2012-03-01 / Columns

Finding a way to pass on local journalism

A column by Alan Campbell

In the summer of 1995 on one of my last trips west to fly fish — my wife and I purchased the Leelanau Enterprise two years later — I contemplated the future of the newspaper business while speeding down a two-lane road in Montana.

The digital age was dawning, although it had not risen quite high enough in the sky to threaten newspapers. But it was there, like a meteor seemingly headed for what meager savings I had socked away in an interest-bearing CD. Remember those?

My former college roommate was with me. Occasionally we tossed professional careers aside, bought a plane ticket and rented a car, and headed to a riverbank campground within walking distance of Joe’s Bar for a glorious extended weekend.

Everything seemed in balance, except for this digital meteor gunning for me. Our conclusion, after much discussion and wringing of hands: Time to go fishing.

Well, I wasn’t alone, as the reactions of newspaper publishers to the digital age at first consisted of ignorance and denial. Then publishers happened upon this bright idea that they could run two newspapers — one in print, one online — and charge twice as much to advertisers. They were soon giving away all news content to build up a web audience.

Soon subscribers decided in droves to keep the $300 or so they had been spending annually to buy daily newspapers, and read the same news online. Publishers responded by raising rates to advertisers, a solution that had worked well for a century or more.

But this time the problem was much more serious, and well beyond the temporary healing offered by a Band-Aid approach to rates.

While I constantly find it necessary to compartmentize what we do here at the Leelanau Enterprise from the mission of, say, the Chicago Tribune, I take no glee in the financial direction of big daily newspapers in America. They have served vital roles in the development of the country, and still do good work. Just look at the Detroit Free Press’ coverage, made possible from a Freedom of Information request, of what looks to be a $400,000 payment to a recently created firm that had done no work for Wayne County. The FBI is investigating.

Great journalism.

While we would not shy away from such a story at the Enterprise, it would be a rarity to unravel that type of a malfeasance of public funds in smaller communities. I like to think one reason is that we are constantly attending local meetings, interviewing public officials and following the money trail of local government.

I happened to read about the Wayne County story in the Sunday edition of the Detroit Free Press, for which I paid $1.75. Had the story broke today, I likely would have read it free on the Freep website. One version helps pay the salary of lead reporter M.L. Elrick; the other does not.

For a number of reasons, perhaps including bad aim on the part of the meteor with my name on it, community newspapers including the Leelanau Enterprise have escaped serious damage from the digital age. We conducted a survey in 2010 that showed 85 percent of county residents read the Enterprise every week — the paid version, that is. Community papers across the country have on average maintained or increased readership.

But I still believe the meteor — maybe the better word is “progress” — advances. And so starting two weeks ago we took a major step to embrace progress with a complete revamping of our website.

Now all display and classified ads that are printed in the paper will also be published online. Local businesses have supported the Enterprise through the years; why shouldn’t they benefit from online readership?

Every story will be available in digital form — to the applause of i-Phone and i-Pad viewers — and also on “PDFs” depicting the pages of the printed Enterprise. Some folks like to view the paper in an assembled form, even online.

But starting March 8, only subscribers will be able to access the “news” written by our staff. Only ads, the calendar of events, obituaries and content in editions more than a month old may be viewed by subscribers and non-subscribers alike. We worked with a small company in upstate New York that is finding a niche among community newspaper publishers in America.

I can’t recall whether the trout were rising on the Missouri River on that weekend nearly 17 years ago, nor does it really make a difference. A friendship was renewed; that was the reason behind the trip.

Perhaps some day people in my business will look upon the digital age with the same perspective. How we passed the torch of community journalism won’t matter, as long as we did.

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