An After-Life for Newspapers

    by Mark Glaser
    April 9, 2009

    Everywhere you look there are dark signs for newspapers: bankruptcies, less print editions, the threat of closings in San Francisco and Boston, layoffs and pay cuts. But the journalism of newspapers will live on in digital form online. How will this after-life look? We brought together five people for the latest episode of 5Across who are working for newspapers — or who have worked for them in the past and are now making their own independent forays online — to discuss what’s working now and what will work in the future.

    This was not a disussion about gloom and doom, but about things that these folks could see working at the ground level in their own experience. The informal talk ranged from business models to building site loyalty to how people can network online through “goodness” and not just trying to game the system. Here’s the lineup of guests for this month’s video show (who largely were beer drinkers):

    Eve Batey: Eve is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal. She used to be the San Francisco Chronicle’s Deputy Managing Editor for Online, and started at the Chronicle as their blogging and interactive editor. Before that, she was a co-founding writer and the lead editor of SFist.


    Michele Ellson: She writes and edits The Island, a daily local news site in Alameda, Calif. Ellson’s journalism career stretches back 17 years, with her most recent gig as a staff reporter for the Bay Area News Group based in Oakland. Her work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times, and she was also the publisher of her own monthly ‘zine, sacred cow.

    i-582ee07446c7cd2d54687d15b00453ed-on the couch grab.jpg

    Eve Batey, Michele Ellson and Alexis Madrigal

    George Kelly: He works as online coordinator at the Bay Area News Group-East Bay’s Contra Costa Times, a 160,000-circulation newspaper that covers much of San Francisco’s East Bay. His first newspaper job was a Chips Quinn Scholar internship at the Oakland Tribune. He worked online copy-editor shifts at TheStandard.com and Salon.com.


    Alexis Madrigal: Since Madrigal joined Wired.com as a science writer in 2007, Wired Science has become the largest science blog in the world, growing its traffic more than 10-fold to an average of over 3 million visitors a month. He wrote the first feature for the new Knight Foundation-backed startup, Spot.Us, about how ethanol rides the rails from the plants of Iowa to the fuel terminals of Northern California.

    Chris O’Brien: He’s a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News where he writes about business and technology in Silicon Valley. He is also manager of the Next Newsroom Project, an initiative funded in 2007 by a News Challenge Grant from the Knight Foundation to research and design the ideal newsroom (and blogs at PBS Idea Lab).

    As on the previous 5Across episode about online video, I’ve sliced up the show by topic below. Or if you’d like to watch the whole show, check it out here:

    Business Models for Newspapers

    Eve says that journalists need to get over thinking they will be able to charge for content online, and that ads are the way to go. Michele says to take money from donations, ads — wherever journalists can get it. Alexis thinks journalists might become consultants to make money, even if they think that might be strange. He also talks about Spot.us and how people are paying for access to the journalism process.

    Related links:


    Q&A with Ana Marie Cox: Asking Audience to Pay at Nieman Lab

    Common Language Project

    What Content Do People Really Want?

    Michele says kids sports is a subject that is popular on The Island, and wants to use that as a lever to bring in people for more serious subjects. George says local sites need to understand the demographics of their town and how that relates to world news. Eve says demographics of town are rarely represented in a newsroom. Chris says that local news for minority communities in San Jose does include international news, but it’s been hard for the Merc to cover that.

    Database Journalism

    Alexis talks about EveryBlock and how it maps local data to each town’s physical block. But Chris notes that there’s sometimes to much data from EveryBlock and there’s a still a need for an editor or a smart filter to deal with the deluge. Chris also says databases help make sites more sticky to visitors. George likes the baby names database at the Sacramento Bee website.

    Related links:


    Sacramento Bee’s Baby Names database

    What’s the Future of Print?

    Chris talks about custom print publications, and how people still want print out in the community. Eve says print is still sexy but expensive to produce, and Michele says the future of print is online or on cell phones. George notes how the Detroit Free Press is only doing print a few days per week, while Alexis talks about e-readers and Kindle.

    Related links:

    The Printed Blog


    Detroit Free Press

    MediaShift’s Kindle 2 Review

    How to Work the Online Network

    Alexis talks about the way that independent sites can network to promote each other. Eve says it’s about not screwing over other people, and about collaborating rather than competing on scoops. George notes how important it is to be good to others, link out to others, and it will come back to help you. Chris says collaboration is a very difficult mindshift for people in newsrooms, though very important.

    How to Build Traffic & Loyalty

    George says traffic, crime and celebrity news brings in people, but you also have to optimize headlines and keep updating stories online. Alexis says Wired’s success has been boosted by social news sites like Digg and Reddit. Michele says she got more traffic from a local site’s link than from CNN.

    Related links:




    Mark Glaser, producer and host
    Charlotte Buchen, camera
    Julie Caine, audio
    Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco
    Special thanks to: PBS and The Knight Foundation
    Music by AJ the DJ

    What do you think? What will an after-life for newspapers look like? What can you add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Tagged: aggregation business models link journalism newspapers traffic

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