Hernando Today is a newspaper servicing Hernando County, Florida. The county has a population of 106,409, according to the 2006 Census. This is one of the smaller markets in the Tampa Bay area. As for demographics, over half of the county’s population are over 45 years old with almost a third over 65. The median household income is $35,572 which suggests that the county has a predominantly middle-class background. The makeup of the population is primarily Caucasian with almost 92% of the county’s population falling into this category. The bulk of the county’s population resides in Spring Hill. The county seat, Brooksville, is the second largest city in the county. Some of the more remote areas of the county are sparsely populated, in some cases more akin to a rural region. This makes a rather centralized distribution area for the paper.
The paper is owned by Media General who also owns its larger sister paper, the Tampa Tribune. In addition to that, Media General also owns 21 daily newspapers, 18 network-affiliated television stations, and more than 200 specialty publications. Its reach extends throughout the Southeastern United States as well as into Ohio and Rhode Island. In addition to its traditional media holdings, Media General also owns over 75 online enterprises. Media General has a history that stretches back to the 1850s. They started out with just a couple of newspapers, not even having purchased the Tampa Tribune until 1927. It would not be until 1966 that the Tampa Tribune would be consolidated with its local television and radio affiliate, WFLA. It would not be until three years after that for Media General to officially be incorporated and become the entity we know it as today. It would then be another year before they had full control over The Tribune Co. They would then merge their rival paper, the Tampa Times with the Tampa Tribune in 1982. The Tampa Tribune’s web presence, which also hosts the Hernando Today website was established in August of 1994. Then, in March of 2000, Media General opened the Tampa News Center, which houses the newsrooms of The Tampa Tribune, TBO.com and WFLA’s TV and radio arms. This center is widely acclaimed as one of the most advanced examples of media convergence in the United States today.
The Hernando Today is published every Wednesday through Sunday. The switch from seven days a week to five was a recent move intended to streamline operations. Both the Hernando Today and Tampa Tribune’s distribution in Hernando County goes through the Hernando Today office. This office is located 15299 Cortez Blvd. in Brooksville. The paper’s administrative staff consists of thirteen people. The office itself is in a single story storefront.
Hernando Today has a web presence at http://www.hernandotoday.com. The site is hosted as a sub-section of the Tampa Tribune’s main page, http://www.tbo.com. It features recent stories, polls, opinion pieces, puzzles and games along information on subscribing to the paper and advertising contacts. The site has some interactivity, allowing for readers to comment on stories and share them via Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. It also allows for readers to submit news items for consideration as well as letters to the editor. This, in addition to the aforementioned puzzles and games add some longevity to the average stay on their homepage. As for information about the site’s reach online, it averages about 33,500 users per month. It is listed in both of the Internet’s largest online directories, Yahoo! and DMOZ. It has an Alexa traffic rank of 292,750 globally and 92,604 in the United States.
The average user spends about two minutes on the site. About one quarter of the site’s traffic comes from search engines. Of the popular search terms for the site, the biggest is the paper’s name. The paper’s Web site has a long history online, having been founded back in March of 1997, making it one of the older sites online. As stated earlier, most of the audience of this news organization are Caucasian, middle-class, and tends to skew older. The audience primarily rests in the two major towns, while some of the outlying rural areas are neglected by their distribution network.
One such subscriber, Janice Catalano, has been a subscriber to both the Hernando Today, and their rival St. Petersburg Times local affiliate, the Hernando Times, for years. On their service, she had this to say, “I like them. They give you what you want to know about the area. The [Hernando Times] loads you up with crap that isn’t news. Opinion pieces, personal stories. If I wanted to read opinion, I’d look in the main paper. If I wanted to read anecdotes, I’d go online. Just give me the news. Those guys [Hernando Today] do that.”
Recent economic times have hit everyone hard. Hernando County, in particular, has truly been pummeled by the recent economic downturn. Unemployment has hit 13.8% percent in the county. Businesses have gone under and homes have been foreclosed at a staggering rate. Add to all of this the large percentage of the county’s population that is elderly and retired and you have a community on financial life support.
While no one at the Hernando Today was able to offer a clear explanation regarding the company’s financial state, there are telling signs that indicate that the state of local news in Hernando County is fragile. Both the Hernando Today and their rivals have had to adjust prices to counteract readership slumps. The Hernando Today stopped publishing Monday and Tuesday editions a few months ago, and the Hernando Times recently followed suit. Rumors have circulated for a couple of years amongst carriers for both papers that the Tampa Tribune was considering pulling out of Hernando County. While this appears to be purely speculation, the potential result for the Hernando Today could be catastrophic if the Tampa Tribune were to pull out of the area.
“It sucks. You pay the same amount and get two less papers a week. You feel cheated,” said Janice about the recent stoppage of Monday and Tuesday publication.
Even amongst the carriers for the two papers, the sentiment is clear. This was a mistake.
Kim, a Tampa Tribune/Hernando Today carrier had this to say,”They cut production costs, but they also cut our paycheck. We are hardly hanging in there with the cost of everything going up now. We deliver less papers; we get paid less. They’re killing us.”
Dave Jordon, a St. Petersburg Times/Hernando Times carrier had this to say,”We already took a huge pay cut on our last contract. Then they cut samples, then raised bench fees, now this? Pretty soon we’ll be paying them for the privilege of delivering their paper!”
While no one in the office would give any solid answers, talking to subscribers and carriers of the Hernando Times show definite evidence that the company is in poor shape financially, and they are not alone. With their biggest competition in similar dire shape, the future of local newspapers in the county looks grim. Several of the carriers interviewed agreed that the possibility of the larger papers incorporating the local news by adding an additional section to further save money is likely.
The staff of the Hernando Today is small, so they rely heavily on the assistance of citizen news submissions to receive stories. As stated earlier, evidence of this type of journalism is apparent on the Web site. The reporters here leave contact info at the end of each story. They also have a link to submit local news on the site menu screen. The site appears to have reporters that do site exclusives as well. These are more likely than other stories to have more multimedia components. Their website, as previously shown, makes good use of social media networking to promote their material. Most of the stories themselves have little to no multimedia element. They have sections for user-generated content, such as photos. They also have games, forums and other community-oriented features. While the site is far from a shining example of making the most of the newest digital technologies, it is also far from the worst. For a small paper with a small staff, this is not a bad effort. It would help if they added more video to stories or perhaps some staff blogs, but overall, it is not a bad effort to keep up with evolving technologies.
There are several major challenges that face the Hernando Today, and most of them stem from the current financial situation. Having cut two daily editions per week hurts their image a bit. Customers, especially in today’s market, do not like to get less for what they pay for. Families are trying to stretch every dollar and something like this may make some customers reconsider their subscription. Secondly, with the volatility of gas prices, and the falling paychecks due to cost cutting measures, carriers will start to become harder to retain. If people are not being paid enough to live on, they will eventually begin to look for other options. Both papers in the area are already struggling to manage their distribution and keep customers. Making both of these things harder is about the last thing the company needs.
While the population of the area gradually shifts to a younger demographic as new people move in and older ones pass on, there will be a need to make better use of technology. While their website may seem advanced to an older population, younger audiences will start to demand more, and keeping up with that demand may be vital for the company’s survival. If they do not evolve, they may be passed by.
Another related issue will be learning to make this technology cost effective and even profitable. The landscape of news is becoming increasingly digital and the days of profitable print-only newspapers are fading away. An Internet presence is not just a supplemental piece to attract people to your print product anymore. Now the online component can be just as, if not more, vital to a news company’s business model as the print component.The
There are many challenges facing news organizations looking to survive in the digital age. First would be the backlash that comes with any layoffs that the company may need to make. The economy is in bad shape and unemployment is at dangerous levels. Experts are saying that these numbers are not going down anytime soon. Laying off more employees would be a move that would easily anger people. However, such measures may be necessary in order to ensure the company’s survival. Digitally based news services do not require the kind of staff that print services require and modernizing a news organization’s business model would carry the price of job loss.
Second, as previously stated, would be the challenge of finding ways to make a new business model profitable. Internet advertising is not generally seen as a viable means of sustaining a business. Print distribution is a dying model and traditional video is costly. The only potential means of sustaining a digital business model for news would be a model which utilizes multiple revenue streams. In-house online advertising is just the first piece of this puzzle. Likely, any video produced for a news site will need some form of advertising overlay to ensure that medium’s profitability. News organizations may even need to look at new ways to sell syndication rights to their product.
This type of syndication scheme is likely one of the best potential new models for sustaining news media online. Taking a method similar to the one employed by the Associated Press, smaller news organizations will need to sell subscriptions not to the consumer, but to other content providers. Monetizing the currently profitless news aggregator technology may be a significant step toward finding a sustainable future for small to mid-level news organizations.
This would work by selling access to content now available through RSS feeds for free to websites who may want to feature news. Now, some might call this wrong since the content is already out there, but major websites would pay if that would be the only legal way to gain access to this content. Again, this is a model already enjoying success for the Associated Press. It seems inevitable that other news organizations would follow suit and switch to a similar model.
Under this system, consumers would get free access to the news they want. The news organization makes money off the feed subscriptions and the websites buying the content subscription would hopefully make their money back off advertising. One drawback to this system is that costs for these subscriptions would likely be prohibitive for many smaller websites, if the rates charged by the Associated Press are any indication. There are also potential legal pitfalls here as the use of feed aggregators for news has been a legal conundrum. Some claim that the current use of RSS feeds without paying the originating site is stealing. These are issues that will eventually have to be resolved for us to know if this model can truly be successfully monetized.
Another major issue facing news media needing to transition to a more digitally based product is keeping up with the technological paradigm. Trends online come and go in the blink of an eye. Yesterday’s hot new digital playground is tomorrow’s virtual barren wasteland. This is especially true in the aspect of social networking. These services are great marketing tools but also come with sizable risk. While these services such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others are hot currently, audiences migrate between them constantly and new services are always further fragmenting the marketplace. Many organizations have spent valuable time and money devising systems to reach new audiences on service just to find out that their target demographic has moved on.
Keeping up with these shifts and the latest trends in site design so as to not appear behind the times requires much attention and effort. Likely news organizations will have to look to consultants who can keep them up to date and not left in the dust. These new consultancy positions will create new jobs but also new challenges. Integrating new elements into a digital product can be a costly and time-consuming effort. This just further shows the need for more research into new models and means of sustainability.
Print distribution is losing ground and money as it becomes more costly and digital products become cheaper and more viable. Organizations such as the Hernando Today cannot simply rely on the county’s older demographic’s reluctance to change as a means of justifying their own reluctance to do so. In a few short years, the number of consumers getting their news online will greatly outnumber those who solely read traditional print newspapers. Those looking online for their news are going to look for the superior product. Interactivity, relevance, and user-friendliness will soon be just as important as the content itself. The world at large is evolving as the digital age matures. Journalism as a profession will need to do the same. Many in this industry seem to be willing to bury their heads in the sand and not accept what lies ahead. Others are decrying the death of the profession as citizen journalism becomes more prevalent. Now is the time for those of us in the field to take the reins and steer this ship instead of continuing to watch it sink. What we are seeing is not just a sign of the economy. The death of many newspapers in recent years was inevitable. The business is evolving and those that do not evolve with it are dinosaurs bound to wind up extinct.