“It’s really a matter of professional pride, of principle,” Clabes said. “We think we have something important to bring to the table.”
Kyforward is packed with news and feature stories, big color photos, ads for local businesses, and, in early April, plenty of ruminations about the upcoming horse racing season. The only thing separating it from traditional newspapers is its lack of a print edition — and that’s a distinction that doesn’t matter very much to the Kentucky Press Association, at least not since it started allowing digital members in 2009.
“We see it not as competing organizations but organizations that can join together and better the news media as a whole,” said executive director David Thompson.
Press associations that allow digital members are still in the minority, but their numbers are growing. A recent survey by the Newspaper Association Managers found that at least half a dozen organizations have created formal membership categories for digital publications. Several more are considering similar measures this year.
One of the people who helped conduct the survey is Morley Piper, who said this kind of change has been a long time coming. Piper has led newspaper and press associations in New England for more than five decades. He first started fielding questions about digital publications five or six years ago. Plenty of those queries were laced with fear.
“Those who are reluctant probably look upon (digital publications) as competition,” he said. “They don’t want to allow the fox under the tent. It’s a radical change, and people generally don’t like change.”
Sentiment has shifted in recent years, Piper said, but the catalysts vary from state to state. The Arizona Press Association created a digital membership category in 2009 when the Tuscon Citizen stopped publishing a print edition. Kentucky hopes it’s the first step toward collaborating with media producers of all kinds.
In New Hampshire, where I recently finished a term as president of a small, all-volunteer press association, our goal was to strengthen our voice when it comes to sunshine laws, cameras in the courtroom, and other issues. We started admitting digital publications at the end of last year, and our new president is a veteran newspaper journalist who now works for a network of websites operated by Patch.com.
In some states, such as New York and New Hampshire, digital publications are full, voting members. Elsewhere, they have the right to all the local association’s resources but aren’t allowed to vote.
Piper said he hopes more press associations reach out to emerging news sources in the future.
“Go with the flow,” he said. “They’re part of the mix now.”
‘Change has got to come’
For the North Carolina Press Association, opening membership to digital news organizations was a matter of public service. Nonprofit news websites are emerging all over the state, and executive director Beth Grace wants them to have access to training, legal advice, and other services.
“Those things are crucial when you’re a startup,” Grace said.
She also hopes collaborating with digital publications will help traditional members learn to use technology to enhance their print products and better serve their readers.
“Everyone is going online, and what the customer wants, we ought to give them,” she said. “Change has got to come, and this is the best way to do it: as a team.”
Still, throwing open the doors to new publications isn’t without risks, which is why many associations have instituted criteria for digital members. Most organizations require digital publications to have a regular publication schedule, a local phone number, and ample original content. Some states specify that potential digital members must also adhere to basic journalistic standards and produce the type of stories that would appear in a traditional newspaper.
In North Carolina, four digital publications have applied for membership in the last year. Two were admitted. The other two, Grace said, were unable to prove that their content was original. Kentucky, meanwhile, has admitted six digital members. Two others, including a site focused on gambling, were denied because they didn’t serve general audiences.
Barriers to entry
In other states, meanwhile, the idea of treating digital publications the same as newspapers is hard to imagine. Take, for instance, Nebraska, where the first hurdle would be state law.
Members of the Nebraska Press Association must meet the state’s legal definition of newspapers, which specifies that they must produce print products with paid circulation and uninterrupted publication for the previous 52 weeks. Executive director Allen Beermann is loath to lobby for change, because rewriting the statute could jeopardize the rights newspapers currently enjoy.
“Bad things can happen when you go to the legislature,” he said.
He’s also not sure if a digital publication would survive for long in rural Nebraska, where tornadoes and other wild weather can leave vast swaths of land without power — or Internet — for weeks.
“That makes it kind of hard to read a digital newspaper,” he said.
Natural disasters are challenging for traditional publications, too, but Beermann said not a single member has failed to get the paper out in recent memory. Despite legal and technical challenges, digital news organizations are likely to become more common in the years to come. That’s one reason the Suburban Newspapers of America changed its name to the Local Media Association in January. President Nancy Lane said the association wanted to acknowledge that its members are publishing on multiple platforms.
This year, the group is mulling the details of digital membership. Lane describes a slow, deliberate process designed to meet the needs of news outlets both new and old. The goal, she said, is to find common ground and make sure no one feels neglected or obsolete.
“People belong to our association because there are people like them that they can network with,” she said. “They don’t want the organization to change so much that it’s no longer relevant.”
Meg Heckman is an award-winning journalist living in New England and current online editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor. She is a board member and former president of the New Hampshire Press Association.