Monday, October 24, 2005

How to Save the Traditional Newsroom

In the last post I said I had no ideas about how to fix newspapers. Well, now I do, thanks in large part to a brainstorming IM session with my co-worker John Moran.

I think John Cass is on the right track when he points to hyperlocal journalism as a key element in fixing newspapers, but I think it's only a start. There are a number of hyperlocal sites out there (I've talked a bit about but can these help make money?

The real problem, as I see it, is that newspapers had that role as community source but lost it.
Frankly, I'm not sure they ever knew they had it, but it's what gave them power.

Often you hear journalists talk about their role as storyteller at the proverbial campfire. The image is of ancient humans sitting around at night, not long after feasting on their latest kill, telling tales of the hunt. One person leads telling everyone what happened that day, all other tribe members rapt with attention.

Great image, but wrong. The campfire is a circle not a stage. It's not just one story being told but many. People are talking to each other, some are calling out their own stories. It's an organized cacophony.

But all this times newspapers looked at themselves as the source for information. The one place local residents turned for news. And with older technologies, like newsprint, TV or radio, they were right.

So, what do they have now? Let's just take the example of the New York Times. As far as I'm concerned the paper's biggest asset is trust. People trust the information in it. Yes, you hear a lot of grumbling about inaccuracies in the Times, but for the most part this is where America turns when it truly wants information about the world.

This is also why the cases of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller hit so hard, they struck at the very trust that we, the readers, hold dear.

So, how would I fix it? First, I'd put all online content behind the pay firewall except for breaking news. Yes, you heard me right. I'd make people pay for content. In a move similar to what they've already done with select content, I'd make it so regular print subscribers easily get passwords so they can log in as well.

The argument that people won't pay for content is bunk. They will. How many people pay for HBO? I have DirecTV just so I can get Jets games on Sundays here in New England. Then there is cable penetration, which is very high in this country.

What would Times readers get for their money? It has to be more than just news, they have to become part of a community.

Readers should be allowed to post hyper-local content. Since registration will probably contain a certain amount of geographical information on each subscriber, a reader in Hackensack, New Jersey should automatically receive content that comes from other readers in their area.

However, a community is more than just about geography, it's also about likes and dislikes.

This is where things get very interesting. People who buy their way in must be allowed to comment on stories, not just in letters to the editor or in forums (though, these should still exist) but in comments attached directly to the story. What's more, they should be able to create their own spaces within the New York Times site, being able to focus the news as they see fit, a place where people can "clip" stories or even have searches on terms that are important to them. But here's the kicker: that should be public, this way other others can follow the various editions of the paper. Leaders would arise, just as they have in the blogosphere.

Along the way the Times would be collecting information on its readers, and then feeding content to the readers based on their interest. This isn't Earth-shattering technology, Google does it daily by feeding ads based on what's written in a blog or even in our emails.

And yes, I know that this kind of idea is called a blog or wiki, but I don't want to be bound by those titles. Newspaper sites must find ways to harness the power laid out before them, while levering the trust they earned by delivering us the news for the last century.

Once they have this community, they may earn back the classified ads or other revenue-producing concepts that could save them from financial ruin.

There's obviously more to explore here, like how to take lessons learned by gamers to make massive amounts of information easier to absorb.


Mike Sansone said...

You're right,Chuck. People are willing to pay for good and unique content. ESPN is a good example, as they now have most of their columnists to that area.

They began the "insider" content area several years ago and have now added their prize columns. I sure miss reading Peter Gammons (I chose not to subscribe), but I know others that have and continue to rant/rave about it.

However, I'm not so sure the wire-type stories should ever be pay-per-read. In Des Moines, the Register could put columnists, series, and special local sections in a paid subscription, especially if it's additional info from what the print version includes - I'd pay for that.

Chuck Tanowitz said...

You're right, wire-type stories should stay outside the firewall. In my mind I lumped them in with "breaking news."

There will need to be an internal differentiation between wire stories and original content. In a place like the Times, I wouldn't expect that to be difficult, especially with recent dictates that require editors to list everyone involved in a story.

But I remember working in TV in which we regularly mixed video from multiple sources for voice overs or reporter packages. Separating that out later, in the system we used, would have been impossible.

But I can't speak for all newsrooms.

Lisa said...

I was thinking about this today. Some thoughts.

In the blog world, and online generally, few people are willing to pay for stuff they haven't gotten yet (subscriptions). However, blog readers have been found to be unusually receptive for paying for what they *have* gotten. Kevin Sites financed his trip to Iraq through Paypal donations; Josh Marshall ditto on his coverage of the NH primaries. Blog readers have raised thousands in a week for the medical concerns of bloggers (Look at Terry Heaton and Steve Gilliard).

I suspect one online model that might actually work doesn't look like subscription + advertising but instead looks like pledge + underwriters. In short, it looks more like public radio. I think online news sites must ask for more from their advertisers, for longer fixed terms, and enable tip-jar donations and pledge drives around popular areas of content readers are willing to support.

Talking privately to another local newsblogger who has a commercially successful local newsblog, they said that they do it the old fashioned way -- going out and getting advertisers through face to face meetings. Advertisers pay a fixed amount for a space over a time duration (a week, or a month). Rates are pegged to what the local paper gets for display ads. No clickthrough measurement. Advertisers pay up front.

Only sites that are targeted to segments that have big clickthrough reimbursement, like Gizmodo or Engadget, are going to make a lot of money on Google ads and other clickstream platforms. For one thing, there's very little focused, targeted local advertising through Google; I see this on my own Google ad block -- ads are generic. I'm not interested in clicking on them and my readers probably aren't either. What advertisers target ads to Tom DeLay's mugshot, anyway?

My costs are very low, and H2otown is something I love doing, so I'm perfectly happy that Google ads cover my hosting costs and my Starbucks tab for now. My youngest won't be in school for another three years. I figure if I do it for that long, I may have built H2otown into enough of an institution that I can then go out and monetize it with ads at good rates from local businesses. At that point I can decide whether I want to do that, or to do something else -- not H2otown related -- to make money. In either scenario I'd love to keep doing it.

One thing that I think about is that we may simply have lived through a historical blip in which it was possible to have a commercially viable business as a local newspaper. I may live to see the day where Watertown doesn't have a newspaper anymore. In that case, volunteer media, supported by an underwriter/pledge model, is a far sight better than no media. Combined with the subscription/advertiser sponsored model for the paper version, it could provide a soft landing or even something better for today's newspapers. I certainly hope so, I love newspapers.

John Cass said...

I think the book "we the media," by Dan Gillmor provides an excellent overview of the realities facing the mass media business. There is also a companion blog.

Lisa, I was wondering if any local people ever send you tips about Watertown. Is there a way to grow your blog faster by involving more citizen journalists?

John Cass said...

Hi Lisa,

Ah, I was looking at the wrong blog. It seems you are already encouraging people to sign up at citizen journalists and blog. Looks like a great site. Besides I wonder if there are any other local sites in the Boston area.


Chuck Tanowitz said...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your comment.

I think that's an interesting take, but while the NPR model may work for sites built from the ground up with little or no overhead (like yours)it doesn't do much to support a behemoth like the Globe. In that case there are a lot of reporters and editors. Now, maybe the system is bloated and maybe it can be trimmed, but what would that do to the quality of the reporting? Something like the Globe Spotlight section takes time and money to do.

Yes, WBUR does some great work, but the model is difficult to sustain and rather cumbersome. Do we want Web sites that spend weeks without any content so they can beg for money?

If you go off and do something else, leaving H2oTown as an interesting hobby or to run itself, then that puts us in a different area with corporate-supported journalism. I wrote about this before in regards to Robert Scoble.

One of the advantages of an independent press is that it is, in fact, independent. Relying on a number of advertisers makes it beholden to no one. But if you are paid by a corporation, let's just say for arugment's sake Raytheon, then you're less likely to be critial of Raytheon, even when it comes to matters related to Watertown. Balancing those two factors becomes very difficult.

The same would go for anyone. Maybe I'm overthinking the issue, but it's one worth discussing.