Throw Marc Fisher’s Washington Post column atop the pile of columns from all over declaring that bloggers won’t replace newspapers. Careful that it doesn’t topple on you. I wish there were a pile of equal size making that argument about bloggers and papers, but I can’t find it. It’s a red herring in a barrel. But rather than one more time trying to shoot down another attempt to shoot down this nonexistent premise, let’s look at Fisher’s real challenge – how will state government be covered – and see whether there aren’t new answers, with or without bloggers. He writes:
In one hour in the Virginia House the other day, I watched debates on raising the cost of vanity license plates (the No’s won), letting employers pay workers with debit cards rather than paychecks (Yeses won), and making it a felony to hang a noose on someone’s property (approved). Hardly earth-shattering issues, but each has an impact on people’s lives. Yet none got any press; a couple of years ago, they would have.
OK, start here: I’d recommend that Fisher should have headed across town to the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp. I think transparency as a default for governments at every level is the first answer: every piece of legislation online and every debate and committee meeting recorded and shared. That alone won’t yield reporting but it would enable journalists and citizens anywhere in a state to monitor bills and topics and share what’s notable.
Then the services of one or more reporters or bloggers should be shared by every publication in the state. A capitol bureau is hardly a differentiating feature for a paper. We’re headed this way with, for example, the consortia of Ohio and New York/New Jersey papers now sharing their content statewide. So imagine if a journalist’s coverage appeared in every paper and on every site of news organizations in the state with a share of revenue for advertising on it to the reporter. That might – just might – cover the cost. We’ll see. At the Norg unconference in Philadelphia three years ago, thee was discussion about this structure with a blogger who was covering Harrisburg.
Next, local reporters and bloggers can do a better job covering the activities of their representatives. I’d like to start by seeing the voting record of my state reps; it’d be easy to set up RSS feeds for every district that local bloggers could include and discuss.
Covering legislatures is the easier part of this. Covering executive-branch bureacrats is harder but I think that coverage will shift from the geographically based – that is, by people in the state capital – over to topically based – that is, a local green reporter or blog watching the state’s environmental actions.
I don’t have a buttoned-up plan to replace the coverage of newspaper statehouse bureaus. But it’s already true that they are shrinking and so rather than just complaining about that – and pointing out for the Nth time that bloggers won’t replace their headcount – we need to look at how the functions of covering state government can be fulfilled in new ways.
What the hell are they thinking in Philadelphia? Inquirer ME Mike Leary just sent a memo saying they are going to hold all but breaking news for the paper and even restrict bloggers from using their blogs to work on stories in progress.
Let me make this very clear to Inquirer ownership and management:
You are killing the paper. You might as well just burn the place down. You’re setting a match to it. This is insane. Even the slowest, most curmudgeonly, most backward in your dying, suffering industry would not be this stupid anymore. They know that the internet is the present and the future and the paper is the past. Protecting the past is no strategy for the future. It is suicide. It is murder. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
And my message to staff, the few of them left:
Get the hell out now! Get away from these fools or you’ll get it on you. Let’s hold a new Norg meeting right now and organize a competitor to the ailing Inquirer. It won’t take much to kill it now. Let’s put it out of its misery.
And my question to readers:
Do you care?
: LATER: What a rotten time for Norgman Will Bunch to be on vacation and offline.
: An online producer elsewhere asked me for stats on the cannibalization of print by online. I responded:
That’s not the point. The point is that we need to make the leap over to the next medium and business model and an extra 10 or 100 saved copies now is NOT going to save the business as it was. It’s short-sighted and foolish. So forget that calculation and ask, instead, how to invent the next product and drive audience and advertisers there and reshape the staff — completely — around that. It will be a smaller scale business — no longer a monopoly — but likely more profitable in the longrun if it also relies on collaboration.
: Here’s Steve Outing’s reaction.
: As I write this, the top story on the Inquirer’s Philly.com: Paris Hilton. Oh, yeah, that’s local. But I guess they have to fill the page with something because they don’t have those stories from what’s left of the newsroom staff.
The Washington Post writes today about Gannett’s exploded newsroom in Ft. Myers. I spoke at length with a Gannett exec and will be writing about that when I speak to some more folks.
Michael Hirschorn has a good column in The Atlantic on one of my favorite subjects — Whither newspapers? — singing harmony with much of what I say here.
Meanwhile, top reporters and columnists at major newspapers are realizing (or will realize soon) that their fates are not necessarily tied to those of their employers. As portals and search engines and blogs increasingly allow readers to consume media without context or much branding, writers like Thomas Friedman will increasingly wonder what is the benefit of working for a newspaper–especially when the newspaper is burying his article behind a subscriber wall. It will require only a slight shift in the economic model for the Friedmans of the world to realize that they don’t need the newspapers they work for; that they can go off and blog on their own, or form United Artists-like cooperatives to financially support their independent efforts. . . .
Not only do you allow your reporters to blog; you make them the hubs of their own social networks, the maestros of their own wikis, the masters of their own many-to-many realms. . . .
But he comes around to an optimistic ending for print.
Today’s announcement of a big deal between Yahoo and a bunch of midlevel newspaper conglomerates has its benefits for both. But I can’t help but thinking that this is a meeting of old, old-media companies and the new, old-media company, Yahoo.
The benefits: The newspapers will get local functionality they need and new means of selling automated ads they don’t have and they will tame the beast they thought was a competitor. And Yahoo will get more content (can it ever get enough?).
But they’re both trying to maintain old businesses and old models.
Classified hasn’t just moved online; it’s dead as a category. Craig didn’t kill it. He was merely the first and smartest to see that the internet connects buyers and sellers directly. It massacres middlemen. And both newspapers and Yahoo still want to be middlemen. So the real challenge is to figure out how to enable transactions in new ways.
They talk a lot about content but in a linked world, the goal is not just to own more content but to create a new relationship to more of it: ‘We find the good stuff, wherever it is’ which used to be Yahoo’s goal and should be again — and must become the goal of newspapers as well.
They still operate on the media model of getting people to come into a centralized place and so the newspapers hope that people will go from Yahoo’s gathering point to theirs. Except everyone I know who has done a content deal with Yahoo finds that it is not terribly good at sending them traffic because Yahoo — like newspapers themselves — wants people to stay in its world.
Dean Singleton, one of the moguls in the deal and one of the smartest and toughest newspapermen alive, said this in The Times: “There has been a big question asked for a while as to how newspapers will navigate the online future. I think this is the answer to that question.” I sure hope he said more than that (and I’ll bet he did). For this is not the answer. Is it an answer? Maybe. Maybe not. The challenge is to find many answers and relying on a portal has proven to be an incomplete one. Ditto being a portal. The question is not, ‘How do we get enough stuff to get people to come to us?’ That is their old-media model. I think the question is, ‘How do we go to where the people are with what they need and how do we enable them to do what they want to do?’ That is what Google asks itself.
Moments after posting the news about the the Daily Mail doing without a TV critic (below), I read Lucas Grindley on another paper getting rid of its movie critic and NFL writer, among others, . . . because they are not local and newspapers, at their essence, must be local. Amen to that.
The managing editor for the Winston-Salem Journal was faced with the need to cut his budget. And when looking around the newsroom, he saw the same thing all of us do. Duplication of efforts. So the Journal’s film critic and NFL writer were laid off.
Local film critics for national movies are a vestige of different times. For most markets, there’s no local angle to Mission Impossible 3.
Reassign your reporter now, before it’s too late, to something that might attract new readers. I wonder what the Journal’s managing editor would have covered if he had reassigned that film critic a year ago.
Maybe you’re the film critic. Don’t wait around for this same fate. Convince your editor to use wire copy so you can cover something else. Because when it comes time for the editor to look around the room for cost savings, your beat needs to be local and indispensable.
Sports writers, listen up. If you’re not writing something more than the game story, then you’re next. An editor can get that same gamer from the wire.
Features writers, if what you’re covering is on the wire regularly, then your beat isn’t local enough. Food is a national topic. Travel is a national topic.
Business writers, you’re not immune either. Prominent media types are already advising newspapers to “outsource” all types of coverage.
Death by a thousand cuts. A slow death is happening as newspapers lose writers. Don’t let positions get cut because you didn’t have enough foresight to realize they were being wasted. Maybe circulation declines wouldn’t be so steep today if we’d ensured every beat in the room was local, and couldn’t be replaced by wire copy.
Now read the managing editor of the paper, Ken Otterbourg, writing on his blog about the cutbacks:
We were one of the smallest newspapers to have a full-time film critic, and we enjoyed that distinction. But there’s plenty of excellent film criticism out there that we can use for nationally released movies. We’ll still occasionally review movies with a local tie-in. By contrast, nobody else is covering the local board of education or the city council. It’s unique content. So in making our decisions, we were guided by our belief that what we can do best is cover Winston-Salem, Forsyth County and Northwest North Carolina. That’s where we think our future lies, being a metro paper with a strong community focus.
Here are a few posts where I’ve been pushing newspapers to boil themselves to their essence. But Lucas Grindley is right: This is about making shifts and investments now, before it’s too late.
The Independent asked a bunch of media machers about the future of newspapers and not much came out of it but these rather opposing viewpoints:
Gets it: Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror and reality-TV star:
Every newspaper has a great future online. End of story. Within five years every newspaper will be free and they’ll all be online. And if they’re not, they should be. There will still be a presence in print but that will be for older readers and you will find that anybody under the age of 35 will only read newspapers online. It will be the newspapers who are the most dynamic online who win. Any newspaper editor or proprietor who believes they will escape this inevitable translation from newsprint to online will get buried. They are under a massive misapprehension. If newspapers do it right and invest now they will be successful and make lots of money. It’s not the death of the paper. It’s the morphing of the paper from a print version to online.
Doesn’t: John Humphrys, anchor of the Today show:
And sooner or later we will explode the blog myth. The idea that you can click on to a few dozen blogs and find out what’s going on in the world is nonsense. It’s fun but that’s all it is. …
But we’ve already exploded the myth of radio presenters’ wisdom.
Newspapers — and their readers — should be scared reading Jay Rosen’s interview with John McQuaid, an accomplished reporter — he predicted everything that would happen in Katrina years before — who has given up on working for papers. He is exactly where papers should be putting their investment: in unique reporting, real value for the community. But his investigative role was killed, before Katrina, and he chose not to become a paper-pusher on a desk.
So McQuaid becomes a poster child for newspaper cutbacks done wrong. I have been arguing that cutbacks are a good thing if they are used to boil a paper to its essence, to get rid of the useless stuff and decide what a paper’s real value is: reporting. Cutbacks are bad if they maintain the commodity stuff at the expense of reporting. But all is not lost. McQuaid remains a reporter, only now an independent one. He’s going to contribute to NewAssignment.net. He says:
Newspapers remain key venues for probing, public service-oriented journalism. While the format has its problems–too many dull, interminable series see print mainly as Pulitzer bait–at their best, newspaper series can not only reveal terrible problems and injustices, but also be lively and engaging reading.
Big papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post retain the staff and resources to do these kinds of things. But no matter how important or interesting they are, investigations don’t pay the bills, and in a lot of other places there’s neither the capacity nor the will to delve deeply into both local and national issues. That’s a serious problem, in keeping politicians and other officials honest and in the functioning of democracy itself. So I’d like to help new, Internet-based forums, emerge locally and nationally to do investigative or explanatory journalism. And of course we need readers, advertisers and financial backers to go with them.
This is a great era for news– government accountability has all but disappeared. Doubtless, there are dozens of government meltdowns — on top of the ones that we already know about — already underway or about to happen.
That said, I’m not sure how what this new form will look like. The newspaper investigation is basically a static form: journalists work for weeks or months on a story. For the most part, nobody in the wider world even knows what they’re doing. Then they publish it. It makes a splash (or not). Maybe it has a broad impact. After the publication date, on some basic level, it’s over.
But the web is so dynamic — an ever-unfolding conversation. So I was intrigued by NewAssignment.Net, which offers an opportunity to figure out how to harness that dynamism in the service of journalism.
: LATER: Part two up now.