December 22, 2004

Newspapers: Indistinct Equals Extinct

As RSS migrates (slowly, it seems) from the laptops of the few to the screens of the many, it begs answers for how to define it in everyday language and for what affect it will have the media it so handily delivers. One answer to the first question leads directly to further consideration of the second.

In a short piece about RSS the other day, Business Week proffered the description, "Your Online Paperboy." I like that because the anticipation I feel each morning when I open up Bloglines and see the updates from the 50 or so feeds I've chosen replicates the feeling I have each morning when I walk out onto the deck and to pick up what the old-media paperboy (in reality, paper-adult) has delivered, a San Francisco Chronicle, a New York Times and a Wall Street Journal.

I, a Boomer journalist who has cut my teeth on so many forms of media that they are now worn to blunt nubbins, will likely always "take" a newspaper, but my successors won't and that should be a critical concern for newspapers.

How, then, if newspapers intend to not only survive financially but also maintain their relevance as a community institution, will they service readers who can assemble from thousands of information sources a unique publication that will be delivered by that online paperboy to their computer or cell phone?

Simon Waldman, the digital publishing boss for Guardian Newspapers, frames the issue this way (in response to a comment by Jay Rosen):

"We're moving from a world where for reasons of time, effort and general sanity we have relied on a relatively small number of sources to tell us what's happening in the world and to find out information that's of interest to us. As Jay says, our information consumption is more like a sightseeing tour: visiting as many or as few places as we have time for. And, if we don't go there, we simply don't know what we're missing.

"The means of consuming media: ie visiting websites, dictates what we actually consume. Now, this is much more promiscuous, wide ranging and possibly global than most of us have ever been in print…but I sense it is simply the start.

"We are moving to a world where - from a single interface - we can keep tabs on many, many, many more sources of all different types of information (as long as we can understand the set up proceedure). … What we're seeing is the creation of personalised information hypermarkets. And as with the creation of any hypermarket, we are all struggling for shelf space. (All emphasis added.)"

This view of the news media world differs profoundly from the insular perspective from which most newspapers regard their communities. Traditional journalists identify their competitors as other media entities (TV, magazines, Internet) or societal conditions (lack of time, two-job households) and fail to consider at any length the greater dangers posed to their standing by behavioral shifts driven by technology. As Waldman points out, "the real change is about what happens at the receiving end, not the distribution end."

In Mark Glaser's excellent article today in Online Journalism Review, Jay Rosen (again) responds to Glaser's request for list of top five most influential media events or people in 2004 with this (as No. 4):

"Dan Gillmor because he published "We the Media," which means that journalists have no excuse for failing to grasp what is happening with technology, the Net, the press and the public."

A year and a half ago, Gillmor wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that "interactive technology … is not a threat. It is an opportunity." I echoed that sentiment in August when I wrote that "when fragmentation is commonplace, focus is a differentiator" and newspapers have an opportunity to distinguish themselves with quality journalism that is unique to each community.

Returning to Waldman, he concludes his post with this:

"In a world of a million feeds: there has never been a greater need for distinctive, intelligent reporting, comment and analysis that can stand up even when shorn of its traditional context and design. Indistinct products die in hypermarkets." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, what type of journalism can a newspaper produce that has enough depth, or even just interest or everyday utility, that people will read it regardless of platform?

There is a singular answer to that question for each newspaper and it lies in the nature of the community it serves. Yesterday, I wrote:

"The time is past for newspapers to be all things to all people. That formula is broken. Communities are too diverse and resources too limited to cover everything."

Yet, as much as newspapers fail to grasp the basic significance of the web, they also disregard the importance of a unique, community-focused product and continue to fill their columns with generic stories either generated by wire services or, even worse, written in wire-service mimicry by staff reporters.

Today, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle devoted a reporter's day and about 15 inches on its Business section cover to a story about the sale of Slate to the Washington Post. Should the Chron publish a story about the sale? Of course. Should the paper assign a reporter to write it? Of course not. What, beside one quote from someone at UC-Berkeley, does a staff-written story about the sale of magazine located in one Washington to a newspaper located in another Washington add in terms of value to readers in San Francisco? Nothing.

Regional newspapers like the Chronicle devote tremendous resources to duplicating routine coverage provided by the wires and other syndicated news services largely as a matter of newsroom ego. But what these papers gain in self-puffery, they lose in distinctive local identity. And, ultimately, in the days to come, that uniqueness will be all they have to offer. It's time to bury ego and resurrect local.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 22, 2004 09:58 AM

We've compiled an updated (and updatable) list of newspapers with RSS feeds at

Currently there are 83 papers with RSS feeds.

Posted by: Kevin Reynen on February 18, 2005 10:08 PM
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