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