of community life.

I had hoped, however, that the mere presence of Patch would compel the truly local newspapers and sites to step up their game. So often I visit the website of a local newspaper only to find something that looks like it was built with Angelfire circa 1998.

When I've asked my former co-workers about their site, they say they have deliberately chosen not to put their content on the web in order to keep advertisers in the print product. Fair enough, I guess. If you're the only game in town, it's easy to just ignore the digital revolution, but I thought Patch might be enough to rattle my old co-workers' cages.

My former editor used to ask me what we could do at the newspaper to get a younger audience. As with many publications, our audience was aging. People with kids had subscriptions to keep up on youth sports and school news-and, of course, to see their kids' names in the pages once in a while. Older people had subscriptions to keep up on town council news and the police log (everyone's favorite local news). But young people didn't much care about the town planning and zoning committees or the school budget. At the time, it didn't even occur to me that the web was the answer. We barely used the internet at work, except to check email (for a while, we even had to share a computer to do that). At home, I still had a dial-up connection (though that had more to do with my salary as a local news reporter than it did with availability). Smartphones were still a few years off. Tablets weren't even a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. Now, the truth is, no matter how small your organization is-or how limited its resources-there isn't an excuse for not having an online presence.

The tools that are freely available today are better than the most expensive website creation tools of yesteryear. Whether we're talking about an open source content management system (CMS) or social media sites, the content creation, management, and distribution tools that exist today mean even the smallest newsroom can compete with the likes of AOL-especially on the hyperlocal front.

The nice thing about being in the truly local news game is that unlike The New York Times, you aren't competing with countless other outlets. In fact, it's entirely possible that you have no real competition at all, so you're free to experiment. With the inexpensive-and even free-tools available to everyone with an internet connection, even the most technophobic reporter can get creative and create a web experience that's completely different than the print one.

Save your in-depth piece about the board of education budget for the print edition, and pop a quick 30-second video interview with the school superintendent up on the web. You can post the dozens of pictures you took of the soccer championship online, free for parents to download, and you can let the community join in the discussion by setting up a forum outside of the Letters to the Editor page.

But try convincing some old-school editors and publishers of that. If The Washington Post couldn't figure out how to survive in the digital world without the help of Jeff Bezos, is it any surprise that tiny town papers are still muddling along in the dark ages?