As anyone working in newspapers will point out, Modesto isn’t unique. The digital wave that crested the Coastal Range changed our economy in ways even the most gifted futurists couldn’t predict. Traditional business models have been obliterated. Newspapers, caught trying to maintain a legacy business while building an interactive one, have been strategic whipsaws, unable to commit fully to a paperless future that is, let’s face it, inevitable.

Since I left Modesto in 1998, I’ve held senior digital positions at four newspapers, two corporate digital positions, and now run a consultancy focused on media that is participatory, mobile, and sustainable. Our clients range from tablet app developers to foundations to news entrepreneurs. And that blend has helped us glimpse what lies ahead.

Fledgling news websites have cropped up across the country, led by journalists who bleed local, sometimes down to the neighborhood. Foundations that historically funded online news gadgetry are focusing on business models—and the coming nexus of for-profit, nonprofit, and technological partnerships. News entrepreneurs are building lean, adaptive organizations that face the future with a startup mentality rather than a bunker mentality. Successful media sales organizations are becoming agencies selling across multiple brands and products. And mobile consumption of information borders on ubiquity.

Put all of this together and you have the DNA of a successful twenty-first century community newspaper—without the paper.

The Modesto Bee, sitting at the center of a prehistoric sea, has been washed over by the digital tsunami. What remains—and where it goes from here—depends on its ability to see over the next crest.

This piece is part of CJR’s Nov/Dec 2011 roundtable discussion of the future of news in Modesto, California, and places like it. For more on the topic, click here.

 

Rusty Coats is president of the consultancy Coats2Coats, and has worked in newspapers and interactive media for twenty-five years.