In 1989, the 2,400-baud modem was state-of-the-art in transmitting digital data over balky telephone lines with their old-fashioned analog technology. In northwest Montana. veteran journalist Marc Wilson, the new owner of the weekly Bigfork Eagle, used this small black box to enter what he saw as the new era of digital publishing.
In the back shop of the Eagle, he began transmitting news and other information, via modem, from his sideline bulletin-board service to other local publishers in Big Sky Country.
The Internet was still years away, but Wilson’s BBS put editorial content into the hands of other local-news publishers more quickly, abundantly, and cheaply. Today, Wilson’s TownNews.com serves 1,600 newspapers — big and small, daily and weekly — as well as pure-plays and other digital publications with an array of technology-focused editorial, revenue and social-media products.
Wilson recently retired as CEO of TownNews (now 51% owned by Lee Enterprises) to take the role of Executive Chairman. In this Q & A, he recalls his pre-Web digital pioneering and makes some startling predictions about the future of newspapers.
You founded TownNews.com (initially called International Newspaper Network) in the pre-Web era. How did you become so adept in that pioneer technology?
I like to say I got into technology because I was a “time traveler” of sorts. I had worked from three daily newspapers and five bureaus of the Associated Press when I became Editor-Publisher-Janitor of the Bigfork Eagle. I had seen dailies and the AP move from typewriters to computers, but when we bought the weekly newspaper, I found myself going back in time.
The technology that the Eagle had was relatively ancient. So – knowing there were proven solutions – I began to computerize the Eagle. We were one of the first weeklies to convert to desktop publishing using Macintosh equipment. We were one of the first to do away with our chemical darkroom in favor of a digital darkroom. The next step was to send and receive content electronically, which led us into the BBS [bulletin-board service].
It seems that your local-news publishing clients in Montana were pretty conversant with existing digital technology too. How did that happen?
I chaired the Montana Newspaper Association’s technology committee, and many members of that committee and the MNA general membership were intrigued by innovation. They followed the Eagle’s move to desktop publishing and digital darkroom. They saw that it worked and many in the state adopted the same practices – successfully. So when I suggested the BBS network, many were willing to listen and act.
When did you get out of the weekly newspaper business and focus entirely on being a technology provider to other publishers?
We sold the Eagle in 1996. Lee Enterprises bought 51% of INN and 100% of the Eagle.
Did your business zoom with the growth of the Internet?
When the World Wide Web came along [mid-1990s], we decided we’d better figure it out. We knew nothing. We started building web pages for our newspaper customers. Because of our past successes, many publishers gave us a chance. But we never really “zoomed.” It’s always been a steady grind.
More than 25 years later, what’s new in technology that any competitive local news site absolutely needs today to reach its potential audience and build strong connections with users?
Distribution channels keep changing. Publishers need to understand the programs being offered by Facebook, Google and Apple. They need to participate without losing their own brands.
TownNews emphasizes to potential clients that its services can help them increase their revenue. Looking at community news sites, what can you do for them in revenue that would be so important?
We’re offering an ad-operations program and data-management platform that help newspapers provide targeted advertising, both locally and programmatically. We’re also developing a native-advertising program which should greatly expand their ad inventories and formats.
What do TownNews services cost an entrepreneurial local news publisher?
We are very competitive, with packages to fit almost any budget. We have a good number of customers who get more from our advertising programs than they pay us.
There’s continual debate over whether local news publishers should go for numbers in pageviews or stay focused on readers in their market. Your services give local publishers that option to go big, right?
We have technology that allows newspapers to do anything they want. Some are after as much traffic as they can get, others have metered paywalls or hard paywalls. Some are making a good deal of money by using surveys in front of stories.
Can a local news site lead a “double life” – planting their flag on the big search and social media platforms and also building and maintaining its own robust digital real estate, starting with the homepage?
Yes. Quality is the key issue. If the news staff is the best in a market, newspapers can lead, as you put it, a “double life.” I think that is a great goal.
You’ve retired as CEO of TownNews.com, but you’re still closely involved in the company as executive chairman. Do you have any over-the-horizon ideas of where local news publishers need to go to ensure their survival?
Number one, they need to be the best digital product in their markets. The public is always going to need and want media that provide good information and marketing services. In an increasingly competitive media environment, local newspapers need to improve their quality. Quality of content (news and advertising) are even more important than having great technology. But technology is crucial.
Newspapers need to keep up-to-date with the latest advertising trends. Revenue is obviously key. Advertising buys are increasingly dependent on data, targeting and digital ad operations. Publishers will perish if they don’t stay up on this kind of technology.
These are tough times for local news, we keep being reminded. Can a novice publisher-editor with modest financial resources make it in today’s intensely competitive digital market?
If the community is well-served by existing media, it would be difficult. If the market is under-served, an entrepreneurial start-up would have chance.
You stress editorial quality. How important is quality to advertisers?
Quality is key in everything. Google works especially hard with newspapers because of high quality. Google is closely involved with the Local Media Consortium. The TownNews.com team works with a Google team often on ad optimization and testing a native-ad program. Google believes newspapers have premiere content. This is important for local, regional and national programmatic advertising.
Where do you see newspapers in five years?
I think there will be fewer dailies and more weeklies and twice- and three-time weeklies. Production will be centralized. Smart newspaper owners will hire really excellent local staff, but the staffs will be much smaller. A greater percentage of ads will be bought through national programmatic ad networks. The small local ad staff will concentrate on selling only premier ad placements. Local news and sports reporting will remain premium content.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.