Rockdale paper adds digital edition on Wednesday mornings

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Imagine a weekly newspaper in which the house editorial is read out loud by a member of the editorial board, readers can order goods or services simply by clicking on an ad and sports fans can watch highlights of their favorite high school's last football game.

It sounds like something from the future, but in Rockdale County, Ga., a suburb just a few miles east of Atlanta, that future is now. For the last seven weeks, The Rockdale News has published this seemingly fantastic edition of a newspaper, one so vastly different from staid newsprint product that even the paper's editor admits that it seems like a Harry Potter creation come to reality.

But it doesn't take a magic wand to read The News' new Wednesday digital edition. Even Muggles can leaf through the paper, magnify an interactive graphic or watch a preview of the latest big-studio movie filmed in Rockdale, a growing mecca for film production in Georgia. It simply takes the click of a mouse.

And even with these bells and whistles, the most amazing thing about the digital newspaper might be that The News developed it from concept to reality without any outside help and with a minimum of expense. The newspaper's small staff has done it all. "I didn't know that we had the people on our staff that knew how to do all of this," Publisher T. Pat Cavanaugh said. "It shocked me, and pleasantly so."

Cavanaugh was skeptical when Editor Michelle Kim and Web Development and Sales Director Jason Cosby came to him with the concept of a digital newspaper last spring as a way to answer calls from the Rockdale community to produce a second edition of the newspaper each week. A second print edition wasn't feasible, and the digital newspaper suggested by Kim and Cosby didn't seem to be either. "I've been in this business for 50 years, and I didn't think we had capability to do a digital paper," Cavanaugh said. "[Other large newspapers] have spent millions developing them, and I thought we just didn't have the money or expertise to do it."

The News is published by Morris Multimedia, an industry leader for digital initiatives. The paper is only four years old, and its weekly print edition is published on Saturdays. "Ever since we started, people have asked us about doing more editions during the week," Kim said. "This was a way to be able to do it and capture aspects of print and incorporate multimedia elements and comments from our readers. This was a nexus of a lot of different types of media that we already do."

Cosby, Kim and other members of the staff worked throughout the summer to develop a fully interactive digital newspaper. From the cover – which is animated each week to highlight one of the newspaper's main feature stories – to the rotating photo galleries and interactive ads throughout, there is little that is static about the newspaper's content, and that gives advertisers great opportunities to present their messages in fresh ways.

The digital paper's revenue has been slowly growing as advertisers begin to see that potential. "With this paper you get a new realm of engagement that allows advertisers to tell their story in a new way," Cosby said. "We've got a way people can click on a number and call the business or see a video, and [the advertiser] can change it every week if they want. For advertisers, being able to tell story a new way every week is awesome. What we want to focus on in next month or two is the ecommerce side of it, where the paper provides the opportunity for people to be in it, see a shoe they want to buy, click on it and order it."

The News is conscious of finding the right advertisers for the product. "When it comes to revenue, we can't borrow from Peter to pay Paul," Cosby said. "We're not robbing the print product. We have to create a new market of advertising, and that's what I do as well. I have to get out there and sell the advertising and sell the pages."

The paper is distributed early Wednesday mornings. It's sent via email blast to a list of 23,000 subscribers and registered users from the newspaper's website as well as pushed out to the newspaper's Facebook and Instagram friends and Twitter followers, where specific stories in the paper can be highlighted to particular demographic groups.

The News' staff gets immediate feedback about the paper, with analytical measurements of what stories and ads are getting attention, how much time is spent on each item and what features are worth the time it takes to do them. "There are more things we can do, but we are still figuring out with the time we have, what's worth it," Kim said. "We are learning what's the sweet spot between what's worth it to spend time on and what's good enough for the response it gets or what's too much time to spend on something."

"The analytics of how people are using the paper are fascinating, and that shapes our content and design," Cosby added.

For Cavanaugh, watching a small staff create and manage an entire new edition of the newspaper, working from scratch while still producing a weekly print edition, has been an amazing and heartening process. "If [publishers] will just look around, they'll find they don't have to spend thousands to create something like this. The young folks we have coming into this industry have different and new skill sets. This little newspaper is a result of those skills and the heart that they had to do it. You have to trust that they can do it and will do it, and you'll come up with a product like this that wows me every time I see it."

For more information, contact Pat Cavanaugh at (770) 787-6397.


Sean Ireland

Sean Ireland is a regular contributor to the SNPA eBulletin.

To suggest an idea for a future column, email cindy@snpa.org.

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