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    Imagining a Future Tense for Newspapers

    by Mark Glaser
    February 23, 2007

    i-b1a74b831f6d97e90004bc0329c12bb5-newspaper boxes.jpg
    It’s easy to criticize the humble newspaper as being outmoded, out of style and out of business options. What’s far more difficult is to imagine how newspapers can take their goodness — the award-winning investigative reports, the service journalism, the knowledge of the community — and combine that with new technology and the Internet to reach and interact with an enlightened, empowered audience.

    Already, newspapers big and small have talked the talk of a new way of doing journalism and reaching these audiences, and some have even walked the walk. The Greensboro News & Record has been a blogging pioneer, the Spokane Spokesman-Review has made transparency a priority, and the Wisconsin State Journal has let the audience vote on front page stories. And the Bakersfield Californian and Rocky Mountain news have had success with hyperlocal citizen media sites.

    So perhaps together we can come up with a list of ways in which newspapers can enter this new age while retaining their goodness, and remain relevant whether they are delivered online or via new devices or on dead trees. I’ll kick off the list with a few items, and have repurposed an item from a recent Jeff Jarvis blog post on BuzzMachine on this subject.

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    Imagining a Future for Newspapers

    The way it is: Editors assign stories to reporters.
    The way it will be: The community helps with story generation through special online forums, blogs and other interactive mechanisms.

    The way is: Editors choose which letters to print in the Letters to the Editor section.
    The way it will be: An online forum allows all letters to be posted in full.

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    The way it is: A story runs in the newspaper and is posted online on the newspaper website. Perhaps another day, the reporter files a follow-up story.
    The way it will be: The story runs in the newspaper and is posted online, and then is constantly updated by editors, the reporter and the readers in the community.

    The way it is: Newspapers are printed and delivered to homes and businesses.
    The way it will be: Newspaper content is beamed to special reader devices that are lightweight, flexible and use low power.

    The way it is: Breaking news happens in a community, and a reporter is sent to the scene.
    The way it will be: Breaking news happens, and the editors and reporter scour the neighborhood for people on-the-scene who might have taken photos, videos or can write up a citizen reports on what happened.

    The way it is: We consider paid reporters and editors to be professional journalists and everyone else is an amateur with questionable skills.
    The way it will be: We consider everyone to be potential journalists, and there are shades of gray between who is a pro and who is an amateur.

    The way it is: Newspapers try to cover all the news themselves.
    The way it will be: “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.” — Jeff Jarvis

    More from Jeff Jarvis:

    The way it is: Newspapers are all things to all people.
    The way it will be: Newspapers do what they do best, which is usually local.

    The way it is: Newspapers have deadlines and editions.
    The way it will be: Newspapers are never done. (See NPR’s effort to start the show that’s never over.)

    The way it is: Newsrooms are temples (with reporters and editors as a priesthood holding onto what they think are unique skills).
    The way it will be: Newsrooms are classrooms (where it is in their interest to improve the journalism done in their larger networks).

    The way it is: Newsrooms.
    The way it will be: Cars.

    From Barbara Iverson:

    The way it is: Reporters are discouraged from or sanctioned for “self-plagiarism” — using the same source to produce different takes on a story.
    The way it will be: Reporters will write about issues and ideas across several media, linking to the related stories they write, often with input from readers.

    From Ujjwal Acharya:

    The way it is: Newspapers can have a website.
    The way it will be: The news site can have a newspaper.

    From Gil Zino:

    The way it is: Papers compile a slim sliver of the overall content, and send duplicate copies of the sliver down a one-way street to each unique individual that reads the paper.
    The way it will be: Communities build content, and people interact with the content that matters to them.

    From Karl Martino:

    The way it is:: Newspapers judge readership size/demographics via subscription numbers and use these numbers to make themselves attractive to classified advertisers.
    The way it will be: A combination of metrics that combine traffic with online relationships/connectivity statistics will become the new way news sites make themselves attractive to advertisers.

    The way it is: Newspapers finance the cost of in-depth journalism via the selling of classifieds.
    The way it will be: I have no idea.
    I think newspapers will need to find a new business model online that works and is sustainable. They will likely have to shrink their full-time staffs and depend more on freelancers and the audience to help them with investigative reports.

    I invite you to add your own items in the comments below, and try to keep it in the realm of newspapers. We’ve done similar exercises in the past covering the shifting philosophy of all media — the Oldthink vs. Newthink list. I hope we can revisit this topic for TV, radio, music and movies in future posts, and make this more of a utilitarian list. I’ll also invite a few people who’ve been around newspapers for some time to submit their ideas, and will update the list with their input and yours — with credit.

    UPDATE: There’s been a nice response to my post so far, with Jeff Jarvis calling it a memegame. Jarvis points to some examples to back up my entries above, including Wired magazine’s efforts at transparency and The Economist running all its letters to the editor online. Jarvis doesn’t subscribe to a future with e-paper or e-ink, but thinks cell phones might play a role. “We need innovation,” he says. “Who cares about the gadget. Get me the news.” Jarvis adds some nice entries to the list as well, which I’ve included above.

    The anonymous author of the Fading to Black blog (“A look at the downward spiral of the newspaper industry…”) doesn’t believe that the audience will realistically help with editing tasks. Here’s part of this blogger’s rebuttal to my future where the audience helps with newsgathering:

    Overall, people are too lazy for this to become true. Nothing against the average citizen — we all want to read the story, we all want it laid out for us, not work for it. If we get upset, we may write a letter to the editor. If we see something missing or wrong in a story, we might call up or email to point it out. But do not think for a second more than a hundredth of a percent of the public is interested in getting involved with the news more than talking to a reporter or perhaps sending in a photo or video. Pretty much the same as it is done today.

    Yes, there should be changes. Some have re-thought things already and implemented changes, and the rest no doubt will eventually (or at least see the light on their deathbeds). Certainly, keep readers involved in a greater capacity than before. But the idea of the general public taking an active role in the news they read is akin to thinking everybody with a shovel will chip in with road repairs in front of their home.

    I think this is overstating the case. Sure, not everyone will help you edit your stories or generate ideas, but if even if a small percentage does, it will increase the value of what you do as a news organization — and help create a community newsgathering operation.

    UPDATE 2: I guess this really is turning into a memegame, as Jarvis surmised. The newspaper change meme has been turned into an education change meme by edu-blogger Miguel Guhlin, who repurposed my own list and turned them into “The Way It Is” and “The Way It Will Be” for educators and students in a new age. Plus, he took the next logical step of putting his list into a wiki for anyone to edit or add particular examples.

    Guhlin’s list has even spawned a counter-argument from Stephen Downes, who calls Guhlin’s first list “nothing more than slogans carelessly applied.” Downes makes some good points that even apply to what we’re doing here about newspapers. Here’s the gist of his complaints:

    The future is much more difficult to grasp than a mere set of slogans. Fundamental values are shifting under our feet. Pretending it’s something superficial, as represented by this list, won’t change that. It is important to have an accurate representation of the issues, so people can genuinely understand what they are facing.

    My hope is that these slogans about newspapering will be put into practice so that we’ll have plenty of examples of success into the future. And if the future brings something radically different, so be it.

    Photo of newspaper boxes by iirraa.

    Tagged: journalism new media newspapers
    • The old ways such as “Editors assign stories to reporters” and “Editors choose which letters to print in the Letters to the Editor section” are dying hard. But editors pushing their personal agendas on the rest of us absolutely is a dying phenonenon, especially in situations where a paper has a monopoly position in a given local market. And those editors and their publishers know it. People just stop reading. The power base of those editors is eroding, and large numbers of them are surely dreaming about doing something else. Starting a blog? Organic farming? Writing poetry? Anything but the newspaper business.

      The Wisconsin State Journal is letting readers vote on front page stories? Wow. Somehow I can’t see the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ever getting to that, but it has to be making the powers that be there (the powers that were?) more than nervous. The demise of the newspaper model in the broader sense, nationally, has been surprising in its velocity. What the Star-Trib plasters on its front page continually amazes me — and lately it almost seems to just drip of their editors declaring, “We’re not going down easy, folks. You’ll read our drivel and like it!” But a large part of their market increasingly just doesn’t read it. They have other news sources they trust, instantly available anywhere and everywhere they care to click. Newspapers must simply change or die, and they can start with their editors. Blatantly biased editors pushing their personal agendas in a monopoly market? Bye, bye!

    • The way it is: Reporters are discouraged from or sanctioned for “self-plagiarism” — using the same source to produce different takes on a story.

      The way it will be: Reporters will write about issues and ideas across several media, linking to the related stories they write, often with input from readers.

    • The Way It Is: Newspapers can have a website.
      The Way It Will Be: The news site can have a newspaper.

    • Excellent analysis. I’m constantly being amazed by how technology is changing this mediascape. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Today, papers compile a slim sliver of the overall content, and send duplicate copies of the sliver down a one-way street to each unique individual that reads the paper.

      Tomorrow, communities build content, and people interact with the content that matters to them.

      “Newspapers” that survive will take their “goodness” and add value to multiple steps of this process: expert content creation; content aggregation, filtering, and correlation; content packaging; content distribution; etc.

    • The Way It Is: Newspapers judge readership size/demographics via subscription numbers and use these numbers to make themselves attractive to classified advertisers.
      The Way It Will Be: A combination of metrics that combine traffic with online relationships/connectivity statistics will become the new way news sites make themselves attractive to advertisers.

      The Way It Is: Newspapers finance the cost of in-depth journalism via the selling of classifieds.
      The Way It Will Be: I have no idea.

    • Thanks for the inspiration, Mark! The original list Stephen criticized Doug Johnson’s (Blue Skunk Blog) creation. I revamped the list yet again (which appears at the wiki link you provided above), and with a new blog entry at:
      http://www.mguhlin.net/archives/2007/02/entry_2894.htm

      Wishing you well,
      Miguel Guhlin
      Around the Corner-MGuhlin.net
      http://www.mguhlin.net

    • I always wondered who buys all those new versions of the Chop-A-Matic each year, and I’m now convinced it’s newspaper professionals. Good grief, readers have ALWAYS driven everything we do in this business. We put things on P-1 because we think those are the stories readers will like best. Technology now allows us almost instant feedback for this practice.
      Reporters are almost NEVER at the scene of news, but instead are ALWAYS scouring the neighborhood for witnesses.
      Newspapers have ALWAYS had rewrite desks that translate converstations with the observant folks who aren’t able to write an understandable recipe.
      I marvel how so many people in the newspaper business think that even though not much has changed about humans during the last few thousand years as made clear by archeologists today’s humans suddenly are a different creature and things will never be the same.
      Sorry, I think too many are overwhelmed by rapidly changing technology and confuse fads with fundamental behaviors.
      I have file cabinets stuffed with yellowing reports on HOW IT WILL BE, all testaments to how it has stayed the same.
      Lead type gave way to cameras, wich gave way to PDFs, so it’s not much of a stretch to see that the aging newspaper will give way to some sort of electronic reader.
      I think people will always want to know what all those sirens were late last night, or what inane thing Tom Cruise told Oprah from his rest-home sofa, and the next generation of newspapers will be the ones to tell them.

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