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The future of newspapers (a preview this week)

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I'm going to ask you, as the reader, to take a closer look at some small-print things in this week's newspaper, because I think it's a harbinger of the future of newspapers, and if we don't start telling this story now, we're going to have to play a lot of catch-up later.

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I want you to look for little indications of the sources of stories or photos in the paper this week, such as the little line under photos we call the "photo credit" which may say something like "Photo provided" or "Photo provided by Jane Doe." Then look for articles with bylines from other newspapers or other writers -- things we picked that we thought our Wadena County-area readers would find interesting, such as the story about the potential boon to employment in New York Mills that a plant closing in Little Falls may have.

A few of these items may have zero or little personal interest to you, but some may be very interesting, and that's the point. I strongly believe that the "newspaper" of the future will include some sort of printed product for those who prefer to receive their news that way, with content targeted toward that crowd, and a robust online presence with stories, photos and discussion that's shockingly tailored to exactly what that reader wants. That reader will choose from a menu of his or her interests and have news pushed out to them, likely on a cell phone or an eReader device like Amazon's Kindle or Apple's new iPad.

For our traditional print readers, which we expect to have a large and loyal crowd for 20-30 years or more, we'll provide in-depth local news combined with briefs of area news stories -- a well-packaged summary of the world around you.

For our "device" readers, we'll have a ginormous universe of news and topics to pick from. Do you just want Thomastown Township news, Verndale sports, conservative letters to the editor, low-fat vegetarian recipes, economic news, real estate ads about hunting land, bowling scores from the night before, snarky comments about the upcoming Twins game, classified ads about boats under $5,000 and coupons for buy-one, get-one lunch specials? That's what you'll sign up for, and that's what you'll get, and that's all you'll get.

The print model we know well and we're pretty good at it. After nearly 140 years, we think we're getting the hang of it.

But the online model will require much more content than our shrinking newsroom can generate. And that brings us back to that challenge to look at those "Photo provided" or otherly-bylined articles -- the content we can push out to people, but don't necessarily generate with our own news reporters.

There's a lot of it already in the newspaper, isn't there? Just take, for instance, the great articles and photos you enjoy from Dana Pavek, Vicki Pearson, Ethelyn Pearson, David Anderson and many others every week. That content is generated outside our employee base, edited and packaged by our staff, and sent out to our many readers.

It boils down to this: the future of newspapers (and here I mean more than just the printed page) depends on our ability to get interesting, local people to write, photograph, take video, capture audio or otherwise document those things they're interested in, and let us use our technology and platforms to distribute that to a wider audience than they could have reached.

That may be a discussion group about World of Warcraft, someone interested in reporting the snowfall amounts in their backyard, a joint genealogy project on the Kern family tree, someone who wants to inform neighbors about a block party or changes to how the city will plow their cul de sac, a hockey mom who just wants to brag up her kids, a fisherman who wants to float some ideas about how deep to fish when a storm is moving in, a movie buff who wants to say what he really thinks of "Avatar," a golfer who documents the changes she's making in her swing to shave off a few strokes. Maybe the audience for any one of those things barely reaches double or triple digits, but the point is, there will be someone who is very interested. And in their menu of "news" they'd like in the future, that movie review or snow plow schedule means a heck of a lot.

So we know that's the challenge: to get people on a small scale to document the world around them. Sometimes the technology is scary, which is the usual barrier to entry. But that's not the case anymore, and we have easy-to-use tools to not only help interested writers/photographers/documentarians to get set up, but to push their message to our readers and far beyond. And I, personally, get extremely jazzed up about showing off all the ways we can help people get going on this sort of venture.

I can guarantee that the "pay" for doing this right away will be exactly equal to the admiration of the handful of followers we help find for you, but I also know that as this part of the industry grows, revenue -- and revenue-sharing -- will soon follow. I also guarantee that you don't have to have a command of grammar, punctuation, photography or a degree in computer science to get going. It's really easy.

If this appeals to anyone about any topic -- seriously, ANY topic -- I'd like to get a critical mass of people interested in learning how to get set up, and I'll put on a free workshop. I'll even brew coffee and buy a pizza or donuts. And by "critical mass," I mean about five people, which would make a decent group.

Got something to say? Drop me an e-mail at pjeditor@gmail.com with a subject line that says "Community Journalist" and I'll make you into one faster than you'd expect.

One more thing that might surprise you: you may not know a browser from a gigabyte and hate computers. If you're still wanting to share your wisdom on a topic, you could type up your thoughts on a rotating-head IBM Selectric typewriter and I'll find a way to get it on the Internet for you and give you regular reports about who is reading you.

The hurdle to doing this isn't as high as you might think. And we're ready to give you a huge boost to help you jump over if you're interested.

This is the newspaper of the future. Everyone participates on the input side, we take the universe of great information out there and synthesize the news you're interested in and filter everything else out, and we push it out to you around the clock.

This editorial represents the collective voice of the Pioneer Journal's editorial board. Today's editorial was written by Steve Schulz, editor and publisher.

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