I was talking with someone the other day about the future of newspapers. That seems like the topic du jour with anyone in the news business, or anyone who follows the media. I brought up the recent imbroglio over people who believe that investigative journalism will die with the newspaper printing presses, and I was asked, “Well, how will newspapers transition to the web if that’s where everyone is going to read them?”
It’s a good question, and my answer is an obvious follow-up to my recent diatribe, Serious Journalism Won’t Die as Newsprint Fades. I think that newspapers need to make the transition to a digital newsroom in both deed and in mindset. Newspapers from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the entire Gannett chain have made pronouncements about the web being their primary outlet, with print being secondary. But how do you put that into action?
The following is a breakdown of how I see such an online newspaper of the future working. As with other lists, I’m going to keep this open to your contributions, and will add them in (with a credit to you).
How the Newspaper of the Future Will Operate Online
> Include outside voices in every phase of editorial planning, newsgathering, reporting and follow-up. That means that you bring in community members to town hall-style editorial meetings, you put out feelers on blogs and forums for possible subjects to cover, you query databases of citizen journalists when looking for expert sources, and you allow comments and email replies on stories to fix mistakes and follow-up.
> Reorganize newspaper sites into a series of micro-sites on niche topics. Each regular topic of coverage would have its own website: a local sports team, the city council, a business sector, a popular type of local music, each neighborhood, etc. A paid editor/reporter a.k.a. “The Topic Chief” would be assigned to run each niche site, with a main blog showcasing reporting as well as aggregation of other coverage on the same topic. There would be tiers of contributors, from the Topic Chief being full time, a crew of freelance writers or bloggers being paid a bit less, and citizen reporters or commenters doing volunteer work — with the opportunity to move up the ladder with good work.
> Look for paid staffers with multiple skillsets. The Topic Chief of the future (and present) will do more than one thing well. This person will report and write stories or blog posts, record audio podcasts, and/or go on-camera for video reports. Each Chief will have multimedia in their DNA, and will also have the community skills necessary to collaborate more with the other readers/contributors.
> Reach out to the community for bloggers, muckrakers and go-to experts. Each topic area would require more than just reacting to news. The Topic Chief would be sure to enlist as many experts as possible not only to be sources but to also be contributors, commenters, and word-of-mouth marketers. Anyone who possesses the skills that go beyond basic participation can be hired on as freelancers or even full-time staff.
> Use the site to be as transparent and personal as possible. Each Topic Chief would be as open about who they are and where they come from as possible. Each employee of the site would have an extensive bio, no matter where they are on the masthead. Along with that transparency, reporters and editors would be as personal as possible, accepting blame for mistakes and trying to be open about motivations behind stories.
> Utilize the strengths of the online medium. Multimedia isn’t necessary for every story or blog post, but try to think in multimedia when possible. If a story can be told in a picture, do it. If you can include the full audio from an especially important interview, do it. If you have the video from the press conference, post it. What were once called “web extras” will now just be “web stories” complete with the extras baked in.
> Make staff be responsive to community concerns. Don’t shut out criticism but welcome it to the site in ways that can be constructive and lead to important conversations. That means moderated comments over open comments, and staff involvement in forums.
> Quit defending past practices. Rather than “saving stories” for print, or keeping web staff to a minimum, start putting real resources into your website and its staff, and start planning new approaches to what you’ve done in the past.
From Gil Zino:
> Local news orgs can focus on local content. And they get much more local content due to the means of content production and distribution now being in the hands of more citizens in each community than ever before in history (anyone with access to a broadband connection). Not only can news orgs accumulate more local content, but they can use today’s technology to deliver it to the people that want to consume it. The news doesn’t have to be relevant to the subscriber base as a whole, and catered to the masses — it can be efficiently delivered at the individual level. And it is living news — link to it, add text/photos/videos/sound to it, aggregate it, comment on it, follow it continually as it evolves and changes. Most new stories are not discrete events that can be put in a column.
From Alastair Machray:
> Newspapers transferring emphasis online will need to scrutinize how they spend their marketing money. The brand, however strong, may not be enough to command visitor traffic in sufficient volume. The brand is naturally strongest amongst older, traditional print readers, and less powerful among the new, web-reliant generation. The newspapers which succeed will not simply produce appealing content and functionality for this generation but will reach out to them through effective marketing across a range of media.
From Alastair Dallas:
> Links have to go off-site when that’s appropriate. It’s a worldwide web out there — straining to keep readers on the mother site devalues its usefulness. The news site that acts as a reader’s personal news agent, learning their preferences and occasionally surprising them, will earn the reader’s attention on the web. We have to concede, however, that it is the web’s variety and searchability that is attractive; readers are not monogamous.
From Kyle Redinger:
> Online social networking features are the tools that will enable community members to interact with news. It wonât be easy at first. The majority of newspaper readers probably havenât done much more than submit letters to the editor. Newspapers should give readers an online platform to interact, rank and participate in commentary and article submission. The cost of managing comments might be high at first, but as users become more familiar with online social network features, participation becomes more transparent and technology gets better, and the community will bear the cost.
What do you think? What would you add to the list? How do you see newspaper editorial staffs transitioning to a web-first newsroom? Share your thoughts in the comments below and I’ll update this list with some of the better recommendations.
Photo of newspaper in plastic by Yamanaka Tamaki.