Three Possible Answers for the News Business
April 29, 2009 10:25 AM
The New York Times carried three very interesting articles on the future of newspapers recently (I read them in the actual physical newspaper and got newsprint on my fingers and everything. It was very retro and cool).
The first one, "News Without Newspapers," described the new "hyperlocal" reporting. The idea is to group all kinds of information on a single website down to a neighborhood level. This can be anything from the rants of neighborhood bloggers, to the police crime report for your sector, to the announcement of a new coffee shop, to the neighborhood association newsletter. The biggest experiment in this kind of thing is an outfit called EveryBlock, backed with a $1.1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. But for $1.1 million, it seems to me that Knight could get something better than this from Adrian Holovaty who founded EveryBlock. When asked what would happen to his site if he lost the content produced by real newspapers he said that blogs and miscellaneous information would provide "plenty of stuff for us to publish." Yeah, sure they would. And it would be plenty of "stuff" alright: disconnected police reports without context, the unedited opinions of bloggers and (worse) elected officials, announcements of bake sales presented alongside real neighborhood and city issues as if they carry the same weight. It's plenty of stuff, but it doesn't count for news.
The second article, "Papers Try to Get Out Of a Box," was about how the Associated Press is starting to move toward charging for content. (Yes! I'm convinced that this has to be part of the solution to save good journalism.) What's particularly galling to the A.P. is that their reporters and editors produce stories that are then pirated (there's no better word for it) by other sites, which then sell advertising to accompany it. In other words, none of that ad revenue goes to the people who gathered and wrote the news. It goes to middle men who did basically nothing. An A.P. official is quoted as actually saying, "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore." Good for him.
The last story, "In Boston, Paper's Peril Hits a Chord," is about the effort to save another great daily paper, the Boston Globe. Mayor Tom Menino said about the Globe what I've often said about the State Journal: "I have disagreements with the Globe, but what's good for Boston? To have them not here would be a big hole in our life." Some in Boston are talking about taking control of the paper out of the hands of the dreaded New York Times Company and establishing local ownership. Some have even suggested something along the lines of how Green Bay residents own the Packers. (And what could be a better model for everything that is true, right and just in this world?)
It seems to me that the answers to the churn in the news business might be in there somewhere among those three articles. Get users like me to pay for online content, don't allow advertising revenue to get siphoned off by middle men who don't produce anything and rely more on local investors (maybe even very small ones like Packer shareholders I own one share myself) who are in it more for the civic importance of a good newspaper then to make a buck.