What wakes you up in the middle of the night? With me, it's sometimes the dog barking or a growling stomach or perhaps a daughter with the flu, but most times it's a nagging question with no clear answer: Can the daily newspaper be saved? The theoretical angst behind this question gains a stark and frighteningly personal focus when I think about The Roanoke Times, the daily newspaper (circ: 97,000) I oversee in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. And it's a question we've been wrestling with for a number of years.
The depressing news about newspapers seems overwhelming. A stack of studies sits on my desk, all of them lamenting circulation declines, the absence of young readers, the aging of loyal readers, the corporate squeeze for ever-higher profits, and the intense competition for readers' time as the Internet rapidly reshapes our world. The story is all too familiar--it's the end of the world as we know it, and that's enough to make any ink-stained curmudgeon cry.
Yet I'd argue that digital technology and the Internet might offer the best reason to put the cap back on the Prozac. It's counterintuitive, but the future of what we do is not as scary as it seems. Newspapers--or, more precisely, newsgathering operations--are in a position of strength: In most markets, they are the last remaining mass-medium; they are prime creators of original journalism and, in many cases, they are deeply committed to a community's civic life and welfare. Finally, they are blessed with a profitable business model that can, if allowed, underwrite a range of digital experiments and online forays to move us successfully into the future.
Simply put, we need to reinvent newspapers. That's what we've been trying to do in Roanoke during the past few years as we've merged our print and online content operations. Recently, we launched a funky and fun online video newscast each weekday, (1) which is our way of embracing today the multimedia world of tomorrow.
Granted, this former railroad town is not at the hub of the digital universe. We're not the first place most people would look to see how the Internet is revolutionizing our business. But …