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Do newspapers get it?

As mentioned in my previous post, I work for a software company offering a variety of web 2.0 services of user-generated media, comments & ratings, blogs, and forums to the newspaper industry. As a vendor, it has been extremely frustrating to get newspapers to adopt, or especially actively promote and encourage this level of interactivity. I think that true journalism is a critical part of a functioning democracy, but their state of paralysis risks making them increasingly irrelevant in a connected, social world.

Old Guard/New Guard. There is an inherent conflict as professional journalists, who have dedicated their lives to the right and responsibility to investigate and report the news to their community are seeing that ability being handed to every Tom, Dick and Harry with an Internet connection. This has to be extremely irritating. If papers “open up”, are they going to allow some punk to get a front page story? How will they make sure the story is factual? Will the professionals be relegated to cleaning up the grammar and doing fact checking of news reported by the unwashed masses? I think that this contributes to what feels like an extremely slow level of adoption and innovation in the newspapers.

Meanwhile, the Internet innovates and offers cheaper, better alternatives to many of the traditional roles of newspapers.

  • Want to know the headlines? Google/Yahoo news gives a personalized timely view of relevant stories from across the globe. Digg and social media sites also give an interesting view into news below the headlines.
  • Commentary? Blogs everywhere.
  • Want to buy/sell something? craigslist is free and easy, ebay offers everything in the world, etc, countless websites highlight and promote special deals.
  • Want a job? Monster, careerbuilder, linkedin, etc. etc. etc. all offer better information, better jobs, and better chances of landing the job.
  • Entertainment? Yelp for restaurant reviews, IMDB/Rotten Tomatoes/etc. for movie reviews and listings.
  • Local news…ok, some advantage here but that coverage is not comprehensive enough to not be at serious risk for the next innovator.

All of the above are relatively easy technologies to implement, yet I have seen very limited adoption. I cant leave restaurant reviews at signonsandiego.com (the Union Tribune site), I cant submit photos or videos of news and events around town, I cant leave comments, I dont even think that I can register. Where we have worked with clients to enable some of these features, they have often buried them in their site and given them little to no promotion – it seems do it as an obligatory show that they are trying to remain relevant but with no serious attempt to innovate.

Newspapers have one advantage that technology leaders have been struggling ot figure out forever, which is local knowledge and local recognition. I will post soon on some of the things that make sense to me for newspapers to not just remain relevant, but thrive in the future. Meanwhile, I would love to hear the reactions of this group.

3 Responses

  1. Ed,I think “quality control” is the operative word when it comes to newspapers allowing users to submit photos, videos, reviews and other bits of information on news websites. If you troll the comments on news websites, those that aren’t moderated can degenerate quickly.For decades, newspapers have become used to being held legally liable for content in their product. Newspapers have spent precious sums of money defending the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. Papers also have spent money defending against claims of libel. So I think one reason that newspapers have been cautious about letting users post content to their sites is out of an abundance of caution about liability and care for the quality in the editorial information they’re responsible for publishing.As you pointed out, you can go to craigslist, Monster.com, and Google News to get information. Who needs newspapers?The answer is, we all do. Where do people think Google News gets its stories from? They come from brick-and-mortar newsrooms, often newspapers. Do people think those photos from Iraq or Sudan were taken by Google staff? They were taken by photojournalists working for news wires, the largest of which began as a co-op of newspapers. If you watch television news or listen to radio, where do they get their news? Truth is, they often obtain it from newspapers and then go out into the field to capture the visuals or audio they need to tell the story to their audiences. The entire mainstream media architecture is built on the local newspaper as the basic unit at the base of the food chain.What far too many people don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge is that strong local reporting is expensive, unprofitable, inefficient and time-consuming. Yes, you can get news anywhere now, and anyone with a Web site can hang a proverbial shingle and declare himself a publisher. I think the jury is still out on whether these self-styled publishers have the long-term commitment to public interest journalism. Will they flinch when an advertiser threatens to pull an ad? or when an irate person threatens to sue before an article goes to web?To be sure, newspapers have lost some credibility and relevancy in this age of media fragmentation and cynicism about MSM. I’ve worked as a reporter for 12 years now, all of them in newspapers, and I can tell you that every reporter under the age of 40 is eager to see newspapers become more savvy technologically.The problem isn’t really a lack of desire. It’s economics and the pace of technological change.We’re losing money so fast we don’t have the capital we need to invest in new resources and new staff. And when you have limited resources, you’re wary of investing in a technology that hasn’t established itself yet.We’re also being asked to publish on multiple electronic platforms, even as we maintain one of the most reliable distribution vehicles for information ever created (delivery to your doorstep). (When we had a windstorm here that knocked out power to over 1 million people, they couldn’t get the news online. They had to listen for it on the radio or read the newspaper.) Most newspaper staff aren’t trained to also be TV producers. We’re all trying to define multimedia and strike a balance.I am sorry for the long post, and I hope some of this makes sense. I look forward to hearing the perspectives of others in this group.

  2. Sanjay, thanks for the thorough response. Very insightful, and I agree that the answer is that we all do need newspapers. I just worry that they will not find a business model that works for the value that we need them for, since we no longer need them to find jobs, plan our entertainment, look for specials, etc and they are not keeping pace with the innovations in those industries. My understanding is that those functions, while not necessarily ‘news’ were the things that paid for the newspaper business.You mention the windstorms as an example. In San Diego, we had the wildfires earlier this year and the newspaper was marginally useful compared to a twitter service set up by KPBS (local NPR affiliate), radio reports, and forums with information being set up and posted to by the community. Even as the information was changing and at times incorrect, it was coming infinitely faster than the online paper, let alone the print version. By the time the print version came out, their news was uselessly stale. To be fair, some of the later analysis of ‘what went wrong’ and what will be done to fix it was/is being done by the newspaper, but they were useless in the need for urgent news. In fact, they were frequently down so you couldn’t even get old news :(It is a very valid point that google news and the blogosphere are building themselves on news that newspapers are often sourcing, and bearing the costs of while losing the associated monetization. There is more than just value in what newspapers do ~ it is a critical element in our democracy ~ but noone seems to have found the businesss model that works for it in the 21st century, and few seem to be trying very aggressively. I know it is easy to be a critic, and that to innovate and adapt while rapidly cutting costs is an extremely difficult challenge, and I wish I knew the answers but I love how the NNR is facilitating some great discussions about it.

  3. Hey, Sanjay. Don’t worry about this being too long. There’s a lot of good thoughts here. If you don’t mind, can you re-post in the blog? I’d like to feature it on the front…Best,Chris

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