Why Haven't Newspapers Thrived In The Digital Age?

Last week, Dave Morgan sent a warning shot across the noses of newspaper publishers everywhere with his piece called "Newspapers, Now or Never." What perplexes me is how newspapers could have given up the natural marketplace advantage they had in the first place--the fact that they're the focal point for how news affects a community.

Late this summer, my sleepy little hometown, Wading River, N.Y., saw a drama unfold the likes of which it hadn't seen in decades. U.S. Marshals knocked on a Wading River man's door to serve a warrant and were met by a hail of gunfire. Although thankfully no one was hurt, a tense standoff ensued, with the man holding police at bay for over 11 hours. This happened less than a mile from the house where I grew up.

I first learned about the incident while it was still going on. A Google Alert tipped me off--one that I set years ago to ping my inbox whenever there was a news story about Wading River. Google picked up on a story from Newsday.com and sent me the alert. The frustrating thing was that once I figured out what was going on, there wasn't much I could do at that point.

The original Newsday article gave me the latest news, sure. But it didn't give me any other options. For a few minutes, I surfed video clips of reporters on the scene, but there were no options for connecting with my neighbors and friends from the area. Had the police locked down the elementary school right down the road? Were they diverting traffic away from the area? Did anyone know the gunman personally?

This would have been a great opportunity for Newsday to serve up some social media tools and functionality to me. Had there been a message board link at the end of that story, I would have registered in a heartbeat. Had they directed me to posts from area bloggers, I would have followed those links. I was looking for a deeper level of engagement than Newsday wanted to provide--to turn to others in my community for information and reassurance. Instead, I got nothing but a bunch more Google Alerts as the story got picked up by various news outlets and was disseminated to the usual suspects.

Dave was right to fire that warning shot, and he was even more correct when he suggested that "newspapers need to be the place where everything local is posted, shared, discussed, criticized, or mashed up." The story I just related is probably similar to a million others around the country, as people turn to their community newspaper for two-way interactivity and instead are simply pushed news stories. Newspapers could be so much more. I'm looking forward to natural market forces pushing them toward true interactivity instead of one-way communication.