Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Some Use Alternatives to Oconee County Established Media

Something to Ignore

While most voters in Oconee County get their news about what is going on in the county from newspapers–with The Oconee Enterprise being the top specific source–a number rely on email and other Internet sources for their news.

That’s according to the poll two of my students and I conducted just after the March 17 vote on the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which voters overwhelmingly approved.

In our survey of 128 registered voters whose names we drew scientifically from the county registration list at the beginning of February, 29 percent volunteered the name of The Oconee Enterprise as their "primary sources of information about news and events here in Oconee County?"

Twenty-two percent listed the Athens Banner-Herald, 20 percent listed The Oconee Leader, and 34 percent simply said "newspapers." Radio was listed by 9 percent and television by 2 percent.

And 7 percent listed Internet sources.

The sample is relatively small, but the odds are good because of the way we drew the sample that had we interviewed all registered voters we would have gotten results similar to these. Specifically, we would expect between 3 and 11 percent of the respondents to mention the Internet.

I mentioned in a posting on June 3 that I felt the local media were having trouble figuring out how to respond to citizen news sources, and I used as an example response by the traditional media to the report I did late on the night of May 23 about a secret meeting called by Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis for Dec. 1 of last year.

Neither the Enterprise nor the Leader has written about that secret meeting yet. The Banner-Herald wrote about the meeting in a story on June 1 and criticized the county government for holding the meeting in an editorial on June 2.

Neither in the story nor in the editorial did the Banner-Herald mention that it had learned about the secret meeting from a citizen blog.

Former Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson, who wrote the paper’s story, told me in an email message he sent me on June 4 that he had revealed that he had learned about the secret meeting from my blog in the story he wrote, but the editors removed the reference from the story before it was published. (Thompson has left the paper to go to law school.)

Not only here, but across the country the media are struggling with how to navigate in a world where they no longer are the only sources of information.

One option some have followed is for the established media to create an electronic portal for interested citizens to enter inorder to monitor what is being distributed by all sources in the community, including those of the established media.

In other words, someone who wanted to know what was being reported about Oconee County would go to this portal and then find there what had been written by all the media, by citizen journalists and by commentators.

I even suggested this strategy for Oconee County to editors at the Banner-Herald a number of years ago. They expressed interest bud did not follow up.

Instead, the Banner-Herald has continued to develop its Onlineathens site, using materials mostly from the newspaper. Two of the nine people in our survey who mentioned Internet sources mentioned this site.

The Enterprise has recently launched a web site and has been promoting the site through its paper edition. For example, the June 18 edition of the paper noted that two of the seven stories on the front page were "Seen First" on the paper’s web site.

The paper saves its best stories for the paper edition, however, and does not make available the full paper electronically.

In fact, editor Blake Giles bragged in a column in the April 30 edition of the paper that "You will not read this column online. Someone has to fork over 50 cents for the privilege of reading this masterful prose."

The free weekly Leader also has a web site, and it has gotten more complete as the paper has developed. But the paper always has been and remains the primary product.

Newspapers around the country generally have not been successful in gaining enough revenue from advertisements sold on their web sites to offset the losses they suffer if advertisers pull out of the print product. Advertising rates for the print products are based on circulation figures, so keeping print readers is important. Paid circulation papers such as the Enterprise and the Banner-Herald also gain revenue from sales.

So instead of embracing the new world in which everyone can be a journalist, the established media have treated the citizens as competitors for their readers. One way to deal with competitors is to hide the fact that they exist.

I’ve been experimenting with what is known as a content aggregator called Topix as one way to do what the local media have not seen fit to do themselves.

Aggregators are sites that gather information from multiple sources and provide links to it on one site. In other words, it is the kind of portal I recommended to the editors of the Banner-Herald. Topix has been around for a number of years and is owned by McClatchy newspapers and other media companies.

Topix now is set up to search for content and aggregate it by county, and it has a site for Oconee County. Its RoboBlogger searches sites for stories that contain a reference to Oconee County and assembles links to the stories onto one page. That page is accessible to everyone, and there is a version for mobile devices.

RoboBlogger is software, but Topix also invites citizens to be editors. I’ve signed on as an editor, and, at this point, I’m the only one for Oconee County. Others can join, of course. The selection criteria is unspecified, and there may not be any other than nomination. In my self nomination I said my only expertise was that I was doing a news blog myself.

I’ve been trying to train RoboBlogger to search the Enterprise and Leader sites as well as this blog and others I know of in the county. It already searches the Banner-Herald site. In addition, I’ve been adding things myself as I come across them. That is what an editor is empowered to do.

In our survey, 27 percent of the respondents said they learn of news in Oconee County via word of mouth.

Topix is designed to allow those who know something to share it, possibly helping the whole community become better informed in the process.

By the way, former Banner-Herald reporter Thompson told me he had a quote from state Rep. Bob Smith attacking bloggers in his story on June 1 about the Dec. 1 secret meeting, which Smith attended. The editors removed that quote as well.

Smith uses old and new media to spread his message to his constituents, as he should.
Now citizens have ways of spreading their messages as well.

Smith is joined by the editors of the three local newspapers in their dissatisfaction with that change of relationships.

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