Friday, October 12, 2007

Of the paper, 'buy' the paper and for the paper ...

I've come across two things that (probably in my own odd way) seem separate but when you look a little deeper, rally have an interesting philosophical link.

The first us an interesting project pointed out through a Facebok posting by Chris Winston, the "provost" of "," the Roanoke daily's hyperlocal social media site aimed at the area's college community.

Chris is also vice chairman of Involvement through Newspapers and Civics, a relatively new nonprofit set up by a bunch of South Carolina alum and others, many with ties through the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. It's designed to promote newspaper use among those who can't afford subscriptions. From the Facebook entry:
Millions of Americans wake up each morning with a newspaper at their door or in their paper box. Some people dive into today’s news first, while others head straight to the sports section.

Some readers spend Sundays digesting the entire paper, while others strip it of its coupons and head for the grocery store to maximize the weekly savings it provides. Some don’t have the luxury of any of the above. They go through life without a daily newspaper, not necessarily because they don’t want one, but because its cost is a barrier. ...

Involvement through Newspapers and Civics wants to change that. This past December, we selected 25 families in Spartanburg, S.C., for whom the cost of a daily newspaper would qualify as a luxury. Coming in 2008, we will begin serving low-income families in Atlanta, Ga., as well.

  1. Newspaper readership promotes literacy and civic involvement
  2. Information should be available to everyone
  3. Journalists should get more involved in the communities in which they work
I know newspapers already have Newspapers in Education, and it's a time when they are purposely shedding circulation, particularly among the demographic this group is trying to reach. Yet I can't help thinking that this is a pretty neat idea. That a group of young journalists and former journalists (not just a bunch of vets trying to save their jobs) is doing this says something to me. Maybe it's worth checking out and donating a few bucks.

The project was founded and is headed by Jeff Romig of Atlanta, most recently Michigan bureau reporter for the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune.

Item No. 2 is another attempt to revive newspaper readership, this one not so well received.

Poynter Institute writing coach and senior scholar Roy Peter Clark wrote a column while I was on the road this week (and just now able to get to it) in which he challenges journalists to buy (and, I presume read) the dang product they labor to put out. To wit:

The future of journalism, not just newspapers, depends upon such loyalty. And now I pose this challenge to you: It is your duty as a journalist and a citizen to read the newspaper -- emphasis on paper, not pixels. ...
Until we create some new business models in support of the journalism profession, we've got to support what we have, even as we create and perfect online versions that may one day attract the advertising dollars and other revenues we need to do what we do well.

Well, of course that was like hittin' a hornets nest with a hose. And the stingers came out, some more pointed than others. Steve Yelvington, for instance, called him a "troll." See also Mark Matassa, K. Paul Mallasch, Shawn Smith, Mark Potts, Craig Stoltz and others (check out the list on Clark's online column, plus the voluminous comments).

The general arguments go like this:
1) It's not digital that's killing newspapers; it's your lousy journalism
2) There is a business model but you refuse to find it (or, in Yelvington's argumnt, acknowledge it)
3) Kill all the newspapers

I think the 26-year-old Smith, in one of the more measured and lengthy posts, puts it well:
While I do appreciate that newspapers still support the bulk of online sites, and I also know online revenue hasn’t caught up with that of print advertising revenue, saying that I must buy the print product to support the current business model is ridiculous. If a business model is failing, it’s not up to the employees to save it. It’s up to the higher-ups to find something that works better.
Yes, but there are three philosophical fulcrums and a semantic problem here:
  • Fucrum 1: "Newspapers" inform democracy, and even if you get force fed a bunch of stuff you never knew you wanted or needed, serendipty is a beautiful thing./"Newspapers" fall well short of their ideal role because they are largely inefficient and a waste as they try to feed me a bunch of stuff I may not want to read.
  • Fulcrum 2: By and large, it's professional news organizations that have the wherewithal to prsent a comprehensive, balanced news report that fulfills the ideals of democracy./ The citizenry can do an amazing job of informing itself and is perfectly capable of aggragating the sources it needs to find out what it needs to.
  • Fulcrum 3: No online business model yet exists that can come close to supporting the level of newsgathering needed in a complex society.
  • Semantics: We use "newspaper" as both a thing -- the dead tree edition -- and as a metaphor for the large, professional newsroom
That last is really what gives us the problems. If we could somehow find a way to separate the romantic image of the product from the nitty-gritty of actually getting and producing the news, this debate would be lots clearer. We get hopelessly wrapped up in the semantics, and as a result what needs to be a reasoned, extended discussion too often turns into a rhetorical shouting match.

As for the "fulcrums:"

No 1. -- Newspapers are highly inefficient in practice when you talk about the individual article level and giving me what I want and need quickly (this assumes I know what I want and need). They are highly efficient when you talk about the macro of providing all sorts of clues as to importance, indexing, etc. Online struggles with that, even with tag clouds, innovation in menu display, and all sorts of tools and sites that can help. But at this juncture, in talking to many people, I still do not find most willing to click, click, click (or if you have an iPhone, tap, swih, tap, etc.) to visit multiple sites to become informed, so I do not see linking or crows wisdom as having the same level or organization and efficiency as a well-laid out newspaper page.

Advantage: None, until we come up with mobile technology that provides the flexibility and serendipity a newspaper has, or a doable facsimile. (And please, do not think I have dumped on sites like Newsvine and Digg. I am merely commenting on the efficiency. I love the sites.)

No. 2 -- In some respects, the "large" organization argument holds some water. In our litigious society, the modern media company actually performs a legal-social function: It consolidates liability and provides deep pockets. In the process, it provides some legal and financial protection to those practicing journalism. The courts (and Congress) typically lag five to 10 years on addressing such issues. Since widespread Web 2.0 is largely a phenomenon of the past four years, we have yet to catch up. I've postulated that we need an "Internet small claims court" at the lower federal level to deal with such matters.

Aside from that argument comes one that only the large organization has the resources to do "big" journalism -- the stuff that takes on government, business and other institutions. Part of this flows from the liability issue. It also is a resources issue, but as I noted in following the "utility model," news organizations are shedding the "excess capacity" that lets them do such work. (As Molly Ivins wrote, "I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying -- it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.")

It's clear that individuals with the expertise, time, and dedication or drive can often do better investigative work than established organizations. Certainly they have on numerous matters such as heping to smoke out earmarks. But the kind of work bigger newsrooms do, especially the recent work by the New York Times and Washington Polst on national security and defense matters, takes organizational skills we have yet to find online, despite some notable attempts such as

Advantage: A draw. Larger news organizations seem incapable of really getting down and dirty with the types of stories "crowdsourcing" is good at covering, but so far I see no complete replacement for "power" vs. "power": Large news organizations vs. large government.

No. 3 -- The unspoken words in this one, of course, are "at the margin I (or the stockholders) am accustomed to making." While some commentators have argued persuasively that you can't just arbitrarily cut margins because you will be sued, the reality is the margins are not there and won't be again, and Smith's argument that it's up to the "higher-ups" to figure it out holds sway here. On the other hand, those like Yevlington's -- that there's plenty of business if you'd just do enough interesting stuff to provide enough pages to provide the ad inventory you can sell is simplistic and taunts reality in two ways: My experience in projects like HartsvilleToday and in talking with salespeople experienced in cross-media selling is that many local advertisers still are not onine-savvy enough to integrate online effectively into their strategies. Yes, for larger papers, national and regional ads can carry the weight, but for smaller ones, local ads still hold sway. And then there's Doc Searls' recent observation that the underpinning of that ad glut -- built-in inefficiencies -- may be eroding faster than we know it. That would tend to erode part of the "there's plenty of business" model when applied esssentially as run of press online, but it bolsters Yelvington's contention that if you focused on producing interesting content, you might get the targeted audience needed to attract targeted ads. On the other hand, it's hard to see a business model when Searls suggests much of journalism should -- or may be forced to become -- nonprofit work.

Advantage: Another draw, but slowly moving to online.

Milquetoast, you say? If you wish., But my point here was to highlight that these issues are not at all clearly tilted as some of their proponents say. We sit atop all those fulcrums. While it may be tempting to suggest we blow up the newspapers to tilt the balance, it would be foolish right now. Just the same, Clark's suggestion is akin to asking domestic auto workers to buy the same old models when their neighbors increasingly had Toyotas and Hondas. Unfortunately, it wasn't till those Toyotas and Hondas started showing up in employee parking lots that the industry got religion.

In any case, I find deliciousness in contemplating that in the same post I can write about
1) young journalists of the online generation reaching out to get the newspaper to the types of people newspapers no longer seem to value as customers and
2) about those who say it's time to kill all the papers.

May we live in interesting times.

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At 10/13/07, 2:56 PM, Anonymous shawn smith said...

Nice post Doug. Great point on the semantics. It's hard for me to separate newspapers from the rest of journalism, because I've lived my life believing newspapers ARE journalism - that they enveloped the whole big idea of newsgathering and reporting. I hate to see them struggle. I like your point about resources at the bigger papers that do "big journalism." That's something I hope can be figured out.

At 10/13/07, 9:33 PM, Anonymous Jacqueline said...

Interesting post and you make a lot of good points. I think that a lot of the disagreement in the whole new media/what will become of journalism argument comes from people thinking that there is one correct answer, or one innovation, and with that in place all will be happy.

There is a place for big media (and their many valuable resources) and the little guys, especially when it comes to community or local journalism (see for tons of interesting open-source type projects in this arena).

Thanks for taking the time to put together this post!

At 10/14/07, 10:15 AM, Anonymous ScribbleSheet said...

Again, good post Doug.

I agree with Jacqueline that there is a place for big media but things are changing radically everyday. Now big media has to share the stage with the online world. I doubt print media will die suddenly, it will take time. But until it dies it will have to share the stage.

At 10/15/07, 11:41 AM, Anonymous Chris Winston said...

Doug, while I know Mr. Clark's column will continue to get a great deal of buzz and discussion going (and I hope it continues), I would like to thank you for taking the time to point out our efforts at Inc.

We've just smarted, and we're very small, but we continue to see the positive influences a newspaper can have on families, especially those of lower incomes. Some of these families do have access to computers and the Internet, but many of them do not.

And that's why even those of us "enlightened" souls who support digital media believe that there is something about newspapers that can't be written off.

I hope digital media will find a way to be more profitable and will support more jobs. And I hope print media finds a way to cut margins up without hurting the product or its impact. And I really, really hope they find a way to work better together.


At 10/16/07, 1:28 AM, Anonymous Maurreen said...

Efforts such as INC could become more important. Although poor people often don't buy the paper, it is at least more available and affordable to them than computers are.


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