VDT Goes Ted Stevens

stevens21.jpg Tired of hearing people say newspapers are dying, the Valdosta Daily Times channels former Alaska Senator Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens’ favorite response:
My answer to all of the above is an emphatic “NO!”
The other talk the VDT is saying no to is about foreclosures and job loss. It’s curious about the foreclosures, since it was a little more than a year ago that the VDT published “Lowndes area not immune from home foreclosures” by Billy Bruce, in which he used counts of foreclosure ads from the VDT as data. That was a big change from the previous VDT tune of this area being immune to the financial problems plagueing the rest of the country.

Ah, but Billy Bruce doesn’t work there anymore! And the VDT is back to its old tune. The verse this time is that Lowndes county is not as bad as metro Atlanta counties in foreclosures. Yes, that’s true, and we’re all glad of that. Yet foreclosure rates are up here, too. And above 7% unemployment is not as bad as Atlanta, either, but isn’t normal.

This is a curious excuse:

Valdosta is not a metro community as Metro Atlanta is not a community in the same way Valdosta is a community. Your newspaper here is not a “metro” paper. We are a community newspaper.
After all the effort local governments have gone to to establish and maintain the Valdosta Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), that’s irony for you.

The VDT’s biggest defenses are that they sell a lot of papers at Wal-Mart (100 papers sold daily at Wal-Mart? That’s it? And that’s the VDT’s biggest point of sale?) and they don’t get many complaints.

OK, but also they print prominent stories about meetings at which nobody then shows up; I’ve seen this happen multiple times. Which makes me wonder who’s reading the Valdosta Daily Times.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of the VDT. I pay for a subscription, and I read it every day online. It covers stories I wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Local politicians sure do read the paper, and a newspaper story can make the difference in a political decision.

And it’s good that most things in the paper are online, where they’re easy to find, quote, and reference, like this editorial I’m picking on. I do wish they’d put public notices online, too.

But the simple fact is that newspapers are declining everywhere. For example the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just dropped its paper editions entirely, going online-only. Hearst Corp. had tried to sell that newspaper, but got no buyers. So after 146 years there’s no more daily paper newspaper in Seattle. In Georgia, as we all know, both the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) and the Georgia Times Union (GTU) have ceased paper distribution in this area.

The VDT keeps losing reporters, and, although they don’t say it, I would bet they’re losing paying readers of their paper paper. CNHI-CAN (the VDT’s owner) says 14,850. That’s something like 12% of the Valdosta MSA population, which while significant, isn’t as large as one might expect. According to the Wayback Machine, CNHI-CAN has been saying the same thing for the VDT since 2007, which makes me wonder when they’re going to update their figures. The editorial says there were 35,370 readers of the previous Friday’s paper. Note “readers”, not “paying customers”. I bet that’s counting about 2.5 readers for every copy sold. While that’s not unexpected, this is lower than I would have thought:

By 8 a.m. Friday morning, more than 1,300 different visitors had read the story on our Web site, www.valdostadailytimes.com.
That’s for only one story, but I hope they can get that number higher.

If the Seattle paper can fail after 146 years, the VDT’s 100 years or so of history (the editorial didn’t actually say when it was founded) will not save it.

Which stage of grief is the VDT in? Looks to me like they’re still in denial but are moving to anger (“NO!”).

I hope they get past that soon, because I want them to succeed. The VDT already has moved to take up some of the slack of the departure of the AJC and the GTU, and the VDT does have a pretty usable web interface. Maybe they can find a hybrid of paper and web that will work for them.

Sure, a paper paper is limited in what it can print by how much paper it can afford to distribute and how many reporters it can pay for. But an online newspaper doesn’t have to be as limited: space is no barrier so reporters could be publishing much more than currently appears, and there are far more sources of information than reporters alone. Professional reporters and editors may be able to actually expand their current roles by drawing on amateur sources. More on that later.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping the VDT finds a way to exchange “NO!” for yes.