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Through TechDirt, I stumbled upon an interesting debate that questions whether the concept of "community" as it relates to newspapers is a major part of the industry's woes - and a potential part of the solution to those woes.

Paul Gillin of the Newspaper Death Watch blog states that:

"'Community' is a poorly understood term and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now."

He argues that "readers aren’t a community" and that those newspapers "clinging to the community life raft" are probably not going to like the outcome.

He concludes by noting that a newspaper's strength "is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content"

Steve Yelvington, a "lifelong journalist and now a strategist for a media company," disagrees completely.

He writes:

"Failure to build community is one of the many reasons so many newspapers are in so much trouble right now. Yeah, the Internet this and the economy that and television blah blah blah, but don't overlook 'failure to lead.' Far too many newspapers have either intentionally abandoned or simply lost interest and wandered away from the mission."

He argues that "publishers and editors should be community leaders, not just ad salesmen and journalists" and notes that the "giant, faceless corporate chains" that dominate the newspaper industry have eliminated the "local leadership role."

He believes that because "community doesn't scale," niches are where it will flourish and he laments the fact that "this whole notion of 'hyperlocal' seems to sailing over most journalists' heads."

So who is correct?

To be sure, the newspaper industry is facing a considerable number of challenges.

From changing consumption habits to online revenues that aren't growing as fast as print revenues are declining, there is no shortage of factors to look at when trying to analyze the newspaper industry's current struggles.

Frankly, I find the notion that a lack of "community" is a notable part of what ails the industry to be quite naive and I find Yelvington's argument in particular to be quite curious.

While he believes that "communities" are incredibly important and that a "hyperlocal" focus can help foster these communities, he recently posted about Readership Institute Data showing that:

"A significant proportion of locals don't care much about local news, at least not enough to seek out regular doses of it.

"62 percent of respondents said they had never visited the local newspaper's Website, and only 14 percent said they had visited it between the last seven to 30 days."

Instead of following the data to its logical conclusion (demand for local news simply can't support many of the entities that provide it), Yelvington argues that newspapers just aren't marketing effectively enough to create demand.

Frankly, this is a less-than-compelling argument. But I digress. At the highest level, the truth is that quite a few newspapers are doing very well online, but online revenue simply cannot make up for the losses in print revenue.

That said, the supposed newspaper-killers, like Craigslist, aren't really to blame. Even Craig Newmark admits as much, stating "while we have an effect on newspaper revenues, it’s minor."

And all that lost revenue certainly isn't going to popular blogs. As noted the other day, ContentNext, operator of the popular technology and media business blog PaidContent.org, pulled in "a few million" in revenue in 2007. Guardian Media reportedly purchased it for around $30mn.

Clearly, the source of the newspaper industry's pain is a lot deeper than "New Media" or this mythical notion of "community."

The truth is that the newspaper industry needs to evolve - and it is.

Today's business environment is going to force most newspapers to adjust their business models and the way they operate. The days of massive return on investment are probably gone and while the current losses look scary, that's partly due to the fact that newspapers have not yet fully retooled their old "infrastructures" for the environment they find themselves in.

At the end of the day, while I certainly won't pretend to have all the answers, I don't have a problem stating that the newspapers' problems require solutions far more complex than the addition of Web 2.0 tools or an explicit focus on building "hyperlocal" communities.

As I've noted before, the term "community" has been bandied about so much that it really lacks all meaning. That really doesn't change in the context of this debate.

"Community" is irrelevant to the fact that the economics of the newspaper business have changed and the evolution that is starting to take place to deal with this fact will result in a reshaping of the industry.

Whatever the outcome of that reshaping, it's quite clear - a focus on " community " is not going to increase print revenue and it is not going to exponentially increase online revenue either.

Unfortunately, it's just not going to be that simple and painless.

Drama 2.0

Published 17 July, 2008 by Drama 2.0

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