April 17, 2005

Tipping Point Roundup

The other day, when the latest circulation projections for U.S. newspapers were released, I speculated that the industry might be reaching a tipping point in its decline - a point of lost readership and revenue beyond which there is no recovery.

Jeff Jarvis sees signs of another tipping point - the ascendancy of citizen journalism to a level of acceptance by the legacy news media. Writes Jeff:

"It's wonderful watching what I think is a global warming in mainstream media toward citizens' media. We may just be at the tipping point."

He continues:

"I know of the heads of at least three national TV news operations who are eager to incorporate citizens' media; I know of more newspaper editors who are finally siddling up to the concept. I hear less and less of the dismissive jabs from big-time editors about small-time citizen journalists. Blogs are now a regular feature on MSNBC and CNN. Bloggers are getting quoted in newspapers and credited with big stories (Trend, Dan, et al). Newspapers are getting published with citizens' news."(Emphasis added.)

As Jeff points out, the big momentum driver during the week was Rupert Murdoch's I-got-religion-and-you-better-too speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.

Murdoch scolded the editors for their complacency, for "quietly hoping" - as he once did - "that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along" He continued:

"The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants Ö to apply a digital mindset to a new set of challenges. We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from." (Emphasis added.)

And that, Murdoch says, includes enabling community conversation and citizen journalism:

"Ö our internet site will have to do still more to be competitive. For some, it may have to become the place for conversation. The digital native doesn't send a letter to the editor anymore. She goes online, and starts a blog. We need to be the destination for those bloggers. We need to encourage readers to think of the web as the place to go to engage our reporters and editors in more extended discussions about the way a particular story was reported or researched or presented." (Emphasis added.)

Among the pioneers in integrating blogs into newspapers is Ken Sands, who runs the web operation for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Ken offered some good advice on the Media Centers' blog for traditional reporters who want to dive into the digital waters of blogging:

 Blogs should revolve around topics, not personalities.
 The subjects should be specific.
 Group blogs can work if the group is small, the subject is specific and the duties are carefully assigned and monitored.
 Remember that "our readers know more than we do."

Why should journalists blog? In addition to the arguments about transparency, communication and personality, Sands has one that will appeal to publishers: The "staff-written blogs (on spokesmanreview.com) account for about 12.5 percent of the traffic on the entire site."

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Posted by Tim Porter at April 17, 2005 04:56 PM

This "citizen media" stuff sounds suspiciously like when the tv networks introduced reality tv as a way of getting "real" people involved as a part of the programming. Rather, I think it is another way of cutting costs (like for tv broadcasters) by not having to pay journalists' salaries and back them with the resources for the tough investigative reporting of traditional newspapers. Instead I think we will get fluff and no-nothing opinion pieces. It's hardly the effort outlined by many in the profession for improving the quality of the craft.

Posted by: brian on April 19, 2005 12:22 AM

Buzz Merritt, former editor of Knight Ridder's Wichita Eagle, has a new book out called "Knightfall" documenting the rise of corporate journalism at papers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, The Detroit Free Press, The Charlotte Observer, and the San Jose Mercury News. There's an excerpt online at Poynter (http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=80915).

Posted by: Steve O'Keefe on April 20, 2005 09:39 AM

It's possible that local news, outside of anything but the most major markets, just isn't a sustainable business. It seems to me like we've tried everything: in my area, no less than financial geniuses Fidelity bought 80+ newspapers in a rollup, stripped them, made all the sections except the front 12-16 pages or so the same, and then sold it to Fidelity. Did this MBA-approved strategy work? No. The new parent company of the chain, Herald Media, had layoffs a few weeks ago.

Where I live, we have a chain weekly that has 1 reporter for a town of 34,000 people. I think he's actually really good -- in fact I'm amazed at how much stuff he puts out, and the quality, considering -- but it's not enough for a place of our size. When all the stories on the front page of your paper have the same byline, something's wrong.

There seems to be two kinds of "citizen media" outlets -- ones in major cities with lots of publications (more than one newspaper, three local tv affiliates, one or more weeklies, magazines, a business paper etc), and another type of citizens media in a place where there is little or no professional media.

The citizens' media projects in cities are what I call "miners" -- in large part, they point to articles in the big undifferentiated pile of media, picking out the funny/interesting stuff, and add original reviews, often of music, food, and local authors.

In the places where there's no media (and these aren't exclusively rural places, my town shares a border with Boston and has 8,000 people per square mile) the challenge is to document things that simply aren't being documented. These efforts might not be regarded as up to snuff by pros, but in an area where there's little or no information, any information is an improvement. (Plus some are a great read. I love the Seldovia Alaska Herald, a volunteer-produced news website. Hey, volunteer fire departments put out fires pretty good, too).

I kind of doubt that TV will be seeing citizen contribution anytime soon -- the cost of a digital video camera that will produce stuff you could broadcast on TV is still upwards of $1500.

Posted by: Lisa Williams on April 26, 2005 08:43 AM
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