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Looking forward to SMN in 2049

Looking forward to SMN in 2049

This week SMN is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a business. As we mark the milestone, this industry is changing so fast it’s dizzying.

I’m 64 years old. I’d like to position this company to prosper moving forward in this ever-changing media landscape. I’d love nothing better than to be reading The Smoky Mountain News in some form or fashion on my deathbed, hopefully many years in the future, my dear wife Lori telling me to put the damn newspaper down and talk to her.  

Can we make that happen? More importantly, will local media in any form still be alive 25 years from now, in 2049?

Back when this company turned 20 in 2019, I wrote a column detailing the history of this venture called SMN and how we got here. Just five years later I’m much more fixated on the future. I’m convinced local media companies need to survive so that rural towns and small communities can have healthy give-and-take debates on important issues related to taxes, growth, housing, tourism and a host of other topics.

It is a bit unnerving and wonderful, that power and influence that Google, Meta, Apple, Amazon and even Netflix and Spotify and many more have on how we spend our time and how we spend our money. They toss suggestions at us — many of them spot on — for stories to read, products to buy, movies and shows to watch, songs to listen to, videos to play and more and more. They mathematically analyze our habits and choices, and so we get ideas and suggestions we may have never come up with on our own.

We know there is a downside to this — that echo chamber that makes evil ideas and reprehensible behavior seem reasonable, the negative mental health issues suffered by adolescents and children who spend too much time online, the anonymity the internet gives to bad people. Baseless ideas and outright lies are reinforced by some supposed news site whose only intent is to sow mistrust, fear and hatred.

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In the old days, it was the editorial board of a newspaper or the producers/editors at television news stations who determined what news we consumed. At my first newspaper job at the Fayetteville Observer-Times while I was in high school, one of my jobs was to watch the teletype machines when the Associated Press’ list of the top 10 sports stories for the next day would come across. I’d rip it off the machine and hurry it to the sports editor, who would quickly glance at the sheet and mark it up, perhaps confer with the assistant editor, and make decisions about the mix of national, state and local stories to put on the front page of the sports section.

That same sort of decision making happened at papers, television and radio stations around the world, editors making choices about the front page or the overall news mix based on their experience and their knowledge of the local community.

Did those people make better decisions than the algorithms that feed us our news, videos and all types of information? Hard to say, but up until about 25 years the big three — newspapers (and magazines), television and radio — controlled our news and got the vast majority of ad dollars spent around the world. Now, it’s a fragmented news market where even the most powerful content producers — N.Y. Times, Wall Street Journal, the Guardian — and those local entities like us are constantly looking for new ways to deliver information and new ways to land a few more dollars via sponsorships, ad sales, partner content, e-blasts, events, donations, philanthropy and … who knows what’s next.

We all know AI (artificial intelligence) is coming after us and its influence will grow exponentially over the next few years. Just watch. In a nod to this relatively new technology we’re all navigating, I turned to ChatGPT and asked what the future holds for The Smoky Mountain News. Here’s its answer:

“The future for The Smoky Mountain News in Waynesville, NC, seems promising, poised to continue its legacy as a trusted source of local news. Embracing digital innovation while maintaining its strong community roots will likely be pivotal. Expanding its online presence through interactive platforms and multimedia storytelling could enhance reader engagement. Nurturing partnerships with local businesses and organizations may provide sustainable revenue streams. Adaptation to changing reader preferences and demographics, along with a commitment to journalistic integrity, will be crucial. With dedication to serving its community and strategic evolution, The Smoky Mountain News is positioned to thrive in the ever-evolving media landscape.”

— ChatGPT on Monday, June 3, at 6 a.m.

Well, the bots at ChatGPT think we’ll be OK, and the bots and I are thinking along similar lines. What the AI did not mention is the underlying need and growing realization of what we are losing in this digital revolution — an appreciation for the handmade and the personal interaction, the locally curated, the freshly grown, the vigor of a main street and a community where people meet in person, talk, celebrate, share, disagree and debate together.

Local media is needed. It remains to be seen whether the market will support it. I’m an optimist and, like ChatGPT, think we can navigate our way through all this. Only time will tell.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

25th Birthday Bash

Help us celebrate our 25th anniversary of The Smoky Mountain News this Friday, 5-7:30 p.m., in our parking lot at 144 Montgomery St. in downtown Waynesville. We’ll have beverages, food trucks and look forward to thanking all of you for reading and supporting our work.

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At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

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