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The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday (sub required) about a dilemma that is starting to face many newspapers amidst falling revenues and readership; the need to divert finite editorial resources on local rather than global coverage. The article examines The Boston Globe, which recently had to say goodbye to its three remaining international bureaus for this reason.

In the meantime, there is a lot of chatter in the blogosphere – following Backfence’s recent setbacks – about the importance of hyper-local content. Sebastien Provencher points to a conversation that started with a post on Long Tail founding theorist Chris Anderson’s Blog. Anderson coins the term “The Vanishing Point Theory of News” which basically goes; interest in a subject is in inverse proportion to its distance (geographic, emotional or otherwise) from us. (“news that my daughter got a scraped knee on the playground today means more to me than a car bombing in Kandahar”).

The need for hyper-local news was also pointed out recently by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. In an online sense, this can help newspapers battle competition from aggregators (Google News, Yahoo! News et al) by leveraging a local edge – something that can’t be replicated by aggregators. This was echoed loudly in the TKG white paper Newspapers 2.0.

At the same time, the importance of national news can’t be discounted. National news has been commoditized to a certain degree by the web, and by aggregators. So the key for local papers online is to combine the breadth offered by aggregators for national news while differentiating themselves with local coverage which, again, aggregators can’t do as well.

There are many ways to begin to think about doing this, such as personalized local portals, and search functionality that unifies disparate local and national news results in addition to local classifieds, directory content, news, weather and sports (Planet Discover is doing some interesting things here).

There are challenges inherent in these strategies and a great deal of inertia among newspaper publishers. The level of breadth required to compete with online competition, for example, requires aggregating many sources of national news – including that of competing publishers – for online readers. Many papers have been averse to do this, because it goes against all of the principles of the print model that they “grew up on”.

But it’s a new sandbox now, and not experimenting and beginning to innovate will mean continuing to lose readers to the Google and Yahoo! newss of the world, which can and will continue to offer more comprehensive experiences. The one thing they can’t do is cover local. So newspapers need to do that, do it well, and attract readers to it with more user friendly and comprehensive local destination sites.

More tactical detail is in the Newspaper 2.0 white paper, and more can be found in my post earlier today on Search Engine Watch.


Update: Editor and Publisher has an extensive piece on how newspapers are beginning to hear the call to more effectively play in the online sandbox.

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