SXSW2012: A penny press for the digital age

SXSW2012: A penny press for the digital age Picture

In the 19th century, the “penny press” revolutionized journalism by covering news that appealed to the broadest possible public. Today, as media organizations struggle to monetize online coverage and chase tech trends, they have all but abandoned less-than-affluent readers — and with them, the commitment to public service journalism. According to Pew, fewer than half of Americans who make under $75K a year go online for news. This panel will reconsider the digital divide in terms of information as well as technology. We’ll explore how low-income and working-class people – the majority of Americans – can be included in the future of online news. We’ll discuss new models for participatory, data-driven local journalism. We’re not trying to save newspapers or kill them off. Our aim is to help bring journalism back to those who punch a clock. This Future of Journalism Track is sponsored by The Knight Foundation.

Fiona Morgan

Murders and festivals. Easy to report. But actual news needs go unmet.

  • 1 in 2 americans are low-income.
  • 59 million people are near-poor
  • Conversation is about how to pay for news. Business models instead of journalism
  • Why is news worth paying for?

Why a penny press? Why go back to the horse and buggy era.

  • Cheap, popular newspapers.
  • Book - “The mythology of the penny press”
  • Short stories, layout easy on the eyes, indie publishers.
  • People cared about the news because the news cared about them.
  • Advertising started to steer articles to meet demographic needs.
  • Heading toward a more divided media system.
  • Not just a digital divide but also a content divide.
  • We need a better media system, not built around what advertisers want or need!
  • Need to be on a platform (probably SMS) that is readily accessible.

Jessamyn West

  • 34% of americans have no broadband
  • 21% of americans with no internet at home (2010)
  • Why no internet at home? IRS study - can’t get it, can’t afford it, afraid of it
  • Competing messages (Pew Study)
    • 23% - internet makes you more productive
    • 18% - internet is not secure, you don’t know enough to know that you are not at risk
    • Computers can do magic!
  • 1/10 non-users say they would like to start using the internet in the future. Converse, 90% don’t want it.
  • Digital Divide - Institutionalized poverty.
  • Multiple divides
    • Economic divide
    • Usability divide - Website sucks
    • Empowerment divide - don’t know what I’d do or how I’d do it.
  • Equality vs Equity
  • Equal quality vs equal equity
  • Public libraries are designed to help people understand

Tom Stites

  • sets out to serve everyone.
  • the point is to have a sustainable business model based on the sturdy foundation of community cooperative - depositors in a credit union
  • an offer - if you ever bring me one news story from any widely available source that does not by the 4th paragraph quote an expert regarding what these numbers mean to the markets you get $20.
  • Problem for the general public
  • 65% of American households have a net worth of $20K or less.
  • Is the return on investment the most important thing? No, we’re looking for where we can get a better job. (WSJ article on mining in Australia).
  • Before 1975, newspapers aimed for 100% market penetration - got to around 80%.
  • Now they aim to reach 40%. How did this happen?
    • Discounters drove away the smaller stores that were the majority of advertisers (small shops).
    • Discounters hardly advertise.
    • Newspapers sought out upscale advertisers that have money to spend.
    • Newspapers are no longer relevant to those that don’t have money. They are not in their target audience.
  • If it ain’t there, you can’t aggregate it.
  • It all hinges on original reporting.

How do we reach these people?

Norberto Santana Jr

  • Voice of OC (
  • Take back america one city hall at a time
  • Large segment of people disconnected from city hall
  • Current mentality at newspapers: “How many clicks for today?”
  • Used to be a war for readership
  • Disconnect news reporting from advertising. How?
    • Through membership
    • Strategic partnerships with those who want to get news to communities
    • Powerbrokers - hard news
  • Newspaper - comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable
  • IMPACT - If you cover these (important) stories, clicks will come.
  • Cover city hall, not disneyland
  • Target the people who push a red or green button - Most effective way to affect change
  • Don’t focus on partisanship - Move the barbecue around

Ryan Thornburg

  • @openrural
  • The one place where you cannot ignore poor folks is when that is who your audience is.
  • Rural america, still strong ties to local newspapers
  • Why a digital project for rural newspapers?
    • Protect them from larger digitals that want their clicks
    • Increase analytical assessment of accountability of small newspapers
  • Poverty doesn’t decrease the interest in news.
  • Small newspapers can’t invest in accountability reporting.
  • Poor people are online just enough to form a plurality.
  • People are not picking up ads - instead they’re using Facebook, craiglist, etc.
  • Newspapers sell trust to advertisers


  • Quality of news coverage? Often just reprint press releases (commodity news coverage). Low cost. Need to lower the cost of doing business.
  • Need a more robust news because it is central to democracy.
  • How to finance the Voice of OC? Can’t live on foundations forever. Have to develop other ways to generate income. Premium product. Inside government news market.
  • Co-op’s - for profit vs non-profit models. None of these models have turned out to be self sustaining and replicable.
    • Co-op is a third sector.
    • In the citizen sector.
    • Rise in response to market failure. (i.e.. Credit Unions)
  • - hyper-local, cherry picking highest income areas - like the buyers guide but without credibility
  • Is there a model for successfully engaging the poor communities? Activities at the libraries are not being broadcast OUT of the library.
    • Libraries as maker spaces - podcast, etc.
    • Cooperating with media people.
  • Creating online community space for people to work toward a common community need or movement. (The Banyan Project)
  • Community editorial board. Brought in community connectors and they act as the editorial board.


⇠ Next Article Previous Article ⇢

About The Author

G. Brad Hopkins's avatar
  • G. Brad Hopkins
  • About Me: I bought my first computer - an Apple Performa 6320 - when I was in college and have been building websites ever since. These days I spend most of my time writing code and helping to bring interesting projects to life.
  • @gbradhopkins