Reinventing Your Local Newspaper

I’m spending much of the coming months in South Africa because I don’t particularly care what online business model saves “The New York Times.” Or “Newsweek,” the “National Post,” “The Independent,” or “Le Monde.” Those national publications’ journalism certainly is worth saving, but national publications are atypical.

In the U.S., for example, only about 90 of the approximately 1,430 daily newspapers have a daily circulation of more than 100,000. And unlike print edition models, online edition business models are associative, not commutative.

If you find an online business model that saves “The New York Times,” it might work for other national newspapers, but not the newspapers that make up 94 percent of the industry. Let others spend time saving the few; I want to save the many.

Moreover, the world isn’t America. Most countries don’t have the wealth of newspapers, magazines, radio stations, TV stations and networks, and Internet startup companies that the U.S. has.

So, I’m in South Africa trying to revamp this country’s oldest media outlet into something state of the art. I’m in Grahamstown, a city 500 miles east of Capetown, in South Africa’s Frontier Country. It’s nearly surrounded by wild animal preserves.

Grahamstown is among the most diverse places in this Rainbow Nation. It’s 100,000 people range from 7,000 students at the prestigious Rhodes University and hundreds of students at several of South Africa’s best private secondary schools to tens of thousands of people living in single-room, dirt-floored, tin-roofed cinder-block huts.

Only 10 percent of South Africans have Internet access and only 10 percent of them have access at broadband speeds. However, more than 90 percent of the population has mobile phones. The people here are more typical of the world’s population than are Manhattanites.

South Africa’s oldest media outlet is “Grocott’s Mail,” Grahamstown’s tiny (3,500-circulation) biweekly newspaper, founded in 1870 and with publishing roots dating back to 1831. It has a Web site, but not one likely to attract much traffic in a nation due to the publication’s size and the relatively few people with Internet access.

The School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University operates the newspaper, and the project is the students’ vision, credit, and responsibility. I have 20 graduate students in media management formulating the new editorial, advertising, community, and general business model. Funding comes from the Knight Foundation.

Our plan is to use mobile phone access to deliver the newspaper. Most South Africans, like most New Yorkers, upgrade to new phone handsets every two or three years. And the world’s handset manufacturers, no matter if their handsets operate on the Symbian, CDMA (define), or Google Android operating system, are beginning to sell touch screen handsets based on the iPhone design.

The presumption is that South Africa might skip the desktop/laptop Internet access model and go straight to mobile phone access. It’s a bit of a guess, but if it proves true, it would give 90 percent of South Africans mobile Internet access at 3G (define) speeds.

Rather than just shovel the printed content of “Grocott’s Mail” onto mobile or a Web site, we’re planning to completely revamp the newspaper. We’re:

  • Equipping for text, audio, and video teams of citizen journalists from the university and each of the secondary schools (no matter how rich or poor).
  • Creating constantly updated databases of the city’s eating, drinking, and music establishments.
  • Offering personal blogs to everyone in town.
  • Giving folks places to upload and share birthday, anniversary, wedding, and party photos.

And those are only a few of the sticky services we’re offering via SMS (define), MMS (define), MXit (define), GPRS (define), Edge (define), and 3G mobile phones. (If you have any other suggestions for mobile services, please let me know.)

We’re not entirely shirking the newspaper’s Web site, either. We’ve hired a new editor and will relaunch the site. However, we envision that most of the newspaper’s services will likely be distributed via Facebook, MXit, and other social networks.

I hope “The New York Times” and other national publications find online business models that let them survive. However, an online business model that can successfully serve “Grocott’s Mail” and South Africa’s diverse demographics will likely be successful elsewhere throughout the world.

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