Disruptive threats to newspapers

Lucas Grindley blogs about how citizen-driven, niche microlocal sites are a threat to newspaper franchises:

Letting a geographic niche site grow under your feet is what the Innovator’s Dilemma warned against. An effective low-end competitor pushes the original business to focus on the high-end market. For newspapers, that means focusing on large advertisers and rich readers. Inevitably, the formerly low-end competitor makes headway into the high-end market. And the original business slowly loses all market share. Read the book. This exact plot has unfolded many times, in many industries.

I would add, it’s not just local news blogs and blog-like sites that can slowly slice away bits of audience from newspapers, but blogs covering other topics beyond its own geographic borders. Don’t buy the myth that blogs are just mindless rants of people with too much time to parse the latest political controversy. There are blogs about food, gardening, law, entertainment, and on and on, that are written by smart, informed experts. More and more bloggers are finding interesting and relevant revenue streams, but a blogger need not be in the money to steal your audience. And an expert blogger doesn’t need your content as a cruch, either.

It’s rarely just the one cut that kills you.

Here’s more on hyperlocal news sites from NYT.

News is social and shared

Interesting observation from Scott Karp: News is fundamentally a social and shared experience. Think of the water cooler, or what a publisher once said to me — I want to walk into a coffee shop and hear people talking about what they just read in our paper. Technology doesn’t change that, just makes it easier, more distributed and more obvious.

It’s also worth considering Scott’s other point: That news is niche. Rather than worry about customizing a general portal, figure out what niche you can serve with your site and then make that a social experience.

What niche might your newspaper serve? Your community, maybe?

Don’t rely on journalism to save journalism

I kind of jump on Perry Parks in the comments on this post. I don’t take lightly, I guess, to accusations that I’ve given up on journalism. Everything I do is about trying to save journalism. Our only chance to ensure there are reporters performing watchdog roles twenty years from now is to ensure that we get the business and content models right in this turbulent, fast-changing media era. And in context of Perry’s comment, on a post aimed squarely at encouraging journalists to learn and grow and better understand what is going on today, I can’t help wonder what drives somebody to defend a mode of thinking that clearly isn’t working.

Readership has been declining since the 1930s. Every generation of Americans reads newspapers less than the previous generation, and the current generation of young Americans is abandoning printed news faster than any previous generation. The best-funded, highest quality newspapers in the country are watching circulation plummet. Survey after survey, going back for decades, reveals that people trust media less and less. Studies have shown that newspapers often fail readers in areas of relevance and usable information.

Clearly, the Church of Journalism has failed us.

It’s time for a change, and the first change needed is one of attitude. We need journalists ready, willing and prepared to create journalism for the 21st Century.

I believe that is journalism that is more conversational; with fewer pronouncements of omniscience; that involves the people formerly known as the audience more in the news gathering and editing process; that doesn’t sniff at “citizen journalism” as something unholy; that seeks truth through all available tools and modes, without fear, favor or ego; that understands people have a right to know what we know when we know it; and that is willing to evolve as we learn more about how people use new technology. Finally, it is journalism that understands the value of community, that treats the small story with the same respect as the big and doesn’t put winning prizes or feeding egos ahead of serving friends, family and neighbors with information that is relevant and helpful.

If you care about journalism, that is the kind of journalism you care about today.

Parks writes in the comments:

This post isn’t just a wake-up call to reality. It’s more like surrender. Once you abandon “a strategy of aiming for journalistic excellence� as unworkable, it doesn’t much matter what you do next. New technologies, platforms and business models only help journalism if journalism itself survives.

Of course journalists should understand modern business pressures and learn the myriad new ways of distributing information. But if they’re not telling important stories in engaging ways — if they’re just making videos of cute dogs and blogging about bacon — then they’re no longer journalists.

What Parks misses is that if we don’t adapt to how media consumption is changing via new technologies, all the journalistic excellence in the world isn’t going to save journalism. Putting journalistic excellence first — a worthy consideration, but irrelevant in context — is like editing a story before it’s written.

A bit of this debate is ridiculous. Of course, journalism is going to survive. But the question is, who’s journalism? The journalism of the princely print reporter, or the journalism of unpaid volunteers doing catch-as-catch can reporting with little or no training. There will be journalism, because people will always want information, but if we don’t understand the competitive dynamics of this new era, there will be no journalism as some pros define the word.

For Parks, understanding the new technologies is just a way of understanding new distribution channels. But the web isn’t a distribution channel. It is a culture. It is an ecosystem. It is something far more dynamic than just another way of distributing prose. If you want to practice journalism, quality journalism, that is meaningful and relevant, you need to learn what that requires.

In context of my original post, my position is: Don’t just be good journalists, be smart journalists. You should understand your business, your market and your milieu. Being good is not good enough. You need to know why circulation is declining, why ad revenue is slipping, where advertisers are going, and how people are using digital media. You need to learn all you can about what is working and why, and what isn’t. This will inform the kind of decisions you make about coverage, what tools and techniques to use, and most importantly, the kind of training you’ll seek to further your career. You’ll also understand better why some of your bosses are doing the things they’re doing, and if they’re not doing the right things, give you a clue to look for a new job.

As for Perry’s snark about dogs and bacon, it’s just a red herring. It is a favorite tactic of the acolytes of Big-J Journalism: reduce citizen media to it’s most trivial and ridiculous extreme. It is easier than examining the good and serious work non-professional contributors are making all over the world. Just as dangerously, it ignores the fact that for every minute a person spends watching videos of dogs dancing on bacon is one less minute that person spent reading your weighty report on the town council. You need to understand, maybe, why that person chose YouTube over your idea of news.
One last thought. In his own blog, Perry writes:

That new world is coming, and it certainly won’t resemble the ink-smudged hegemony newspapers enjoyed for much of the 20th century. But people are also making predictions and assumptions about what modern news audiences need and desire that have yet to come true. Universal access and the ability for every person to write their own stories might be cool and useful, but demand for people to help package and organize the world — that is, editors — hasn’t abated.

My first reaction was, blogs and reader participation are a far greater threat to the job security of editors than reporters. There is a far greater need for paid professionals to go out and gather and report information than there are to filter it. Bloggers are nothing more than distributed filters, distributed gateways. Current affairs bloggers rely on professional journalism, but in aggregate often do a better job of surfacing the most interesting and relevant bits (and putting it in context better) than any one news organization’s small circle of editors. Anybody who has spent six or more months relying on blogs (especially while using an RSS reader) for primary news consumption knows this. Bloggers and blog readers often also make excellent copy editors and fact checkers. I’m NOT arguing that editors should be replaced by an army of bloggers, but professional journalists shouldn’t get too comfortable in their assumptions about what is necessary and what isn’t.

The other response-worthy note in Perry’s quote above is “… people are also making predictions and assumptions about what modern news audiences need and desire that have yet to come true …” Well, not exactly. It’s not all predictions and assumptions. Information technologies have been part of media consumption for more than two decades now, and the web is more than a decade old. There is a wealth of literature available for anybody willing to dig in and learn what history tells us about how media has changed and is changing. We are well past the assumption stage, and our predictions are pretty well informed.