Newsroom culture, beyond dysfunctional?


To Eric Brazil who told me of the beauty of the desert bloom  

(I’m still at Joshua Tree National Park pondering the future of the Fourth Estate and my role in it. This prior posting is suggestive of my line of thought.)

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The great hope of hard-pressed newspapers has been that their online traffic and revenues would rise soon enough and fast enough to replace their evaporating print advertising. But there is some evidence (as I’ve blogged once or twice before) that traffic flows to most online news sites have flattened. While a few national and brand name online dailies continue to grow, the rest of the online dailies stagnate. 

That’s the gist of a Harvard study at the heart of this concern. Paid Content editor Rafat Ali has raised a red flag about the study’s traffic-counting methodology. So don’t take it as gospel. But the concern about a traffic slowdown rings true to me because it fits the way the web has evolved. Local newspapers had a natural advantage when they went online a decade ago because they could repurpose print content for Web 1.0. Their competitors had to create content.

But Web 2.0 is not about content. For one thing search has commodotized content.  It has unwrapped and aggregated content in an efficient way that feeds people all the news they could possibly want by grazing the web. This invites nomadic behavior at odds with the old habit of newspaper subscribership, and helps create what Steve Yelvington recently called a promiscuous news audience – a term he took from the “nut graf” of research from the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company:

“The research — an online survey of 2,100 consumers in the United States — found that the respondents divide their time among as many as 16 news brands a week. ‘Brand promiscuity,’ it appears, is the norm.”

So content is not the king of Web 2.0. In fact it may be closer to the harlot. Content is a good way to draw a click. But in a promiscuous world the quality content is unlikely to make the visitor stick. Media compete in an Attention Economy. Media thrive or fail depending upon how much time people spend with them. That’s why Web 2.0 sites emphasize community, conversation, connections, voting – anything to create involvement and buy-in.

 None of this — not this thought process of involvement, not the inclusive technologies of Web 2.0 — are native to the newspaper newsroom. Newspaper sites could do well, at least traffic-wise, in the first wave of the web because it was just like printing only without the paper. But a lot has changed in this new web. So much so that I wonder how much of this ethos of participation and involvement has filtered into the American newsroom?

(Special thanks to Der Cuz, who saw Steve Yelvington’s remark picked up in a post by Mike Masnick of Techdirt.)