Big news for small towns

LOGAN—Dave South didn’t start out trying to reinvent the newspaper business. South, a Utah State University alumnus and founder of Neotribune, a Texas online news service created to provide in-depth news coverage for small communities, was just doing something he enjoyed.

“It started out as just a hobby, just a part-time thing I did in the evenings,” he said. But when South realized there had to be a better way to provide news to small towns, he worked to develop a method to make news profitable again, while making it more relevant to its local readers.

South, a businessman, has now moved back to Cache Valley and wants to launch the same kind of small-town online news"paper" to cover news outside of Logan, starting with the Smithfield Sun.

South is in the process of pitching his plan for the Sun to local businesses. “Ultimately, it really comes down to how much the businesses want it in their town,” he said.

“As a business owner, you can look at advertising as being like a return just on your investment,” he said. “Or they can look at it as, what does it do for their community, what does it do for their town. It really depends a lot on the support of the businesses.”

South started his first online news site, the Italy, Texas, Neotribune, in 2002. After getting a Web site organized, South said he began to realize that the traditional newspaper business was broken.

“There were some things going on [in the community] and we wanted people to know about some problems here and some good things here,” he said.

He said that there has to be a balance between pandering to businesses for advertisements, and pandering to readers with news content. “That balance really is what has held newspapers together for several hundred years,” he said. “I think getting away from that balance is actually what harms these newspapers the most.”

During the 1950s, he said, Italy (pronounced “It-lee”), a town of about 2,000, had three newspapers. Eventually, they merged into one, which ultimately folded in the ’70s.

“That was pretty much the end of an independent news organization in that town,” said South. Efforts in the 1980s to launch a new paper failed because its organizers couldn’t figure out a way to use advertising to fund a small-town newspaper. “We realized that most small towns are like that,” said South. “These small towns have been virtually uncovered for decades.”

“We had a newspaper in the county that claimed to print for us,” said South. “Their production was mostly stories for the county that they had already published in their existing newspaper, and then, occasionally, they’d print some story that they’d got from our town, and that’s what they considered coverage for our town.”

Emergencies were generally covered, and usually the high school football games, he said, “but the debate team and the drama club and the Little League and city council meetings” weren’t.

Today, the Neotribune has five paid part-time staff, who cover the school board meetings, city council meetings and all the official town business. They also do stories on church happenings and charitable events, articles about community members, school sports and activities.

South is now working to launch the Sun in Smithfield, which has a population of about 10,000. He said that to get an online paper going in a small town requires the cooperation and interest of local businesses.

“Advertising should be a part of the ‘story’ of Italy, Texas,” the Italy Neotribune Web site says. “So that’s what we are selling—a place for you to tell your story.”

South expounded on that concept: “A lot of the business owners are involved in the school board, they’re involved in the city council, they’re involved in Little League baseball and they’re involved in everything that goes on. The businesses in town are as much part of the town as the stories that we’re covering,” he said.

“We have to recognize that when you’re doing advertising for these businesses, you’re not trying to advertise Crest White Strips for millions of people out there who might be interested in trying them once,” he said.

“What you’re trying to do is get businesses to be relevant for the readers. If it’s relevant to the readers then it’s no longer advertising; it’s content.”

South said that he is looking for people in the Smithfield/North Cache Valley area to help as he prepares to launch the Sun—reporters and photographers to cover local sports, city council meeting, school board meetings, school and church activities, and anything else that is newsworthy to people who live in Smithfield.

South can be reached at dave [at] neotribune.com. You can also look at the Italy Neotribune at www.italyneotribune.com, and the Smithfield Sun at www.smithfieldsun.com. Also, for more information about South’s ideas about bringing news back to small towns, check out his blog at www.davesouth.org.


Published in cooperation with the Hard News Cafe. Original story is here.

© Neotribune Inc.