I’m always surprised when people tell me they’ve read my column in The Reader — whether in print or online. Actually, I’m surprised anyone reads anything that isn’t a tweet, a post, a gram, whatever.
How people get their news has obviously changed amazingly over the past 20 years. No more so than how we get our local news. It’s hard to explain to people in their 20s that the Omaha World-Herald once was a media giant. “That printed thing their grandparents read” was our most credible source for local news, as well as our community’s cultural bellwether.
Here’s a familiar stat I learned at J-school in the ’80s: The Sunday edition of the Omaha World-Herald once had the highest local saturation of any newspaper in the United States on a per capita basis. Everyone around here read it, and most read the daily editions as well, either at home or at the office.
That’s all gone. Just ask the 20-something person in line next to you at the grocery store or in your office. They don’t read the Omaha World-Herald online and definitely not in print. In fact, they don’t read anything in print.
Those of us of a certain age watched the OWH rapidly become thinner and thinner with the advent of the internet and social media, and certainly since Berkshire Hathaway sold its share of the paper to Lee Enterprises a few years ago. The reporting staff was decimated, and now it’s only a matter of time before its remaining readers literally die off.
So what’s filling the news void the OWH is leaving behind? I’d love to tell you it’s The Reader … Oh, The Reader definitely plays an important role in local media, but it’s not replacing the great, gray Herald, at least not yet.
Instead, three new online publications are jockeying for that role.
First and least likely to succeed is Nebraska Sunrise News (NSN), the new online website with the credo, “News, not Narrative,” which makes no sense since most written news is in narrative form. Maybe it meant, “News, not Opinion” or “News, not one-sided reporting by the liberal Fake News monopoly.” While the NSN website doesn’t have a traditional staff box (the first sign something’s wrong here), digging around on the web I discovered its CEO is prominent Republican Suzanne Geist, who has connections to the Ricketts family. The site’s contributors include right-wing talk-show host Chris Baker. Out of the box, NSN has a mountain to climb in regard to credibility.
(Yes, I know Fox News has the largest viewership of any cable “news” channel but that’s because it’s the only outlet for right-wing-slanted, Trump-humpin’ propaganda. The combined viewership of legitimate cable news organizations vastly dwarfs Fox’s audience.)
Next, the Flatwater Free Press, an online publication developed by Matt Winn, a former editor on the investigative desk of USA Today, and Matthew Hansen, a former OWH reporter and columnist. The Flatwater Freep’s focus is on long-form investigative journalism, the kind of stories that take months (even years) to report and write. Operating as a nonprofit entity, the Freep has hired a talented staff and (I’m told) acquired three years’ worth of operating funds. So the Freep has three years to win its Pulitzer (something the OWH never managed to do for its reporting) because that’s what it’s going to take for the Freep to break through to a larger audience.
Finally, there’s the Nebraska Examiner, part of the States Newsroom nonprofit network of state-based outlets with a national bureau in Washington, D.C.,
reportedly funded by left-leaning foundations with ties to billionaire George Soros. (Note: The Examiner’s Cate Folsom has reached out to say those reports are false, and pointed to a PolitiFact fact check that also claimed the reporting is false. She said States Newsroom and the Nebraska Examiner have not received funding from George Soros.) Run by former OWH editor Cate Folsom, The Examiner has the great benefit of having two of the OWH’s most-respected reporters on staff, Cindy Gonzalez and Paul Hammel.
Both the Freep and the Examiner follow creative commons policies in which their stories can be republished by anyone as long as proper attribution is provided. I discovered this while reading an article posted on the KMTV website about the proposed new Mutual of Omaha headquarters building. Most “written” articles on local TV news websites read as if they’d been translated from another language via Google Translate, but this article virtually sang. I scrolled up and discovered it was a Nebraska Examiner story written by Gonzalez.
Four things are needed for one of these publications to win the war, because in the end, only one will survive: 1) solid, unbiased reporting on a daily basis, 2) broad re-publication of their content, 3) a strong, credible web and social media presence.
And maybe most important of all: A terrific, daily, direct-to-your-inbox subscription newsletter, similar to what Axios, The New York Times and other successful national news outlets provide. Because those morning e-newsletters are what are replacing the daily newspaper.
Of all three publications, Nebraska Examiner does these things the best. It’s only a matter of time until people (other than journalism wonks) take notice.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.