April 09, 2005

Circulation, No! Citizen, Si!

The newsreader today brings me links that portray vividly the two opposing, but connected trends in the newspaper business - the continuing collapse of print readership and the increasing recognition by news organizations that their future is digitally-based and community-powered.

First, Jeff Jarvis links to a story in Editor and Publisher reporting on the gloomy forecasts being made by major investment banks about newspaper circulation, which is expected to begin declining faster than its 1 percent historical average.

Merrill Lynch was succinct: "March ABC Figures likely to be ugly." The biggest forecast loser: The scandal-ridden Tribune Company with a "startling" 8 percent fall in circulation revenue. (At this rate, newspapers won't make to Phil Meyer's predicted end point of 2040.)

A good question to ask: At what point in the decline of an industry or a technology does it reach a tipping point? More specifically, when does newspaper marketplace penetration decline to the point where its business model - congregated eyeballs for advertising - fails?

The good news: Online revenue is rising at a double-digit pace. And, even though Merrill Lynch points out the online revenue "only represents 3-5% of revenues," we are seeing increasing evidence of newspaper companies preparing for the digital future I mentioned above.

The oft-cited investments by the New York Times in About.com and the Gannett, Knight-Ridder and Tribune in Topix.net certainly are indicators of this nascent shift in corporate attention away from print and toward digital.

Even more important, from my perspective, because of the need to traditional news companies to recognize and embrace the power of people to create and participate in their own media, is the spreading adoption of community journalism sites by these legacy news organizations.

When Steve Yelvington of Morris Digital Works announced his company's latest project, Bluffton Today, he called the new community newspaper and citizen-powered web site "a complete inversion of the typical 'online newspaper' model, an Internet-powered interactive community center." And so it is. Bluffton Today offers everyone in the community a free blog, photo gallery, calendar and more - creating content online that will end up in print. The shovel has changed hands.

Today, Steve points out that Bluffton Today is part of a growing list of similar projects. Among them:

 YourHub.com - a pending Rocky Mountain News venture where people can "share stories/photos, share opinions, add events, sell something." It's planned for 37 neighborhoods in the Denver area.
 Blount County Voice - a community site in Maryville, Tennessee, which Steve says has "a companion weekly newspaper" and is similar to the Bakersfield Californian's Northwest Voice.

Ken Sands, the online publisher for the Spokesman-Review, writes in a post on morph, the Media Center blog, that "the evolution of citizen journalism on mainstream news sites may seem painfully slow, but the experiments to date are making significant - albeit incremental - advances."

Cyberjournalist.net, also part of Media Center, has a lengthy list of citizen-journalism projects, but Sands also highlights examples of incidences where citizens have created "journalistic" content on their own because their local news organizations are not meeting their needs. Here's one: A Madison, Wis., citizen "frustrated with the level of coverage of local school board elections a year ago (and again this year) created his own very simple, very detailed Web site of voter information."

The folks at Pegasus News, a just unwrapped hyper-local news project in Texas, also have a good list. Here's Barista.net, which covers parts of northern New Jersey with personality you won't find in a local newspaper.

The relevance of newspapers, especially local newspapers, will continue to wither in the face of technologies that create micro-publishing - and business - opportunities for anyone with a something to say (or sell) and a broadband connection. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]

Newspaper companies can survive, however - and therefore create opportunities for journalism to survive - by embracing change instead of rejecting it.

Clearly, the examples above show an awakening realization by news companies that their communications and commerce model is becoming obsolete. Unfortunately, this awareness remains limited to a select few. The upcoming convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, for example, contains only one hour of discussion over three days on the future of newspapers and no time devoted to the idea of citizen journalism.

The convention isn't even offering a wireless connection in its public meeting rooms. An ASNE spokesperson told me most attendees don't bring laptops and there will be a hard-wired "Internet café" for checking email.

An Internet café? How 1998! The whole world has become an Internet café. In a wireless world, this view seems awfully clueless.

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Posted by Tim Porter at April 9, 2005 11:02 AM

Newspaper publishers can and will survive the collective and disaggregating impact of broadband and citizen journalism. It is the small business retail and distribution channel which faces a bigger risk. They are the middle-men (persons) who will be discarded by the publishers in the rush to shorten the distance between manufacturer and consumer.

These small business operators cannot see, yet, that the supply chain model which has been at the heart of their operation for over a century has been replaced by a new model which does not require a supply chain.

In the UK, Australia and New Zealand there are thousands of small family businesses which face a challenged future. More than 50% of their customer traffic is generated by mainstream media product.

Posted by: mark fletcher on April 9, 2005 06:46 PM
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