New rule: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest

Try this on as a new rule for newspapers: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.

That’s not how newspapers work now. They try to cover everything because they used to have to be all things to all people in their markets. So they had their own reporters replicate the work of other reporters elsewhere so they could say that they did it under their own bylines as a matter of pride and propriety. It’s the way things were done. They also took wire-service copy and reedited it so they could give their audiences the world. But in the age of the link, this is clearly inefficient and unnecessary. You can link to the stories that someone else did and to the rest of the world. And if you do that, it allows you to reallocate your dwindling resources to what matters, which in most cases should be local coverage.

This changes the dynamic of editorial decisions. Instead of saying, “we should have that” (and replicating what is already out there) you say, “what do we do best?” That is, “what is our unique value?” It means that when you sit down to see a story that others have worked on, you should ask, “can we do it better?” If not, then link. And devote your time to what you can do better.

In the rearchitecture of news, what needs to happen is that people are driven to the best coverage, not the 87th version of the same coverage. This will work for publications and news organizations. It will also work for individuals; this is how a lone reporter’s work (and reputation) can surface. We saw that happening with the Libby trial and Firedoglake’s liveblogging of it. As Jay Rosen said at our NPR confab last week — and I’ve heard this elsewhere — theirs became the best source for keeping up on the trial. Reporters and editors knew it and were using it. So those same reporters and editors should have been sending their readers to the blog as a service: ‘We’re not liveblogging it, but they are. We’ll give you our analysis and reporting later. Enjoy.’ That is where the architecture of news must go because links enable it and economics demand it.

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There’s another angle to this: News is not one-size-fits-all. We don’t get all our news from one source anymore. We get bombarded with news all around us. So we all knew that Anna Nicole Smith was dead (or, in Jack Cafferty’s immortal words, still dead). So that means that not every newspaper needs to cover that story in depth.

It certainly means that The New York Times needn’t. So why did the Times devote considerable space and reporting and editing talent to the Anna Nicole story this week? They added nothing more to the story. It’s not what they do best. At the least, if they felt they really needed to cover it, they should have used the AP. Online, they certainly should have just linked to the many, many other sources that are covering it. And then the paper could have used its resources for news that matters and news that they can do uniquely well.

So why did they do it? They didn’t want to be left behind. They perhaps even didn’t want to seem snotting (as if the Anna Nicole story were below them and their readers). But that’s not the issue. Making the best use of their resources and talent it. They need to take advantage of the link.

Newspapers are getting more comfortable with linking out even to competitors. This takes it farther. It says that the best service you can perform for yourself and your readers is to link instead of trying to do everything.

And once you really open yourself up to this, then it also means that you can link to more people gathering more coverage of news: ‘We didn’t cover that school board meeting today, but here’s a link to somebody who recorded it.’ That’s really no different from saying after a big news event, ‘We weren’t there to take pictures, but lots of our readers were and here they are.’

So you do what you do best. And you link to the rest.

That is the new architecture of news.

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LATER: But this is the kind of red-herring arguments we still hear in this discussion. Al Eisele, editor-at-large for The Hill, complains about criticism of MSM and points to the Washington Post’s excellent investigation of the conditions at the Walter Reade Army Medical Center.

This Jurassic journalist is tired of all the bitching and moaning by denizens of the blogosphere about the deficiencies of the Mainstream Media (MSM in the snarky parlance of blognoscenti). Out of touch, corrupted by proximity to power, dinosaur media, inside gasbaggery of the Beltway — these are some of the kinder descriptions of those of us who believe that traditional journalism is still a necessary and honorable trade, like garbage collection or undertaking. . . .

Citizen journalism is fine, and it’s great that vigilant readers are keeping journalist, and politicians, on their toes. But when’s the last time it prodded the bureaucracy into action to fix a problem or correct an injustice? That’s what watchdog journalism, with the veteran reporters and vast resources like that of the Washington Post, does so well. And that’s why the Mainstream Media is still an essential part of the brave new world of journalism in the Internet age.

I haven’t seen a single blogger say that they could do this or that they don’t want MSM to do this. Shoot down that canard. Pickle that herring. What I’m saying above is that we want MSM to do more of this. Instead of covering Anna Nicole and Britney.

: Jeffrey Dvorkin, ex of NPR and now of the Center for Concerned Journalists, echoes my view from above in relation to foreign reporting. As summarized by Romenesko:

* There are local, foreign reporters who are knowledgeable and whose English is excellent. They need to be identified and trained.
* The role of the blogger in foreign reporting needs to be rethought. It is just possible that a blogger-correspondent might be the next phase of reporting.
* The BBC may be a model where eager and often young journalists are given the basics of news gathering then sent overseas to act as one-person bureaus. These journalists may not have all of the experience that old hands may have, but they are willing and adept.

: Richard Sambrook reminds me of a report (PDF) on use of wires vs. original reporting. The Associated Press has been the center of this architecture for years: if you don’t do it, get it off the wire. Only now, there are more ways to follow that same model.

So, Mr. Eisele, rather than whining about bloggers, it would be better to find more ways to work with them — and to link to competitors — so you can concentrate on just the reporting you and I admire.

: SEE ALSO: This earlier post: Nobody wants less reporting.

: LATER STILL: Cory Bergman makes a great point about the parallel world of TV:

There’s an interesting implication here for TV news, as well. The majority of stories in local TV newscasts (and the networks, too) are exactly the same. This sameness is not a detractor in a linear world: most people who watch TV don’t turn off a newscast if they’ve already read or seen a story somewhere else. But on the web, sameness is a drawback: people who have already read or seen a story somewhere else aren’t going to click on it to read it again. Posting the same stories as everyone else has a more tangible impact on pageviews than airing the same stories has an impact on ratings. This becomes even a bigger drawback when you consider all the stories TV newsrooms get from newspapers, which have already been online for most the day before they end up on the TV websites. In the end, covering unique, original stories is a must for TV sites — resources willing — even if it means diverging from TV’s daily coverage. Or better yet, TV newsrooms should cover more enterprise stories as a percentage of daily assignments.

Yes, and then TV news might actually be valuable. Like newspapers, the have resources. It’s a question of priorities.