June 30, 2005

Debating the Future of Newspapers

A frothy conversation is bubbling through the online-news listserv about the New York Times weekender aoubt the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, which the Times dubbed as the newspaper of the future for its multiple platforms, citizen participation and local, local news.

Read the story. It's a good starting point to think about changes any newspaper can make.

What I want to share, though, is part of an online-news comment made by Howard Owens, the new media director for the Ventura (Calif.) County Star, a pretty innovative paper in its own right. Here's what Owens said about newspapers and their role in community (all emphasis added):

If you're at a newspaper that has your community's name in the masthead, you are the glue that binds that community together. You are its hub and its spokes (to mix metaphors).

Over the last thirty years or so, I think a lot of us in the newspaper business have forgotten our roots. We've struggled to become more objective, to be more professional, and sloughed off the chicken dinners and Eagle Scout promotions to interns, if they're covered at all. And as professionals, we've totally stigmatized covering such hyper-local news. No reporter wants to spend a Wednesday evening hearing about the Rotary scholarship winners. We all want to find out how the mayor is misappropriating cable franchise funds.

The whole argument that opening some of our news hole up to citizen journalism will dilute our brand or weaken our credibility is a bit paranoid. Being the voice of the people, and giving them voice, and helping to connect and bind our communities is part of our DNA and a prime part of our mission. It's how we can best serve our readers, our communities and our advertisers. It is our past, and it is our future. We simply have to do it.

Don't call it citizen journalism, if you object to that phrase. But figure out how to do it, how to manage it, how to make it core to who you are. If you don't, you have no future. Just like the publishers of the past, we have to learn to adapt the very definition of what we do to reach a bigger audience. It's the only way to survive, because if we don't do it, Craig Newmark, or Backfence, or some other entrepreneur will.

Let me repeat that: "Helping connect and bind our communities is part of our DNA and a prime part of our mission."

Don't reflect the community. Be the community.

Posted by Tim Porter at June 30, 2005 08:36 AM

My concern is that these arguments seem to suggest that newspapers should migrate away from their traditional role of gathering and publishing news, toward becoming a community forum instead. The implied "instead" is what is bothersome.

Posted by: Terry Steichen on June 30, 2005 07:33 PM

I don't believe that this is an either/or situation, Terry. These arguments encourage greater engagement of readers and potential readers, which should only serve to improve the task of gathering and publishing the news (additional blatherings on this at my site).

Posted by: Derek Willis on July 1, 2005 08:32 AM

What I'm suggesting, Terry, is that we should evolve out thinking about journalism to include a stronger local focus, more hyper-local news, more engagement with the community, so that we can (hopefully) develop a stronger business model in order that we can continue to support big-J Journalism. Journalism as we now know is not a sustainable business model. We either adapt or die.

Posted by: Howard Owens on July 1, 2005 02:25 PM

Derek: Limited resources force it into more of an either/or situation than it should be. That and the limitations of management attention. I agree that more reader involvement *can* enhance reporting. But, if not managed carefully, it can also serve to distract from the (to my point of view) more difficult and essential tasks centering on reporting.

Also, I looked for the "additional blatherings on this" at your site, but failed to find them. Could you post a link?

Posted by: Terry Steichen on July 1, 2005 05:22 PM

Terry, your concerns about limited management attention and reader involvement becoming a distraction are real. But they also are solvable with a change in attitude, approach and priorities: Management has to commit to change, and the newsroom has to figure out how to engage with readers in a productive way.

A challenge? Sure. More for some news organizations than for others. But anyone who doesn't take on this challenge will stagnate.

And the companies that are up to these challenges will move closer to creating successful products that have a chance of addressing the problem of limited resources.

Posted by: Ari Soglin on July 2, 2005 02:48 PM

Ari, with all due respect, "successful products" will not "address the problem of limited resources" until the bean counters address the problem of an out-of-date, unsustainable business model. We in News can give them information and support on why this is necessary and a Good Thing, and even can give them suggestions on possible alternatives, but we CANNOT DO THEIR JOBS FOR THEM. We don't have the time, but more importantly, we don't have the authority. At some point, they have to realize that the industry has reached a fork in the road, and the fork that points toward maintaining artificially high margins is the fork that also dead-ends. And they have to act accordingly.

Posted by: Lex Alexander on July 6, 2005 12:33 PM
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