Sunday, February 10, 2008

Well, we've wanted the online journalism lab ...

... And now we appear to have it.

The Capital Times, the struggling afternoon paper in Madison, Wis., says it is closing its six-day print edition and moving to a mostly Web model for daily news. It won't be all Web; the paper intends to print a free magazine-style Wednesday edition with in-depth stories on local and state issues, as well as commentary, and take over the Thursday entertainment and lifestyle issue. (The morning Wisconsin State Journal will remain a seven-day paper, and the Capital Times products will be inserted into it as well as be distributed through newsracks.)

It's sad to see a newspaper disappear because it means lost jobs (and in this case, according to the story in the competing paper, it means copy-editing jobs, which raises all those questions and arguments about why online copy should be any less edited). But the fact that the newsroom is not going away -- for now at least -- is good news.

This is the model a lot of people have envisioned for this industry -- online daily with print being saved for either a summary of what's on the Web or depth.

We've seen the beginnings of the shift elsewhere, first with Gannett's Information Center digital initiative, but, to my mind, more importantly with what Editor Julia Wallace is trying to do at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- remake it as a newsroom where the journalism is presented in the best way: daily feeds the Web first, enterprise looks to the paper and then to enhanced versions online, and a digital and production operation takes the best of what it needs to put the paper together.

Well, now we have the other piece of that puzzle. And it raises some interesting questions:
  • Are we ready for it, sociologically as well as technologically?
    • First, technologcially. We have myriad of "reading" devices, from the old clunky desktop to Amazon's new Kindle. All are imperfect, which in itself does not have to be insurmountable. But it does mean it will be a challenge to figure out a way to slice, dice and make money from all of it. (And maybe the moneymaker remains print, with online being the loss leader. We'll have to see.)
    • Sociologically: Are we ready -- enough of us at least -- to consume most of our daily news online. Certainly all the research indicates we're headed that way, but have we reached the tipping point? Madison, being a college town and a state capital, might have an unusual mix that puts it ahead of the curve on this (much like it would have been difficult to duplicate the Lawrence Journal World / lawrence.com combination other than with the University of Kansas down the street.. It will be interesting to watch. (A sidebar to that -- it will be interesting to see if, with the mostly Web effort whether people broaden their online reading habits to more than just the workday. Can the Cap Times pick up any of those former "PM" readers after hours?
  • Can a revenue model be fashioned? As noted above, maybe the print product remains the money maker for the foreseeable future. The Cap Times experiment isn't "pure," in other words, it is happening in a competitive market, and it would be easy for advertisers still not sure about the Web to simply shift what they haven't already to the Journal. Still, the Web is a competitive place, so we can learn a lot here. The CapTimes, for instance, is an unabashed liberal paper. That plays into the view of the futurists who suggest those publications that will do best online are those with a point of view.
  • Will it matter that the CapTiimes shares a Web site with the Journal? I did not see anything about this in the CapTimes articles, but I wonder whether being part of Madison.com is a good idea or whether the paper needs to make a complete break and establish its own identity (yes, it has its own "site" under Madison.com, and you can reach that via the Cap Times alias -- but I'm not sure I subscribe to the idea that it carries the same forces as a completely separate site location).
I'd recommend we all keep a close eye on this one. As the CapTimes wrote in its article announcing the changes:
That's a change that may be difficult to accept immediately for those of us who remain romantically attached to traditional newspapers as we remember them in all those old black-and-white movies.

But the urgency of the moment requires that we leave nostalgia to others.

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