Archived Opinion

Newspapers in need of iPod moment

We in the newspaper business are supposed to be having the bejesus scared out of us because of the power of the Internet. And right now, as people are spending billions making Internet purchases for Christmas, this fact is hitting home. Soon, we who put out traditional newspapers will be forgotten, quaint relics from the past.

Maybe, and then maybe not.

A few months ago a co-worker handed me an article from the New York Times about newspapers and the Internet. Basically, the writer concluded that newspaper companies and the Internet had not yet found their proper roles, at least from a profit standpoint. The industries were still waiting for their “Ipod moment,” according to the writer.

The reference to Apple’s iPod was interesting. Remember just two years ago when the record industry and performers feared that the future of selling CDs in record stores was over, that the trade in free music files over the Internet was simply going to make the multi-billion dollar recording industry obsolete? Then along came the lawsuits over illegal downloads, followed by Apple and the iPod, 99 cent downloads and suddenly a new model was in place. Buying songs legally over the Internet has worked for the masses, and now the panic is over. The recording industry changed the way it delivers its products — and is still changing — but it did not die.

Will newspapers have such a moment?

One fact about newspapers and the Internet is obviously true: accessing papers from all over the world is easier than ever. We can turn on the computer in the morning and read whatever newspaper we want. Internet news sites have become immensely popular among readers, even for small papers like ours.

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In fact, recent statistics about newspaper readership that are typically used to predict the death of newspapers might actually be telling us something completely different. A Nov. 7 report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations — the grandfather of newspaper circulation reporting — delivered this thunderbolt: weekly newspaper circulation declined 2.6 percent in the six-month period ending in October, the largest six-month drop since 1991.

Another report from Nielsen/NetRatings showed that online newspapers reach one in four Internet users. Since October 2004, individual visits to newspaper Web sites grew by 39.3 million. A Pew Internet survey from this spring pegged newsgathering as the second-most popular online activity, behind checking e-mail and tied with Internet searches.

So, while readership of the paper newspaper is going down — particularly among the young — people are still going to newspaper sites and reading about politics, entertainment, local news, etc. News is still important, and people still want to be informed. With a staff of trained reporters and editors, news gathering organizations should be able to capture most of these Internet users. The market for our commodity is still viable.

Two weeks ago a contributor to our newspaper, Lee Shelton, wrote a piece about motorcycle rallies. His research showed that large motorcycle rallies perhaps weren’t good for a tourism sector where second homes and mountain tranquility were the selling points. In Myrtle Beach, officials are trying to get rid of rallies the town at one time embraced.

It wasn’t his point of view that made the column stand out. It was the response it elicited, which in large part was due to the power of the Internet. One week after the article was published in our Dec. 7 issue, Lee had received 480 email responses. According to the letters he was getting, the article had been forwarded to different motorcycle organizations that had memberships of around 60,000 people. An article about an issue important to the small town of Maggie Valley in the remote Smoky Mountains had taken off as it was circulated throughout the World Wide Web.

We can talk statistics all day, but this is what happens in the world of publishing today. We get emails and calls from around the world about articles we publish. Many of those who read these articles get emails sent by others, and some originate from reading our Web site. We’re pretty proud of the web presence of The Smoky Mountain News. Go to Google and type in Smoky Mountains, which is a pretty broad search. Because of our six years in existence, our archives and our Web master’s work at getting us listed on search engines, we come up fifth out of 3.2 million listings for Smoky Mountains.

Still — and back to the original issue — we aren’t making any money from our Web site. Sure, we have some advertisers, but companies who want to advertise on news sites like ours aren’t willing to pay as much as those who want to be in our print edition. Because of the very fact that the web is so large and so multi-faceted, a local business can’t necessarily reach its target audience by using it. With our traditional newspaper, we can guarantee a reach of at least 16,000 newspapers per week that will go into the hands of local readers, whether those readers are visitors, seasonal residents or locals.

So that’s the iPod moment newspapers are still searching for. How do we move our revenue stream to the Internet? The print advertising model still works better than the Internet for small, local businesses who want to reach local customers. Yes, businesses can have their own Web sites to sell goods, and can advertise on our Web site or that of other newsgathering companies. But that just isn’t as effective as print advertising.

At some point some genius is going to refine something that exists or develop a completely new model for local businesses to reach local customers via the Internet, one that is better than a local newspaper. Until then, we’ll be OK as we are. When that moment comes, we better be ready to change fast. Those who don’t will be the dinosaurs of the day.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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