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Online community news nation

May 12: Hyperlocal has been a popular phrase over the last couple of years – so much that even big media have touted their local coverage at one time or another. Along with establishing a multimedia presence, community-centric news has become something to strive for. As a result, local newspapers in communities across the country are finding that competition is increasingly coming in the form of digital community news.

For Nancy Dinar, editor of the New Jersey-based West Essex Tribune, the most damaging kind of competition to the community paper is advertising. “Most businesses have a limited resource that they can allocate, and the online advertising is getting some of the revenue that once went to community papers,” she said in an e-mail interview.

The Tribune paper shares its community with at least two other online community news sites – The Alternative Press and Aol’s Patch.com Livingston edition. Dinar’s complaint against online sites comes with the ability for digital news organizations to merely delete an erroneous report as if it never happened. Despite this, she believes that if the publication reports with accuracy, then adding another voice to the community is good. In fact, she noted that the Tribune has partnered with another online community site and a social networking site. “We are hoping that this synergy is the future of community journalism,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lori Switaj, who spent years in the print industry before she decided to make the jump to online in July 2009 with the Avon Lake Ledger, an online-only community news site in Ohio. Just last month, she launched another news site, the Avon Ledger. Although she doesn’t consider herself competition to weekly print papers, she believes that online news sites may take over. This includes sites like Patch.com, which launched last year for communities in New Jersey and Connecticut and has since branched out into New York, Massachusetts and California. “The concept is exactly like the Avon Lake Ledger,” she said in an e-mail interview. “If they succeed you can expect an end to hometown (print) newspapers.”

According to a February article in Business Insider, Patch.com was only servicing 12 communities in October. This potentially national blanket of news sites has made progress, as it currently lists 49 community websites with five more soon to be gracing the digital arena. Patch recently announced that it would be expanding into hundreds of communities before 2011. Will online community news sweeping the country put an end to even local print newspapers, which were last year’s strongest contenders for survival?

David Chase, editor of Sun Valley Online, said it’s doubtful. “Rarely does one medium go away. It just might not be as important as it was before,” he said in an e-mail interview. “There are distinct scanning and portability advantages print has over other options. Advertisers continue to disproportionately value print over other local advertising options such as radio relative to their audience size. As long as that continues, there should be a good print business.”

Like Switaj, Jefferson County Scribe editor Deborah Sleeper notes on her website that the Scribe, an online-only publication in Festus, Mo., wasn’t launched to compete with existing area papers. “Our primary purpose here is to fill a gap and offer more news and resources focused on Jefferson County,” she wrote.

Chase agreed that there have been losses in certain areas, but he believes said gaps are being filled more than ever. “Without a doubt there is more written about our communities by an order of magnitude than there ever was,” he said.

Regardless of digital’s constant expansion across U.S. communities far and wide, many journalists still believe that the community print counterpart to today’s news is a mainstay. “I think there is still a need for the printed word, especially in community news where social announcements are the kinds of things people like to keep,” Dinar said.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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