By Dennis Hetzel · January 22, 2021
When I first read about Column, around the time of their public launch, I hoped that Column might provide the solution to a problem I’d been thinking about for years: a solution that would help to protect newspaper public notices in the short-term and also provide an innovative, perhaps even transformative direction to support local journalism and its business models. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that the answer to my hope is “yes.”
I reached out with an old Wayne Gretzky cliché in mind: “skate to where the puck will be," not where it is. This saying makes the obvious-but-often-forgotten point that when you skate to where the puck is, it quite likely will be somewhere else by the time you get there.
The situation with public notices in our industry will go in one of two directions. If we skate to where the puck is, no matter how passionate, smart and well-intentioned our efforts, newspapers will either lose notices completely or keep a few digital scraps to monetize at bargain rates. It is a remarkable and under-appreciated achievement that, so far, state press associations have managed to rebuff every major effort across the country to take notices away and move them to government websites. However, I think we all know that it’s not a question of “if.” In the current scenario, it’s a question of “when.”
By modernizing the way public notices get from advertisers to local newspapers, Column presents an opportunity to take the offensive, like Gretzky positioning himself to maximize his chances to help his team.
We all agree that notices perfectly fit the journalistic mission of local newspapers and represent a critically important revenue vertical as well. Column’s platform gives us a fighting chance to keep control of public notices within the newspaper industry.
Column is building on the exhaustive efforts of press associations and other industry leaders in recent years to protect public notices in newspapers. Column's concept leverages technology to create the best experience ever for notice advertisers, the newspapers managing the business and the digital audiences for those notices. They also have unique capacity to provide data-driven resources to support legislative battles.
In digital terms, “skating to where the puck will be” also requires solutions for ongoing development. All too often, fine products get launched, but time and money for significant, ongoing development isn't available. As another powerful business cliché reminds us, “today’s added value is tomorrow’s core expectation.” If you aren’t continuously improving web-based products, you’re losing ground. As a tech startup with a passion to support our industry, Column has made continual development a core value and has generated resources to support it.
One of my association manager friends astutely noted that almost every experience our industry has had with third parties in the notice space has been bad. That’s why Column specifically structured as a public benefit corporation to support local journalism. It’s a concept worth exploring if that’s unfamiliar to you. Jake Seaton, the founder, comes from one of America’s most respected newspaper families.
I became an advisor to Column because I believe in their mission, which is the mission shared by my colleagues across the newspaper industry. I believe that Column's public notice tools, statewide notice sites and data-backed resources for press associations can help us meet the puck, rather than letting it slide right past us.
Still, to use another cliché, this is about trust and risk-taking — about moving while we still have the opportunity to go on offense. Column may be a fit for your statewide notice website, and I’m certain the front-end tools will work well for many of a state association’s members. The only way to find out is to take a deeper look.
Dennis Hetzel spent more decades than he wants to admit in the newspaper industry as a reporter, editor or publisher. From 2010 to 2019 he was executive director of the Ohio News Media Association, where he worked extensively on public notice issues. He’s also a thriller novelist whose third book, “Azalea Bluff,” will be released soon by Headline Books. He lives in Holden Beach NC where he offers writing, editing and consulting through his firm, Fresh Angle Communications. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to DennisHetzel.com.
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