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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Here's the real Backstory in Greensboro: The Rhinoceros Times

The Greensboro News & Record and its editor, John Robinson, are receiving boatloads of much-deserved attention and praise in the media industry this week, thanks to the decision to move the North Carolina daily into the Blog age. You can read the plan here, and you should also read Robinson's blog and the Professor's extensive coverage at PressThink here.

But as I predicted yesterday, there is more to this story than simply an adventurous MSM editor bravely venturing forth against all obstacles to move his archaic print daily into the new world of online media. Something else has been happenning in Greensboro for several years that helps put The News & Record's ambitious plan into a more complete context.

It's The Rhinoceros Times and its online edition at rhinotimes.com, which you can see simply by clicking on the head to this posting. I asked Rhino publisher William Hammer about The News & Record's plans yesterday and here is what he said this morning in reply:

"Regarding your question of whether our free weekly newspaper The Rhinoceros Times has had any editorial influence on the monopolistic daily newspaper, The Greensboro News & Record and its new plan to be the hippest thing on the web with editorial blogs, I am biased but I think we definitely have. The key is readership. Readership is the lifeblood of any publication, including blogs, and the News & Record is having problems with declining readership.

"Consider this: Here in Guilford County, the main weekday news section of The News & Record over five issues will reach 36.7 percent of the 25-49 year olds. In that same demographic category, the four issue cumulative readership of The Rhinoceros Times is 40.4 percent. We are reaching 3.7 percent more of these readers than The News & Record’s best-read weekday section.

"This 25-49 category is extremely vital to advertisers, but readership dominance of The Rhinoceros Times is even greater in the 18-24 year olds category. The News & Record's weekday A-section reaches only 10.7 percent of these young Guilford County adults. The Rhinoceros Times readership in this same hard to reach category is an astounding 33.6 percent.

"We are reaching 3 times the number of young people as The News & Record’s A-section. These readership numbers come from an independent accredited media rating company, International Demographics of Houston Texas (The Media Audit Program & Report Guilford County, NC Jun-Aug 2004). The News & Record used this same company’s reports for years, so there should be no question about the source of the data.

"This is a huge problem for The News & Record, particularly because advertising rates in The Rhinoceros Times are a fraction of the rates in the News & Record and eventually revenue follows readership. So the editors at The News & Record must be asking themselves, or are surely being asked by their publisher how The Rhinoceros Times with an editorial staff of three can be beating them in readership with their monstrous staff.

"Perhaps the editors have finally realized that it is due in part to their stiff and stodgy editorial style and a policy of discouraging readership participation. Of course, The News & Record’s extreme left-wing bias doesn’t help. It now appears that The News & Record is experimenting with a Rhinoceros Times-style on the Internet.

"The Rhinoceros Times was launched in Greensboro, NC in 1991 as a free distribution weekly with a cutting edge, irreverent editorial style and unapologetic conservative outlook. One of our tag lines is 'We make conservatism cool,' and has from the beginning had an unusual interactive approach.

"Every week we print over one hundred transcribed phone calls, essentially phone blogs called in from readers and we have a policy of printing letters to the editor of almost any length, often without attribution. The News & Record will only print signed letters of 200 words or less. The Rhinoceros Times truly is the interactive town square that The News & Record wants to become. Our editorial model is more similar to many blogs than to a traditional newspaper and it is an editorial model we are having success with in other markets.

"Our editor, my brother, John Hammer is showing The News & Record every week how to create an intense, passionate, and fun publication and their editors are clearly paying attention, but are struggling with duplicating a Rhino Times-style. (It is fun to watch them try; sort of like a dinosaur taking ballet lessons.)

"The News & Record can afford to experiment with the website because as of yet the revenue is miniscule relative to their daily hardcopy publication. That will eventually change. But whether this online experiment will lead The News & Record to abandon the ridiculous notion of unbiased journalism and embrace a more honest and more blog-like approach to journalism is yet to be seen. "

I've been following for a couple of years developments with Rhino and the sprinkling of other explicitly conservative online media efforts like The Leader in Illinois, The Texas Insider , MichNews.com in Michigan and The Carolina Journal. These typically combine varying mixes of aggressive reporting, original commentary and links to other media, focusing on local or state government and guided by openly acknowledged principles. These publications are examples of one of the many directions in which the new media inspired by the internet are moving.

Like them or not (whether you do is probably mostly governed by your particular political perspective), conservative online media like The Rhinoceros Times and The Illinois Leader are having a significant (even if mostly unacknowledged) impact on the MSM and helping shape the new media in important ways, so they merit more attention than they have heretofore received from the media "experts" among us.

There are also undoubtedly numerous examples out there of similar online publications governed by liberal perspectives. I'd love to hear from you if you know of or are associated with such publications, regardless of ideological perspective. It's all part of the Information Reformation.