If there's anything that people in the news industry both love and hate to talk about, it's the shift of news from hard copy to online.
Numerous blogs are devoted almost exclusively to the topic, with attitudes ranging vastly from a morbid obsession with what some believe is the imminent death of the news industry to cheerful excitement about the possibilities that lay ahead.
Locally, newspaper publishers say they are remaining optimistic about the future of the North Country's newspapers.
Pressman Don Hare makes an adjustment Wednesday on the machine that prints the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
"We've embraced it," said Press-Republican Publisher Bob Parks. "We view it as a very positive trend."
Enterprise Publisher Cathy Moore recalls a meeting of New York newspeople when a speaker said that in a few years, there wouldn't be any presses and all news would be delivered electronically on a tablet he passed around.
"That was in 1977," Moore said. "So you can see the transformation to strictly digital will not be in my lifetime, at any rate."
Moore, Parks and other local publishers are quick to tout the benefits of the Internet. It gives newspapers opportunities to reach new audiences through websites and social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. Counting the average number of people reading the paper's news online, the Enterprise has about 6,500 more readers a day than it had a decade ago, although fewer pay for the product.
Plus, newspapers used to lose out to radio and television when it came to breaking news, since printing papers means there's lag time between the news being produced and papers coming out. But now, even weekly newspapers can get news to readers instantaneously.
Dan Alexander is publisher of Denton Publications, which produces free weeklies throughout northeastern New York and parts of Vermont. He said that's been something his company has started trying to push its online news coverage, like this week when his assistant managing editor, Andy Flynn, covered the opening of the new Lake Champlain Bridge and they had photos and video up on their website 10 minutes after the ceremony.
But publishers also recognize that difficulties come with changes in the industry.
"Like anything, it's both scary and challenging, any time you get into something new," Alexander said. "When we originally started, things didn't change too fast."
Blogger John Warren, of North Creek, is critical of the way the local news industry has reacted to the digital shift.
"Most of the local media was way behind the ball on new media," Warren said.
That's why he decided to take matters into his own hands seven years ago and create Adirondack Almanack, a blog at www.adirondackalmanack.com that now includes contributors who write post on a variety of different topics, from natural history to politics.
Warren said he believes one reason local news companies failed at first to take advantage of new media is a fear that it would present voices different from that particular publication's editorial voice, through things like personal opinion blogs. He said he tried to offer his blog to a number of area publications, and none were interested in it.
But he said that's flawed thinking on the parts of news executives. One of the biggest things he appreciates about new media is that it allows for more interaction with readers and gives everyone a chance to express their opinion through things like blogging and web comments, though he's starting to support laissez-faire commenting less than he used to.
Like the Enterprise recently did, Warren has started limiting how and when people can comment on his blog. He stopped allowing people to comment on the guest essays he posts.
"You can't ask someone to contribute a guest essay and then turn around and defend themselves against a bazillion comments that are in some cases off the wall," Warren said. "Commenters are infrequently educated and informed. They're mostly trolls."
He also put up a wall that makes commenters have to enter an email address before posting. Though it's a small step, he said he's seen a drop in the number of people commenting but an increase in the intelligence of the comments.
Warren said he's struggled with the idea of limiting commenters, but he believes there's enough other resources online that if people really want to express their right to free speech, they can. He's a believer in the democratizing force of the Internet, like Trudy Rosenblum, who created the Jay Community News so people could get information out to their neighbors for free.
Rosenblum started the Jay Community News five years ago. It's a daily email into which Rosenblum copies and pastes news and bits of information from anyone who sends her something for the bulletin. There's also a corresponding website, where she posts a services directory, a community calendar and links to other resources.
It's been popular, with about 1,025 people signed up to get the email, and she said about two-thirds of those people read it each day.
Rosenblum said the whole idea behind the project is to build community. When she moved to Jay from Keene Valley, she found that there wasn't as strong a sense of community there, which she attributes to the lack of a communal gathering space. So she started her mailing list and website so people could learn about their neighbors and feel more of a community bond.
It became especially useful when Tropical Storm Irene hit in August. Rosenblum said there wasn't much news getting out about the flooding, so she started going out and just writing down what she was seeing and sending it out. In the aftermath of the flooding, she sent out several emails a day to help connect people in need to people who could help fulfill those needs. Though they believe in the value of their own efforts, both Rosenblum and Warren agree that newspapers still fill a different role from what they're doing. Both are quick to point out that they weren't trained as journalists.
"I'm not a journalist; I'm just a normal person," Rosenblum said.
Paid journalists play an important role, bringing nitty-gritty news about local government and other issues, Warren said.
Old habits die hard
It's clear that many people are still using newspapers, even if they don't necessarily recognize the value of them. That's what researchers found in a January 2011 study by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provide information on issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.
According to the study, 69 percent of Americans said that if their local newspaper no longer existed, it wouldn't have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community.
"Yet the data show that newspaper play a much bigger role in people's lives than many may realize," according to an overview of the study.
The study found that people use different news sources when they're looking for different kinds of information. The topic people went to newspapers for most was crime, with 36 percent of adults saying they look to local newspapers, compared with 29 percent checking local TV and 12 percent checking the Internet.
People also looked to local newspapers most for information about arts and culture events, community events, housing, jobs, local government, schools, social services, taxes, and zoning and development.
Newspapers still have some progress to make in terms of other types of information, though, especially breaking news. For that, 55 percent of people said they go to local TV, dwarfing the 16 percent who use the Internet and 14 percent who go to newspapers.
But local news sites are working on that. When breaking news happens, the Enterprise generally posts a one-line summary to Facebook and Twitter, puts up the first version of the story as soon as the first version of the story is ready, then links to it from Facebook and Twitter. It also has a mobile version of the website, so people can easily view it on smartphones on the go.
At the Press-Republican, they also post news to their website as soon as the first version of the story is written, and, in addition, they send out regular breaking news emails updates. They've also created smartphone apps so people can get Press-Republican news without even having to go the website.
Denton Publications just moved its papers to a new website format that includes capabilities for smartphones, though Alexander said he thinks that feature might not have been turned on yet.
Parks said there was resistance from his circulation department when the paper's policy first shifted to posting all breaking news as it happens. Workers thought people would stop buying the paper if all the news was free online.
"But that's actually been minimal, well below industry trends," Parks said. "What we find is that people are getting both. They still like to hold the print edition in their hand, but at the same time, throughout the day getting the online update and the news that way."
How to make money online
One of the main problems with moving news online is that advertisers aren't willing to pay as much on the Internet.
Alexander said his staff is working on how it markets its Internet ads, and they brought in someone who helped bring them up to speed on the technical jargon that people want to hear when evaluating the worth of an ad.
"The key is understanding the buyers and the sellers," Alexander said.
He said his papers are doing well with their Web ads.
Moore said she believes the Enterprise's Web content will be supported through advertising, though it isn't now.
Some newspapers have toyed with the idea of using paywalls to make people pay to read news posted on the Web. The experiments haven't always been successful, but it seems larger papers are starting to head back in that direction.
Moore said the Enterprise will move cautiously when it comes to the idea of a paywall, watching how it works for larger papers like the New York Times before committing to anything.
"The question is, will the culture of getting it all for free online be willing to pay?" Moore said. "I personally believe that we have experienced journalists that write compelling content that is local and can't be found anywhere else, and it is worth paying for."
Parks said he doesn't see the Press-Republican going that route, "at least not for a while." He said if you've got unique content that people can't get anywhere else, it might be doable. But in the North Country's robust news market, it's difficult to believe people will pay for content they can get elsewhere for free.
Denton's papers are free anyway, so Alexander said he doesn't believe it would make sense for the company to ever consider paid content on its website.
No matter what happens with their websites, all the publishers interviewed believe that newspapers will stick around at least for a generation. Even Warren conceded that it will be a long time before they disappear completely or even become a novelty, though he thought that might come sooner than others did.
Publishers say that newspapers also have a tactile quality that people won't soon want to go without.
"There are things that I use the Web or, but I still like to pick up a real newspaper," Alexander said. "I think there's enough people who still enjoy a hard news product that I think it will have its place for a while anyways. At least, with all the money I have invested in presses, I certainly hope so."
He notes that it's tough to invest much in new technologies because, while smartphones are all the rage these days, the next technology might be completely different.
Moore also made that point, saying that people still need to filter out some of the new trends and figure out what works and what doesn't.
"Wherever it takes us has to be our readers driving us in that direction and not us trying to speculate what they want," Moore said.