Re-thinking the News, Part 3

7 Jan

Adam Singer left an excellent response on my previous post.  He wrote, in part:

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it random. Take FriendFeed, for instance. If you follow smart people, you’ll get smart links. Follow people who are into LOLcats and you’ll get a bunch of randomness that may or may not add value.

“Not saying there is anything wrong with LOLcats, but you see what I’m saying. You can piece together your own editorial team made up of everyone from scientists to marketing people to botanists. In essence, as professionals we are defining the information we find valuable. That’s the future.”

Which all sounds very cool. But (if I’m warping the Meatball Sundae metaphor correctly) isn’t this “editorial team”, however carefully chosen, serving up the whip topping on the much more expensive and time-consuming work of professional reporters writing stories, and the editors and organizations who confer credibility on what these reporters report?

Here’s the thing:  We need high-quality professional news organizations. We need journalists. We need the news organizations that, till recently, resided most resolutely at daily newspapers.  

The problem is that they believe we need them.

The daily newspaper is a public service masquerading as a business masquerading as a public service. As a service, daily news reporters take it as their duty to define and report and agenda set and comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and maybe educate, inform and entertain while they’re doing so. As a business, the news is an enticement that fills the spaces between the ads.  As a service, daily newspapers provide a vital service to democracy, challenging government excess and empowering the public with knowledge.  As a business, the newspaper delivers potential customers with folks who have something to sell. 

Back in journalism school, we talked about the business and journalism sides of a news organization as like church and state — separated by something as powerful as the Constitution, no less. But when the proliferation of media challenges whether the daily newspaper is necessary in its current form, it brings the business side back into the news room. 

And when business looks closely today, you see that the service of journalism in a daily newspaper is completely separate from what it sells. For newspapers, this is no longer a viable business model.  For anyone else, it’s questionable.  

I’m far more interested in saving news organizations and jouralism than I am newspapers. The question is, how can you maintain — fund — vital, vibrant local news organizations?  I don’t know the answer — plenty of smart folks have spent far more time on this issue … But, if I were trying to market a newspaper today, I’d start rethinking the newspaper like this: 

First, I’d embrace the idea of “The News Paper.” Call it “rebranding” if you must.  Pitch the paper as representing the unique point of view of a smart, dedicated, team of professional journalists focused on delivering “The News” in our community.  It’s not about expressing opinions — it’s about expressing a point of view.  The News Paper offers a unique perspective on what’s important today for our community — whether that’s local or around the world — and the people, trends and institutions who shape that community — for good or ill.  Stop pretending to be objective, stop acting like reading the newspaper is the right thing for responsible citizens to do, and stop apologizing for printing it on paper by chasing every new technology for reading the news.  Embrace the idea that you, as a team of journalists, are in the business of creating a news product that people want.

Then, raise prices. If it’s worth producing, people can pay for it. Think about increasing prices for corporate subscriptions as well, or making deals for businesses in to pay increased but reasonable prices to share the newspaper in public places. Yeah, you’d lose some readers, but you’re running a business here. If businesses don’t see you as a customer deliver vehicle, they are not advertising. If they aren’t advertising and they’re not buying the product you’re producing, where does that leave you? Exactly where you are today…

Open up the news process in a big way.  Online, share transcripts and post audio of interviews. Let readers in on the decision-making process of what becomes the news — not just by writing articles about it, but by, say, streaming the editorial meeting in video, or running a daily morning chat with interested readers.  

Bring in more voices.  Take advantage of infinite space online to offer a forum to a wide range of community voices — not just the unmoderated rabble of news article forums but articles and blogs and vlogs chosen by the smart folks who run the paper. 

Rethink format and frequency. What would readers choose if the the newspaper embraced high-speed on-demand digital printing? Could we print the paper we want at a local kiosk?  Would some StarTribune readers, for example, cut out Variety and International news, because they get their entertainment and international news elsewhere? Or would they appreciate the local editors’ choices as part of their chosen editorial team?  

I wouldn’t offer “just the news we want” … I’d offer the the chance to read our great product on a variety of topics.

And, maybe just start over.  What if, as a local newspaper business executive, you seeded a brand new news organization.  One that could restart the business of covering the community from the ground up. Give them a year to create their own business model, one that embraced the web and its economies as well as journalism and its professional traditions. What would they create? Could they sell it?

The result, I think, would be more investigative journalism, an organization more engaged with its community … and, as a result, one that is more valuable to its community.

Your turn!

Next up:  A few links to what I’ve been reading on the subject of late…

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7 Responses to “Re-thinking the News, Part 3”

  1. Brian January 7, 2009 at 6:44 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more! I get the local daily paper delivered to my door every day, but — I’ll admit it — mostly for the comics. (They must know that’s a draw, because they recently made the comics their own full-color section.)

    When I do read the news, I find myself re-reading articles I read online early that morning, or even the afternoon before. The local news is all sensational (More Police Corruption! Local Pol Caught in Lie! Isn’t This Baby Cute?!?!)

    What happened to “reporters”? When there’s a crime or accident in my neighborhood, I get more information from the local Yahoo group than from the paper. The grapevine is incredibly fast and wildly inaccurate, as they say, but it’s better than nothing.

    Funniest comic recently included a paper with the headline “Management Stunned that Cutting Reporter Staff Didn’t Increase Readership.” Kind of like charging more for the train in hopes that more people will ride it…

  2. Adam Singer January 7, 2009 at 8:27 pm #

    This is relevant and timely to add to the discussion:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jan/05/clay-shirky-future-newspapers-digital-media

    I’m with Clay. Do you guys really think the future world (think in decades, perhaps scores) will have printed paper? It is a quaint notion, but I stand by the fact we will be media green.

    It isn’t a matter of how long, it’s just a matter of when – they’ll stick around but they are “walking dinosaurs”.

    Look at how scrappy papers like the Huff Post are. Their operation budget is next to nothing. I don’t see how the old media giants can walk around while a couple people and WordPress can dominate them.

    Just wait a generation or two, the web is the obvious future of information — any other way would be going backwards. I don’t know what the monetization model is, but the future is now.

    Newspapers need to realize their product is news, not paper business. If they keep thinking their product is paper, they’re done.

    • Ken Kadet January 7, 2009 at 8:47 pm #

      Well, if you define “a generation or two” as 25-50 years, then yes, I agree, we likely won’t be printing daily newspapers. Maybe even sooner. 🙂

      In the meantime, I’d like to see printed papers much smaller and more focused, with some degree of ‘on demand’ versus ‘huge pile of paper’ in the paper delivery.

  3. Adam Singer January 7, 2009 at 8:58 pm #

    They might not even hang around that long, I am being generous. I hate making predictions, it’s not smart – there are WAY too many variables to do that right. You have to be naive to think you can predict the future.

    My point is it is our future world…maybe I’m being too vague with that but if I were a newspaper I’d study what popular online publications are doing and apply the successes but BRING what I have learned over the years into the mix.

    They just need a nerd on staff, that’s it. Make a model that fits with how people want information, build build build NOW while it isn’t so cutthroat and you can win.

    It can’t be that cutthroat, I’m just one person and I can build a solid 10K+ uniques a month (some months over 30K) to my site and I’m not even a journalist. I’m just a geek. I do this in an hour a day and I’m just one guy.

    They shouldn’t let people come in and dominate their market, but they do because they cling to the past.

  4. Adam Singer January 7, 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    I mean to make predictions based on time constraints is naive. To make general predictions on where our world is obviously headed is something else…

    Didnt’ mean to contradict myself, long day =)

  5. Ken Kadet January 7, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    “I were a newspaper I’d study what popular online publications are doing and apply the successes but BRING what I have learned over the years into the mix.”

    The point is that they should be and sell what they are — producers of journalism products, and *primarily* (not exclusively) compete for dollars and audience on that basis, rather than on the basis of their ability to deliver results to advertisers.

    Naive, I know…

    As they move toward primarily online media,they’ll need to be ad supported, of course, but I’d encourage them to find a) alternative revenue streams, in part through direct support of print; and b) to reshape the organization to both support professional journalism standards and widen their ability to be a community news hub and forum with a multitude of contributors and readers.

  6. Adam Singer January 7, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    I didn’t mean you were naive Ken, not at all – I was saying it would be naive of anyone to predict things in the short term (like 1-5 years from now, even though some try).

    What do you think of sites like http://www.openforum.com/ where American Express directly pays writers to do their thing and underwrites the whole deal…? It’s an interesting model.

    I’m not sure what the future is either, you’re right – at this point ads alone don’t cut it. But when we have scrappy groups of a few clever journalists it seems like the old model has been given a blow. It’s disruptive I know…but that’s kind of the point.

    If I were a journalist I would follow the path of Sarah Lacy – she has a blog, she writes for several traditional media outlets, she Twitters, she has a book – she is diversified and has her own personal, recognized media brands. I think that is a key shift. Smart journalists should have been doing this for years.

    They didn’t, so we have bloggers who did. The geeks dominate. The future world there will be a mix. The technology isn’t hard to use. That’s the whole reason I think it will work. There may be a future model for monolithic news organizations or not, but I am not smart enough to know what this is — I’m just observing what I think works.

    Great discussion here Ken btw, it is worth pushing further.

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