Technology

West Virginia U. Helps Local Papers Go Mobile

Leah Cunningham

Students in West Virginia U.'s "Uncovered" journalism program wrote an article on horse rescue that was picked up by "The Journal," a newspaper in Berkeley County.
July 03, 2011

In 2004, Kelly and Chris Stadelman became the owners of The Parsons Advocate, a weekly newspaper that has been in print for over a century in their hometown in Tucker County, West Virginia. The two of them were half of their four-person staff, often serving simultaneously as reporter, publisher, and editor.

But Ms. Stadelman wanted another way to reach the paper's 4,000 readers that would appeal to a younger audience that was increasingly using mobile devices for news and entertainment. With the paper's limited resources, she turned to a series of free workshops for journalists led by faculty at West Virginia University.

Today the Advocate has a Web site, electronic subscribers, and even an iPhone app.

Since the fall of 2008, the university's Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism has taken a hands-on approach to helping over a dozen local papers make the digital leap. The project, called West Virginia Uncovered, provides papers with student-produced multimedia packages, digital training from faculty, and a mobile-app platform. While it's common for schools to set up internships for their students at local papers, Uncovered students take the ordinary apprenticeship a step further by creating content that traditional print staffs wouldn't ordinarily produce and help draw in readers and advertisers that have migrated online.

"We're one of the few schools that I'm aware of that's approaching this from so many angles and really kind of embracing the concept of helping newspapers transition to digital and mobile," said Maryanne Reed, dean of the journalism school.

Michael Bugeja, journalism director at Iowa State University, said journalism schools should look to West Virginia as a source of inspiration to revitalize not only their own programs but also the journalism industry as a whole.

"Papers need to move to digital in order to retain their audience, and it's especially important in rural areas, where the community paper is the center of communication," Mr. Bugeja said. He is working with local papers in Iowa to help them with their digital transition. Similar partnerships have sprung up at the University of North Carolina, which also provides small community papers with traveling workshops, and the University of Maryland at College Park, which has students work in urban bureaus.

The journalism-school workshops last anywhere from a day to a weekend at partner-paper locations; West Virginia's Morgantown campus invites a variety of faculty or special guest speakers. "We did them the first time and learned even more the second time," said Ms. Stadelman, who has attended several workshops. "You get to work with the students, and during the classes you actually get to do a project."

The Parsons Advocate staff now creates popular sports-highlights videos, and students have produced multimedia features profiling the county's local artisans and brewers for the paper's Web site.

Dana Coester, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, heads Mobile Main Street, a project she began two years ago with George Cicci, a graduate student at the time, to develop the Parsons Advocate iPhone app. Mr. Cicci, who had app-building skills, worked closely with Ms. Coester and the Stadelmans to stitch together a low-cost app from a variety of free app-building software.

"Our goal was not really to create some sexy, dazzling app—it was to create something that people could begin to use within 20 minutes," Ms. Coester said. The app, which has been downloaded 130 times since its release in March, features a news feed that lets users view local stories from the paper as well as shopping and dining tabs that allow nearby businesses to directly post specials and deals.

Helping a Declining Industry

While the Uncovered project seeks to make legacy papers more economically viable in a shape-shifting digital age, it is also focused on training a new generation of journalists in convergent media.

"We're not a technology class—we're a narrative storytelling class," said Mary Kay McFarland, the project coordinator, who leads workshops and oversees student participants. "Narrative is narrative in any medium."

Every semester, a dozen or so of Ms. McFarland's students travel two to four hours across rural West Virginia to produce video, slide shows, and written stories. A recent graduate, Paige Lavender, who will be attending American University in the fall as a graduate journalism student, credits the program with helping her to think on the fly and becoming well-rounded as a multimedia journalist.

"Everybody can experience the story in one way or another, and that's a big plus," Ms. Lavender said of the multimedia work, which could run as a print story with photos while also appearing online as a video and a slide show.

The project has received over $400,000 in university and private support with its latest $200,000 Ford Foundation grant going directly toward Mobile Main Street. The grant will pay for a full-time mobile-phone and tablet-computer programmer who will refine and expand the app and create a platform that will allow other papers to cheaply and easily build apps on their own.

But local papers going mobile have a local problem: West Virginia ranked 48th out of 54 U.S. states and territories in broadband penetration, according to the National Broadband Map. So does it make sense to push Web- and mobile-based publications in communities where it could be hard to read them?

"We had great reservations about investing time and money into Web-only features that reach only a small section of our current audience," wrote Lisa Minney, who runs the monthly magazine Two-Lane Livin' with her husband. "However, several developments in our region relating to high-speed Internet and mobile-phone services show us that the time will come when the online audience will have more potential."

Ms. Coester believes that journalism schools need to play an active role in helping a declining print industry reach those potential readers.

"We're incubating ideas for the industry because the industry is sort of at this year zero," Ms. Coester said. "There's a point in which you have to cut bait and start anew."

The Stadelmans, who sold The Parsons Advocate in April, remain committed to Mobile Main Street. The couple will continue to work closely with Ms. Coester to retool the app this fall.

"I think everything we did with West Virginia Uncovered and the mobile app certainly did help us make the paper more marketable," Ms. Stadelman said. "It has a lot of value to communities like Tucker County, and so we just want to see it continue."