West Virginia University Brings Digital Age to Several Local Newspapers

Over the past few years, the death knell for print newspapers has been sounded in various publications and backed by figures released by the Newspaper Association of America. Partly in answer to this decline, more and more newspapers are turning to digitalization in order to reach wider audiences. To that end, West Virginia University began a project in 2008 to help local papers learn how to tap into various electronic resources.

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West Virginia Uncovered

Three years ago, West Virginia University's Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism set out to change the face of local newspaper publishing through a project called West Virginia Uncovered. For the most part, it's been very successful at meeting its goal.

Take The Parson's Advocate, a weekly newspaper out of Tucker County, West Virginia. For over 100 years, the paper did it the old-fashioned way. Now, it maintains a website and even offers an iPhone app, not to mention adding a number of electronic subscribers. And it all began with free workshops, courtesy of West Virginia University.

Kelly Stadelman, one-half of the husband-wife publishing team that ran The Parson's Advocate (the couple sold the publication in April 2011), decided to attend the workshops to learn how to better reach a younger audience after realizing the popularity of mobile devices to access news and other stories. The workshops proved so beneficial, she says, that she returned again...and again. 'We did them the first time and learned even more the second time,' Ms. Stadelman told The Chronicle of Higher Education in July.

Through the workshops, which last a day or an entire weekend, students work with faculty of the journalism school and guest lecturers to produce multimedia packages. These packages can contain audio and video feeds, text, photos and interactive graphics. The project has been largely funded by grants from private foundations. The latest was a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Past grants have been provided by the McCormick and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundations.

Another project, Mobile Main Street, was started by West Virginia University assistant professor Dana Coester in 2009. Together with graduate student George Cicci, the project has developed an iPhone app for The Parsons Advocate that provides a news feed and tabs leading to local business advertisements. The app is scheduled for retooling later this year.

Revitalizing an Entire Industry

The change to digital platforms, it is believed, can only help a print industry in decline. 'There's a point in which you have to cut bait and start anew,' Assistant Professor Coester told The Chronicle.

The Parson's Advocate is not the only publication to benefit from the university's knowledge. Since it began, West Virginia Uncovered has helped to digitize more than a dozen weekly newspapers, including the Charleston Daily Mail. But digitizing newspapers is not the sole purpose of West Virginia Uncovered. The workshops also aim to educate new multimedia journalists. While the classes focus on narrative storytelling, students do have the opportunity to learn audio and video production, graphic design, online marketing techniques, photography and website management.

Other schools have begun to follow West Virginia University's lead. Similar projects to help local newspapers go digital have started at Iowa State University, University of North Carolina and the University of Maryland at College Park. Kelly Stadelman might be speaking for all small weekly newspapers when she praised the value of the West Virginia University program, noting how it helped The Parson's Advocate to become more marketable.

'We just want to see it continue,' she said. It's likely a growing number of publications in and outside of West Virginia would certainly agree.

Find out how college newspapers are utilizing mobile technology for off-campus readers.

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