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Changes to Post-Standard bring unexpected consequences

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

A new era of newspaper journalism has taken hold of central New York this week. The Syracuse Post-Standard's new business model is in place, with fewer printed copies of the paper, and more emphasis on digital platforms. And there are many implications of this change to the region.

For the last 35 years, Ted Sullivan of Fayetteville, has had a regular routine.

"I get up early in the morning and I go out and get the paper, bring it back in here, pour myself a cup of coffee, and read the paper right here. Every morning, and I spend a fair amount of time on the paper. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you."

He won't be doing that this morning, the first day of scaled back delivery of  print editions of the Post-Standard.

"I'll tell you this, I won't be driving down to the local convenience store and buying my paper. I just wouldn't do that. So I'll probably go online and read the paper those other four days," said Sullivan.

He and his wife bought an iPad in anticipation of these changes and it's taking him a while to warm up to it.

"I'm not one that enjoys reading things on a little nine by six screen, but we'll make do. What else we gonna do?"

Sullivan, like thousands of other central New Yorkers, is getting used to the new digital heavy world of the Post-Standard. And it is harder for older residents, who may not be so digitally savvy or comfortable reading from a screen. Syracuse Media Group president Tim Kennedy says the company realizes this.   

"We are in the process of conducting a number of seminars around the community to try and go to places, libraries, senior centers, where we can train folks on how to get online or how to use the e-Post-Standard,"  said Kennedy.

The bottom line though, says Syracuse University Newhouse Dean Emeritus David Rubin, is how you react to this change, mostly depends on how old you are.

"You and I are print people, so for us not to have a print product seven days a week is a jolt. My students are not print people. This is nothing for them. They never read the newspaper anyway. They have no interest in carrying around the newspaper," said Rubin.

The scaling back of the printed edition is creating some extra work for some city hall staffers in Syracuse. The city spends more than $200,000 a year posting various legal notices in the Post-Standard. Common Council will be changing the days that certain legal notices are required by law to be printed, from Saturday to Sunday. But there's a problem with the state of New York. Some items, for example notices involving the airport, must comply with state law that defines a newspaper as something that is published daily.  

So in order to be legally compliant, the city will have to send that business other dailies, like the Oswego or Utica papers. First assistant corporation counsel Joe Barry says hopefully that changes. "We're seeking the state to broaden their law, so a newspaper publication can not only be the physical publication, but if the newspaper has a website, use that as well, or in lieu of."

Beyond the physical shift from print to digital, there are questions about the product. Syracuse University journalism department chairman Steve Davis says writing for the digital world is no different than for print, it's just how it's packaged.

"At a newspaper site now I have video, I can have audio, I can have interactive graphics, I can have text, I can have commenting, I can have links," said Davis.

But Davis does have some concerns, most notably, staff changes. "We know there are fewer people, the question is where are those cuts being made and how does that affect the quality of the product."

He's also worried about what he thinks may be a a lack of editorial oversight when mobile reporters put stories directly on the web. "If somebody sees a mistake or error or problem, no problem 'we'll fix it.' And if someone sees another, 'no problem, we'll fix it.' but that's no way to run a railroad. That's not quality control. That's triage. And that really hurts your credibility," said Davis.

Kennedy says there will be oversight, they've just changed the classic print editorial workflow. "We certainly have the editing and editor function in various places, both with our reporters, and the folks creating the printed publication and online," said Kennedy. "We just perhaps don't call them editors and we break up that work and depending on what point in the story we need an editor."

The other intangible, is whether digital stories can effectively take on the role of a watchdog press. Does a story on a computer screen or a phone have the same wow factor online, that a newspaper shouting headlines of corruption and malfeasance? Rubin says yes.

"While I and probably you will miss the double-deck headline that screams, this is a big story so everyone should talk about it," said Rubin. "That too will just evolve, into the story that goes viral and you can still be a watchdog that way. I don't think there's any difference."

That's where social media, like Twitter and Facebook, comes in.

"This becomes the new water cooler. People won't say, 'did you see what was in the paper this morning,' they'll tweet something, 'did you see what they did on Syracuse.com this morning,' and they'll tweet the link," said Rubin.