Editor’s note: Searching for web innovation in rural America

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

I have this restless urge to reinvent our rural newspaper website.

Actually, blow it up and start over. And I need help.

We want to be innovative as a shoestring outfit can be. I have key objectives in mind:

  • Find the best way to present the most information in an appealing way, across the website and social platforms.
  • Find a way to reach a significant Hispanic population that isn’t going to spend much time on our website. Instead, we want to reach them on their phones.
  • Find a way to use a pay wall and advertising for significant revenue development, not produce just spare change for coffee.
  • Find a way to make potent use of video.

Now, everyone in media trying to do some blend of those.

Here’s the problem.

Most of the “solutions” you can find browsing the web have been designed for significantly larger entities than the Malheur Enterprise. The challenge is scaling down concepts, platforms and systems that started out with the New York Times or Time or some other media behemoth.

That’s not going to happen. We don’t have the time, resources or skill to scale down. We operate a fairly static website now (malheurenterprise.com) and a far more robust Facebook page (which, of course, brings attention but no money.)

I bet there are hundreds of media outfits in the country in the same boat as us. While small, we are – or should be – essential information sources in the communities we serve. We need to adapt as much as the New York Times to more effectively deliver that information. We need to puzzle out the revenue need so we can keep serving our communities.

What I’ve been wondering is this: Why can’t we flip the development pyramid? Instead of designing solutions at New York scale and then shave it down  to other scales, why not develop something functional , affordable and effective at a scale of the Malheur Enterprise? If we could come up something at this level, the demand would be considerable at similar entities. And I assume you could then scale up.

So, scale is one issue.

But another is the paradigm.

I don’t want to just put a newspaper online with a few bells and whistles. Oh, that works in many places. And I’m a traditional newspaper guy so turning away from what I’ve known for 50 years isn’t a natural step. But I’m aware enough to know that if I keep just thinking “newspaper” when my community is thinking “information,” we’ll never connect.

Trouble is, I don’t certain what to do instead of the usual newspaper-on-the-web. My intent is to take this small outfit and experiment mightily. I want to scrap all the usual starting points about discussing newspaper websites. I want to think very hard about how we use all the digital tools honed by experts in recent years to best advantage.

So, about that help.

Obviously, a small outfit doesn’t have the budget to spend months and years in development.

And maybe the concept exceeds our grasp.

But I thought I’d see what’s possible before surrendering and just plodding on the same path. I’m wondering if there is some crack university team that would love a guinea pig. Or some developer that wants to use us as a test platform to develop an affordable, easy-to-maintain site that then could be replicated at – and sold to – myriad local news outlets across the country.

There it is: An ambition, a sense of what could happen, and an open invitation to join in. I’m all ears to advice, suggestions, opportunities — or counseling to just step away from the web. You can reach me at [email protected] if you’re interested in chasing this idea.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, based in Vale, Oregon.