Monday, December 1, 2008

Can the Internet save newspapers?


By Jorge Sosa

Four years ago, I stumbled upon bliss. I landed the job of my dreams, almost through dumb luck. Four years ago, I became a journalist.

For someone like me - blessed with a restless sense of curiosity and aptitude for slapping words together somewhat coherently - journalism is heaven. There's just one problem. For almost as long as I've been writing for a small town newspaper, I've been hearing that newspapers are dying.

"Frankly, with the economy as foul as it is, a shortsighted pessimist could argue almost all industries are dying."

I don't know if that's true. I certainly don't want it to be true. Frankly, with the economy as foul as it is, a shortsighted pessimist could argue almost all industries are dying. That, of course, is nonsense. But countless industries seem to be reaching a point where they must restructure, retool and reinvent themselves to survive.

I don't know of anyone who's found the magic elixir to revitalize the newspaper business. But on the night of November 4, 2008, I caught a whiff of something that seemed pretty darned promising. On Election Night, two hours after local polls had closed, I saw a community spontaneously erupt into being.

An online eruption

The newspaper I work for serves Hutchinson, a west central Minnesota town of about 14,000 people, and its surrounding environs. Given the size of our market, it's astounding that an online story featuring local election results racked up almost 14,000 page views within a few days. I'm not crazy enough to believe that every man, woman and child in town was reading our election results story. But we did see an undeniably intense burst of traffic.

What brought about this tidal wave of hits? It started simply enough. At about 9:30 p.m., the first local results began trickling in from a couple voting precincts. Our county auditor's office started issuing the precinct vote tallies, which I posted on our newspaper's Web site.

Within about 20 minutes, the first commenters began popping out of the virtual shadows. An online reader asked if we'd be posting the results of a school board race for a neighboring district. It was a simple matter for me to oblige.