Newspapers started small, cheap and with different standards

There are those in our industry who seem to assume that newspapers emerged in 1835 in full flower, that many of the elements of the newspaper world that were until recently taken for granted were all part of world of James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley.

An example of such thinking might be found in this post by Bill Doskoch.

The assumption, in my perception, is pervasive, and it colors the view of today’s journalist toward development of online news; in fact, the assumption may have blinded many executives (including online executives, including myself for a time) in their expectations how to build an online news business.

For more than a decade, we expected to build online news organizations that could support a super structure of the modern newspaper newsroom — with the all the reporters and editors and big story packages (look at all the emphasis we put on big Flash multimedia productions) and that we could keep doing journalism just the way we always did it.

While we bemoaned shovelware (taking the same exact print story and repurposing it for the Web), we took little time to really examine what might might be different about online publishing that should change the way news is gathered and presented.

That’s why we were slow to embrace blogging, slow to recognize the power of social networking, and why, even today, most newspapers treat reader interaction (re: comments on stories) as a nuisance rather than an essential part of the business.

Look at the typical newspaper.com home page design — the level of sophistication and attractiveness may have improved from five or six years ago, but these sites are still trying to recreate the newspaper experience, the packaged-goods experience, shoving everything possible into a single, wholistic collection of pixels.

From the in-the-trenches newspaper journalist perspective, today’s surviving reporters and editors keep looking to paid content as some sort of savior, ill-equipment mentally to understand why it simply won’t work, and unwilling to accept any online news model that looks different from the print world they’ve loved.

The seeming fact that no online news model has yet emerged to support their paradigm of journalism — the large staffs, the watchdog journalism (at least to the level they expect), and the comfortable 9-to-5 work shifts — is proof to them that online can’t or won’t work they way they expect.

Any experiment in online journalism that doesn’t fit their paradigm is just folly.

These reporters and editors need to go back to J-school, and one that offers some history of newspapers rather than priestly pronouncements on religious tenants in the High Church of Journalism.  Or at least reflect on what history they did learn.

James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer were not just earlier versions of Woodward and Bernstein. They were entrepreneurs, visionaries and risk takers who experimented and explored the capabilities of new technologies with a goal of meeting readers needs and growing audience.

They put ads on their front pages. They ran straight murder trial transcripts. They sent row boats out in the harbor to meet incoming ships so they might be the first with the news Europe. They produced multiple editions in the race to build reader loyalty. With the penny press, they disrupted the incumbent six-penny newspapers. They pushed partisan positions. They crusaded, some times to the point of unjustly influencing the course of events.

These entrepreneurs competed fiercely, which led to an intense circulation war between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. This war became so pitched, that both papers embarked on a short era of sensationalistic reporting that we now know as "yellow journalism."

Pulitzer, who also ushered in graphics and color comics, so regretted later his participation in this low-brow craft that he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism.

The early giants of journalism got much wrong and got much right, but little that they did would resemble journalism of the past 60 or 70 years.

They didn’t, for example, do much in the way of investigative journalism. Nelly Bly worked for the New York World, but even her greatest public service reporting — locking herself in an insane asylum — isn’t what many of today’s newsroom pundits mean by high-cost investigative journalism.  it was a stunt, just like her most expensive adventure, going around the world in 80 days. That really brought down a president, didn’t it?

Most of the other muckrakers who set the stage for investigative journalism didn’t even work for newspapers. They wrote for magazines and published books.

It took a long time for newspapers to build the cash flow to afford big time, expensive investigative journalism, and for publishers to recognize its value (and some of them still aren’t convinced) in helping to retain readers.

So if it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?

There are a number of worthy experiments in online publishing going on out there. Maybe rather than scoff, some of these skeptics should stop yapping and try an experiment or two of their own.  Maybe one of them will find the model that will one day employ a legion of highly paid investigators, at least until the next disruption comes along.

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