The announcement of the winners of the Newspaper Association of America's Digital Edge awards--their awards for innovative digital news packaging--this week offers a surprising look at who's doing compelling online newspaper work. It's surprising for who isn't represented, namely virtually any nationally-recognized newspapers.
Yes, the Washington Post wins two awards, one for "Best Design and Site Architecture" and one for "Most Innovative Use of Interactive Storytelling," and the Chicago Tribune wins one for, uh... "Best Local Shopping and Directory Strategy," but beyond that it's a list of much, much smaller markets: In the over 250,000 circulation category, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wins three awards, besting the Washington Post and their much-ballyhood interactive initiatives. Amarillo, Texas is represented with two awards, beat out by Lawrence, Kansas with three. Knoxville, Tennessee? Three as well. The New York Times doesn't even appear on the list. Nor does the LA Times or the SF Chronicle or the San Jose Mercury News, two papers who should by sheer proximity to Silicon Valley be all over this stuff but, maddeningly, aren't.
Walk away from the Digital Edge awards list and you realize that maybe the best innovation is happening at the small papers in smaller towns, places that don't need to invest in "hyperlocal" initiatives because they're already locally-focused. And they're not reeling under the loss of major national advertisers because they didn't have that many to begin with. In a lot of ways, the smaller town paper is better positioned for the future than the big-city ones.
PS. One thing small towns apparently don't have anymore, however, is any sort of classified ad strategy: The under 75,000 circulation category didn't have any winner at all.