Back in the Bad Old Days of Daily Journalism, when hunchbacked reporters pounded out their stories on dented Royals and ended them with the old telegrapher’s signal – 30 – (i.e: “End Transmission), no one could possibly have imagined what would become of the profession.
Like most American businesses attempting to adapt to rapidly changing times, journalism was late to embrace what was coming and paid the price. Great newspapers withered and died like Fall leaves, and the few that remain have been cut down to comic book size.
A few surviving members of the Old Breed, die-hard scribblers with a passion for a well-told tale and a string of broken marriages behind them, set out to blend Old and New and stepped into the void that was local journalism.
Tough old geezers partnered with some smart young ones and have been making a go of it, moving their presses from the printing plant to the Web, and seeking to capitalize on the immediacy the Internet brings to the game. Some, however, have cashed in and thrown in the towel for good. This happened to a well-received, hard-working WebNewspaper in Davidson, North Carolina this week.
A former colleague sent us Editor David Boraks’ farewell message, and we liked a lot of what he had to say. We believe in learning from the missteps of others and his parting note to his readership was loaded with insight into the current business landscape for enterprises such as ours:
“We’re sorry to announce that DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net are ceasing publication as of today. Over the past 9 years, we’ve taken a crazy idea – covering our small towns daily on the web – and turned it into a widely-read, much-loved and often-quoted news source that readers tell us they find indispensable. Alas, we haven’t turned it into a sustainable business: We’re in debt, we’re exhausted, and it’s time to go.
“My colleague Lyndsay Kibiloski and I are proud of what we’ve built, with the help of so many people in the community. This decision has been painful and frustrating. Readership on our Lake Norman news network is actually at its all-time peak: We’re now the largest publication north of Charlotte, with more than 100,000 unique visitors (readers) per month from Charlotte to Lake Norman and beyond, according to Google Analytics. And we’ve won national and regional attention for our journalism and our news-on-the-web efforts.
“But we’ve been unable to sell enough advertising to local businesses to sustain the sites, to pay me and, lately, to pay our staff. Our annual winter slump hit especially hard this year. At the same time, voluntary support from readers – which has always been limited – has dropped off.
“In some other markets around the US, community news sites have won advertising contracts from larger businesses – hospital groups, grocery chains, car dealers and other companies – as well as nonprofits. Alas, in the Lake Norman area, most local ad dollars still go to print publications.
“And when local businesses or nonprofits do spend money on the web, it’s typically not going to community news. Instead, our neighbors who run small businesses – who are quick to urge us all to “buy local” – are sending money to places like California or New York – headquarters of the big internet companies. It’s been discouraging the past few years to have local business owners tell us they don’t have money for advertising, and then to see their ads on Google or Facebook.
“We’re also grateful to the small number of readers who understand that community news can’t be free. Thank you. You’ve contributed everything from a few dollars a month to a few hundred dollars a year to help pay for news gathering on DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net.
“But there aren’t enough of you. Just 2 percent of readers – only a few hundred – actually make those “voluntary subscription payments. The other 98 percent of readers have not responded to our twice a year campaigns, or to messages on our site, on our social media pages and in our daily emails.
“Running a daily web newspaper and advertising network for Lake Norman has been rewarding, but exhausting. It’s been a team effort, and wouldn’t have happened without dedication and long hours from Lyndsay and me, as well as our salespeople, reporters, columnists and community news contributors. We’ve saved the site from death a few times before, and we are carrying a substantial debt. When things took turn for the worse again this winter, we agreed that rather than another all-out effort to save our business, we’re ready to try new things.
“I’m sad and concerned that our sites are going dark. But we’re not the only game in town – there are other news sources here.
“So that’s it. We’ll see you around.”
NEWS24-680 NOTE: Boraks didn’t do it so we’ll put a -30- on his farewell. The End. If we were there we’d stand him to a drink. Beyond that we found ourselves smiling at the similarities in his situation and ours: a growing and engaged readership, more “eyes on” than ever and more than the few surviving print publications still standing, recalcitrant advertisers who cry “Buy Local” but plead poor and then skirt local readers in favor of expensive corporate ad and mail campaigns run out of San Jose or New York.
We run a lean shop and aren’t burdened by debt but we felt Boraks’ pain. Our eyes were wide open when we started this thing and, frankly, we were aware of the hypocritical nature of local advertising.
But we were also struck by the number of people who wrote to Mr. Boraks in response to his final column, many of them local business owners who praised his professionalism and the site’s contributions to the community, but who had advertised elsewhere, and expressed their sorrow at the site’s departure – albeit too late.