Last week was a sad week to be in the Newsvine offices. While we were toiling away, our friends upstairs at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer received their unemployment orientation in advance of being laid off two weeks from now. The conference room in which these talks occurred is right next to Newsvine headquarters, so during the course of entering and leaving the office throughout the week, I caught multiple glances of the scene and the people affected by it.
People losing their jobs is always a sad thing but I feel like this is the true beginning of the end for almost everyone who works at a newspaper. If you work at one and you aren’t intimately tied to the web operation, you should start making future plans as soon as possible. And honestly, even if you are intimately tied to the web operation, I wouldn’t feel too safe either.
The death of the newspaper is a depressing thing to absorb, but what’s much more disappointing to me is that I feel like news itself has been devalued. There’s an oversupply of news-“ish” information on the web, and people have decided — usually without realizing it — that free “news snacking” is a better value proposition than paying for in-depth reporting. As one who is surrounded by news snacks everyday in the form of Newsvine, RSS feeds, instant messages, and other inputs, I’m as guilty as anyone of this mentality. At the end of the day, I just feel like through my various short-attention-span news inputs, I will absorb most of the news zeitgeist without any cost to me.
Cost is a funny word though. It is generally used as it was used in the paragraph above: to denote the expending of money. Lately though, I’ve noticed there are many non-obvious costs associated with us becoming a society of news snackers:
- Our attention spans are shrinking below even the levels caused by the television explosion of the ’80s and ’90s
- We are consuming more and producing less (no, sharing or reblogging does not count as producing)
- We value timeliness of information more than depth of coverage, or even truth in some cases
- We are driving most kids completely away from journalism as a profession
- We’re uncovering more of the whos, whats, whens, and wheres, but less of the hows and whys
I suppose we’re saving some trees and removing some friction from the publishing flow in the process, but all of the above are very bad things; things that will probably take us awhile to fully realize the effects of.
A lot of people have been asking me lately how the P-I (and newspapers in general) could be saved and even whether I’d like to be a part of it. In fact, if you want to see a live session about it and you live in Seattle, I’ll be doing an event at the UW Business School on the subject next month.
I have several modest ideas but none of them involve saving the actual paper. I’m a lot more interested in saving the future of long-form and local reporting than I am in saving the newspapers themselves.
Rarely are one’s ideas completely original so I’m sure these are no exception, but here are the three most promising in my opinion:
Getting smaller and staying local
Many privately held businesses and all publicly held ones require growth. It isn’t enough to turn a healthy profit every year. If your business isn’t growing, your management is questioned and your stock declines. The first step in keeping local news viable is realizing that it may not be much of a growth business, and it may be quite a bit smaller of a business than it has been in the past. These two factors do not bode well for the prospects of publicly held local news companies in the future. Imagine the P-I as something more along the lines of what Cory Bergman has built with his network of neighborhood blogs like My Ballard. I would argue a fully built-out neighborhood blog network like this is more valuable than what the P-I currently has. Nothing against the P-I’s website… it’s great… but it doesn’t pull me in as a citizen of my neighborhood. It’s a conventional mix of local stories that usually aren’t that local to me along with national stories I prefer to read on sites like msnbc.com instead.
Local news companies need to concentrate on creating communities of people who talk to each other, not just people who read the news and leave. Where you can connect people, you can make money.
Make something that’s worth paying for again
I may not pay for every author I happen to read on a daily basis, but there exists a collection of more than a few people on my blogroll who I would pay $5 a month to read, if it were exclusive. I’ve always been bearish on paid content as a model, mainly because you could usually do better with advertising, but with CPMs dropping through the floor, I’m not convinced that is necessarily the case anymore. What I’d like to see attempted is positioning a publication as more of a “discussion club”. Heck, maybe you even can read the content for free, but in order to join the discussion, you need to be a paid club member. With membership also comes social events around town, swanky garb, and other niceties to help you rationalize your modest membership fee. I always thought the New York Times should have done this with Times Select.
Bear in mind, I’m not suggesting just throwing up a pay wall. That would not work. The idea is creating bits of value — in addition to content — that people would gladly pay several bucks a month for.
Partner with your people
As a great business, your customers should be your best partners. In the case of news agencies, this doesn’t need to stop at readers evangelizing your publication for you. In many cases, they are actually willing to help you run it. Why have a staff of 150 when you can have a staff of 15 and engage your community to help produce a lot of the content? People like doing things that benefit their community. Make sure your business is seen as a way to do that.
The future of journalism may be in pro-am publishing.
Overall, I’m not super optimistic about the future of a lot of these newspaper companies, but I really would love to see them at least replaced with something better. I still have a hard time believing that a 146-year-old company like the Seattle P-I is moving out of their own building before we are. I don’t see that as any sort of victory for Newsvine since we are much more of a news platform than a news agency, but rather an indication of what happens when you have everything to gain and nothing to lose versus everything to lose and nothing to gain.