Rural communities left behind as some state newspapers focus on digital production
by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com
Oct 28, 2012 | 5449 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Russell Summerlin takes his copy of The Anniston Star out of its box at his home in Clay County. The retired state trooper has a computer in his office but prefers reading his news on actual paper. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Russell Summerlin takes his copy of The Anniston Star out of its box at his home in Clay County. The retired state trooper has a computer in his office but prefers reading his news on actual paper. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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DELTA — Russell Summerlin reads the paper every day.

Well, he used to.

Since The Anniston Star stopped publishing its print editions on Mondays, he’s been skipping out on his daily dose of news at the start of each week. The 81-year-old Clay County resident doesn’t use the Internet, even as The Star and three other newspapers in the state are relying on it more, ceasing their long traditions of daily printing.

But the DSL connection at his rural home isn’t always reliable, Summerlin said, and he doesn’t really like reading online, besides.

“I just read the news in the newspaper,” the retired state trooper said. “I don’t even turn the computer on.”

Summerlin represents a number of Alabamians who don’t use or have access to the Internet with regularity, many of them elderly, black or poor and concentrated in the state’s rural counties.

All told, about 33 percent of Alabama households in 2010 didn’t have reliable access to high-speed Internet, a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report shows.

“It’s definitely a longer term challenge,” said Kevin Wendt, vice president of online content for Alabama Media Group, which publishes the news site al.com, plus The Huntsville Times, The Birmingham News and the Press-Register in Mobile. “And I think for communities like that the challenge is beyond broadband access — it’s also what level of engagement in the daily news do you want and do you need.”

Digital Divide

Not having a good connection can pose a number of problems in the modern world, where the Web has become almost a necessity to daily life. Fortunately, most state residents — 67 percent of them in 2010 — are wired enough that they can still get their daily news online.

But the third of Alabama households that aren’t connected now face a more specific dilemma about staying informed in their state.

October marked the beginning of a new news age in Alabama as papers around the state dropped the number of print editions they put out each week in order to focus more on digital production and content. On Oct. 1, Advance Publications’ three newspapers in the state — The Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and the Press-Register — all did away with their Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday print editions to form Alabama Media Group, a new, digitally focused company.

More locally, The Star ceased publication of its own Monday paper, moving that content online instead and transitioning to a 6-day-a-week print product.

The change most negatively affects people in rural counties, newspaper officials, rural policy advocates and state residents say, areas like Clarke and Clay counties, both places where only about half of residents have access to high-speed Internet.

It also affects residents located the state’s Black Belt region, an area of the state first called so because of its dark topsoil and now characterized by its rural communities, high poverty rates and larger numbers of black residents. More than 40 percent of the populations in the black-majority counties of Hale and Sumter, for example, can’t access high-speed Internet.

Furthermore, the state’s elderly and poorer residents stand to lose in the shift to digital news. Most of the counties with unreliable Internet also have high concentrations of people over the age of 65, Census data shows, and median household incomes between $7,000 and $17,000 below the $42,000 median for the state.

“Rural communities are at a detriment here,” said John Crabtree, media director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. “There really is a digital divide … a system where people in different communities don’t have access to the same media.”

New news age

The shift of Alabama newspapers to an increasingly digital product is no surprise when viewed in light of the declining circulation numbers and advertising dollars that for years have plagued print publications.

And more people have Internet access now than ever before: Two billion people across the world go online with regularity and nearly 76 percent of Americans had Internet access at home in 2010, according to reports from Internet World Stats and the U.S. Census Bureau.

True, too, that most agree the digital divide in Alabama and across the country will close — and is closing now, as more people have extended access to wireless connections on smartphones and other handheld devices, and increasingly consume their news from that technology.

Although a recent Pew Research poll shows that rural residents are more likely than their urban counterparts to rely on traditional forms of media for news, the survey also indicates that a significant number of rural people are using handheld technology to get some of their news.

Thirty-five percent of 211 rural residents polled for the national study said they use mobile devices to learn about various events and issues in their communities. In Alabama, more than 2 million residents — about 45 percent of the population — had created Facebook accounts by March 2011, one of the ways Internet World Stats tracks Web access.

“Technology and broadband access are only going to become more and more prevalent and easy to access,” Wendt said.

So, the shift to an online focus, Wendt said, is “one that the audience as a whole was pointing us toward.”

At The Star, associate publisher Bob Davis said the news industry in is the midst of a push and pull.

“Technology is pulling forward, giving us these wonderful tools that can expand how we do journalism,” he said. “At the same time, we want to remain loyal to readers who are in varying degrees of that process.”

Spotty connections

“Varying degrees” is perhaps a good way to describe the current Internet connectivity and news consumption of residents across Alabama.

The Yellowhammer State ranks among the 10 least-wired states in the country, the Census Bureau report shows. Many residents interviewed for this story were still using only basic, dial-up connections in their homes or going without access at all.

How the “two-tiered system” of Internet access affects these residents’ “decision-making about careers and jobs and education politics is one of the major untold stories of the digital divide,” said Crabtree, at the Center for Rural Affairs.

In Clarke County, one of the two least-wired areas in the state, only 47 percent of the some 25,000 people who live there have high-speed access to the Internet, according to a National Broadband Map managed by the Department of Commerce.

Gina Wilson, a librarian in the Clarke County city of Thomasville, said many residents come to the library to get on the Web because they can’t access it at home. People there like to read the papers, she said. Some have expressed disappointment about the new, online focus of the Mobile paper.

“A lot of people do get their news online, but you still have a whole group of people, who really can’t,” said Wilson, who herself lives in an area of the county where there are no DSL or high-speed Internet providers. “Households that don’t have high-speed are facing a huge challenge; it widens the gap every day for educational opportunities and news available to them.”

Brenda Goree is the revenue commissioner in the Black Belt’s Greene County, where more than half of its 8,900 residents lack high-speed access, data shows. The county is 80 percent black, has a median income level of $22,000 and 16 percent of its residents are over the age of 65.

Many people like Goree only have dial-up Internet at home and go to work to get a high-speed connection. Reliable Internet service, she said, is like “a light for us to get to the rest of the world.”

“I know the rest of the world, if there is something in the news you’re looking for, you go directly to the Internet to find it,” she said. “But in the rural areas here, we usually rely on the newspaper. Usually, the Black Belt is left behind on a lot of things.”

News habits

Still, even with spotty Internet access in those “left behind” counties, access — in general — to news is hardly scarce.

Many residents living in unwired homes already primarily rely on a combination of local weekly papers and television broadcasts to learn about what’s happening in their areas and state.

Carrol Robinson, a Hale County resident, and Goree in Greene County both have established systems just like that.

“We have the local newspaper, the Greene County Democrat,” Goree said. “And we have the TV and the radio.”

Others, like the Clarke County librarian, have learned to rely on wireless 3G — the technology that powers the Internet on most smartphones — to connect their personal computers. In fact, Wilson has recently overcome not having high-speed access at her home by purchasing a Verizon Wireless data plan and connecting that way.

“I have a smartphone, two laptops and a wireless printer,” Wilson said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever had at my house.”

In Cullman County, Debbie and Charles Morrison have a similar system: No providers offer high-speed Internet near their home, so they pay $125 per month for extensive, wireless broadband access.

“It’s been ridiculously expensive,” Debbie, 57, said. “But it’s been necessary.”

Expense, for now, is one of the reasons people at the Center for Rural Policy are hesitant to call wireless broadband service a fix-all to the digital divide.

“And you can’t always use your phone in rural areas,” Crabtree said. “You don’t always have good service.”

Wilson, 51, said she avoids having to pay much more than $50 per month for her wireless by capping the amount of data she can receive. At 5 gigabytes per month, the librarian said, she can do everything she needs relatively cheaply, except stream long videos.

“I really like to read the headlines online every day,” she said. “Ten years ago, I would have tuned in to a news channel.

“And now, without realizing it, I think I’ve kind of gone more to checking news online.”

Assistant Metro Editor Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @CSteele_star.
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