I first set foot in a big city newsroom the night of the Landers earthquake in 1992 and ever since the ground beneath my desk has rarely stopped shaking. I’ve worked through a strike, a merger, the brief media boom coincident with the dot.com euphoria and now this long, depressing bust during which the debate seems to be whether newspapers are merely dazed or utterly doomed.
In these last 15 years, and most especially during the last 700 days of writing this personal blog about the upheaval in my industry, I’ve formed a few ideas about how newspapers could counter the financial and editorial challenges posed by web-based media.
In essence they must flatten their hierarchies and develop a two-stroke publishing engine.
Papers should direct copy editors, reporters and photographers to post everything and anything of interest on the web as soon as practical;let them build thousands of points of interest and contact between the website and the audience; let them follow their instincts as professional story-tellers in picking topics; but urge them to listen to tips and critiques. Follow the readers.
Editors should not so much direct the news as they should read their online editions to discover what topics have got their staffs and communities buzzing. From this listening post they should pick the stories that reflect the conversations and concerns of their audiences. The print edition would become a snapshot of the online conversation. Far more reflective of local interests, such a paper would presumably be more valuable to readers and advertisers alike.
Yesterday’s newspaper screamed: Extra, extra, read all about it. Tomorrow’s paper will ask: What that’s you’re doing? What are you guys talking about?
This approach toward newspapering is in keeping with the technology and the times. The hot websites today are all built around user participation. People want to be heard. They want attention. They are less interested in being lectured by their supposed betters.
I don’t believe this transformation is about media types. Adding sound or video to the text version of news is not going to be sufficient, although that must happen; newspapers must become newsgathering operations, producing the same story in as many media as make sense given the nature of the subject (if it doesn’t move, why shoot video?).
If newspapers, which play important roles as watchdogs and subject-matter experts, don’t learn how to adapt to user-involvement media, they will be supplanted by the websites that do form these participatory bonds between publication and audience.
Right now newspapers are in a race. They must ramp up readership and revenues online even as they try to defend the print franchises upon which upwards of 90 percent of their revenues now depend. This hybrid approach would allow newspapers to react as quickly as web-based startups while preserving the judgment and values that established their print brands.
In keeping with the new ethic, whaddya think?
(I found the above cartoon in the archives of artist Nataliedee.)
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