Newspaper, viewspaper, schmooze paper


Yesterday I portrayed daily journalism as the dog that won’t hunt. Now a Columbia Journalism Review article, Beyond News, offers a different take on why newshounds may have gone astray. They continue to act as if they’re delivering new information when most of what they publish has been broadcast, web cast or gossip-cast before. Author Mitchell Stephens, a New York University journalism professor, said newspapers can no longer simply answer the five “W’s” — who, what, when, where and why. Instead, he writes in CJR:

“We will require . . . journalists who are impeccably informed. Let’s call this one of the five I’s — a guide to what journalists (will) need to be, now that at least four of the old five W’s are more widely and easily available. Intelligent would be another, along with interesting and a holdover from the previous ethos: industrious. But the crucial quality is probably insightful.” 

This article quotes Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of the British daily the Independent, deriding the notion “that a newspaper is going to be peoples’ first port of call to find out what’s going on . . . you have to add another layer: analysis, interpretation, point of view.” Kelner calls the Independent a “viewspaper.”

What a provocative idea from a young paper with a bold story. But European papers are generally more opinionated than their American counterparts. Is mainstream journalism in the United States ready for point of view? I hope the CJR piece starts that debate.

* * *

Entrepreneurial journalism? While CJR questions the canon of objectivity, the Sacramento Bee tinkers with the price of news. The Bee, flagship of the McClatchy Company, has created a premium website called Capitol Alert. For $499 per year lobbyists and political junkies will be able to get “exclusive blogs, expanded columns, e-mail updates . . .  (and viewing) three hours earlier than most of the next day’s paper appears online,” writes Paid Content.

It’s a fascinating experiment rife with ethical pitfalls. Will people really pay a premium just for faster access to the same political coverage as would appear in the paper or the regular online product? I think not. Vote-trading in Sacramento hardly proceeds at the same speed as stock trading on Wall Street so the time-value of political information would seem to be less than that of financial information.

So what else will the Bee throw into Capitol Alert? How about an annual schmoozefest with the paper’s political reporters and editors? Maybe a trade show or convention for political technology and campaign consultants? Is there a way for newspapers to make money from their influence – there’s a sixth “I” — without inviting damnation?

Let’s hope the Bee cracks the code on that because it could be salvation for beat reporting. As a Silicon Valley reporter for nearly 15 years, most of what I do is simplfy things without being wrong. Most of the specialized knowledge that I acquire gets left out. Is there a way to monetize it? And can I get a piece of the action?

* * *

And now a word from Google’s guru: This notion of charging more for premium coverage reminds me of something I heard late in 1994 or early in 1995, shortly after I returned to work at the San Francisco Examiner following a 12-day strike that I had feared would have ended my newspaper career.

Instead, I found myself dispatched one day to the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley to hear a visiting professor of finance from the University of Michigan give a talk about variable pricing. The details escape me but I  recall he cited the airlines as an industry that had created different price points, from coach to first class, by embellishing on the same basic service of safely conveying passengers from points A to B.

The professor was Hal Varian who, shortly thereafter, became dean of UC Berkeley’s iSchool. Nowadays Varian is a financial consultant to Google. While offering such advice presumably nets Varian a pretty penny, I note that he still offers a discount version of his pricing insights through the periodic columns he writes for the New York Times.