Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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Tag Archives: Journalism
Once again, scanner reporting is controversial. The Batavian does a lot of scanner reporting. It works for us. It’s not hard to find people in our coverage area who say they love The Batavian, that they’re addicted to it, that … Continue reading
First, let me remind you of a post November, 2009, in which I quote Walter Lippmann: We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we … Continue reading
For no particular reason, I found myself looking at Google Analytics and decided to open the calendar all the way back to 2007. I discovered that the most popular post I’ve written in that time (and probably since I started … Continue reading
The clip above came to mind while scrolling through comments on Dean Starkman’s CJR piece, Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus. As Starkman points out, there’s two camps in the game of predicting where the news game … Continue reading
This is something I’ve been hoping would happen for the past year or more — glad to see a first formal step forward: On September 30, 2011, during the Block by Block conference at Loyola University Chicago, 21 local, independent … Continue reading
Early in my career somebody I obviously respected — can’t remember who now — told me the correct newspaper spelling of the opening of a newspaper story is “lede.” There’s lot of romanticism and nostalgia in the newspaper industry for … Continue reading
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.
- The professionalization and creation of "objective" journalism in the 1920s
- Movies, 1920s
- Radio, 1930
- Mass migrations caused by Great Depression and World War II, dislocating communities and families
- Television, 1950s
- Birth of suburbs, automobile, decline of mass transit, 1950s
- Shoppers, i.e. PennySaver, (not sure when they started, but let’s put them in the 1960s)
- Unrest of 1960s, distrust of mainstream institutions, rise of alternative press
- Wal-Mart and other Big Box retailers in the 1980 and 1990s, putting out of business traditional newspaper advertisers (at higher margins than pre-prints from Big Boxes), often with help of government subsidies.
- Cable television, and not just more news, but more choices.
- Digital media and all that comes with it — more choices, greater competition for attention, craigslist, more competition for advertising dollars, etc.
If you fail to look at the decline of newspapers in context of the historical arch of events, and you fail to see that the same forces driving down circulation are the same forces decreasing community involvement and civic engagement, then you’ll never have a clue how to solve the problem. If you don’t see the whole picture, you’ll look for quick fixes like government aid or legislation, grants and annuities, paid content or just whine about "society can’t function without us."
The solution lies in figuring out why increasingly society is deciding it doesn’t need us and fixing that problem, not in hair-brained schemes that attempt to force journalism on the masses.
Why didn’t I watch Senate hearing today? Because I’m busy working on journalism’s future, not worrying about its past.
Proved quite popular this evening.
I posted it in light of news about the Senate Subcommittee Hearing today on the future of journalism. For months (years?) we’ve been assaulted with notions of "saving" newspapers — should we give them non-profit status, issue some sort of taxpayer bailout, make Google pay, relax anti-trust laws … etc.?
There’s a whole host of proposals out there to "save" newspapers that any real capitalist should find not only laughable but horrifying.
Let’s be clear: If a newspaper can’t compete in the free market it’s not worth saving. If a newspaper needs aid from the government to survive, it’s not worth saving.
A newspaper is a business, just like any other business. It’s not a church. It’s not a social services agency. It’s not a civic organization. It’s a business.
When a business model is broken, or a strategy is flawed, or time has just passed it by, that business – even whole industries — die. It’s a process of evolution. It’s necessary for the ecosystem of society.
Journalism will not die, though every newspaper might stop printing and some companies that now spew ink to tell the news will cease. Journalism will not die.
If businesses that support journalism are now are not able to compete in the free market, if they are unable to adapt to the changes in the market, they simply do not deserve to survive.
The only thing that will save journalism is the free market. Any other solution will lead to ossification and ultimately will greatly damage democracy, because citizens will become only more jaded and distrustful of a press that through government-backed monopoly power suppress entrepreneurial competitors.
I work my ass off every day — 14, 15, 16 hours a day — trying to create a sustainable online news site. Maybe I’m on the right track, maybe I’m not, but as an entrepreneur I feel I have a right to put forward my ideas, my business model in a free market and see if it works.
If it doesn’t, fine, but I shouldn’t have to compete against media companies that are given government favor through changing anti-trust laws or granted special privileges.
The free market should decide what journalism will be in the future, not some gray-haired Senator or government bureaucrat.
"Hyperlocal" is an ugly word.
This fad coinage is meant to represent a new discovery, a new way of thinking about journalism: "Hey, gee, we should do some of this local stuff. People might actually like to read about their home towns."
"Hyperlocal" is ugly because it attempts to rewrite history, ignoring the noble, once-primary role of newspapers — largely forgotten by journalists and publishers in the past several decades — as the concourse for community life.
In the decades preceding the current "hyperlocal" fad, professional journalists, and the people who manage them, didn’t seem to realize is that "local" is what newspapers did before the "professionals" took over and decided the local flower show was nothing more than a calendar item and real news mean combing over every council member’s campaign contributions.
Now before I go too far in bashing "professional" journalists, let me clarify what I mean: When Walter Lippmann wrote Liberty and the News in 1922, with its indisputable and irrefutable call to eliminate the average newshound’s careless handling of fact and his facile understanding of events, he correctly diagnosed the need for a better educated, less callow, more thoughtful kind of reporter. But what Lippmann meant by professionalism, and objectivity, is not the brand of professional journalist that eventually emerged.
Lippmann’s conception of "professional" had nothing to do with learning the craft and tools of reportage so that one might demonstrate better news judgment or never forget a who, what or when; it had everything to do with applying a scientific, intellectual approach to gathering facts, weighing evidence and presenting reports.
Journalism has gone astray by giving us too much of the former and too little of the latter.
For the purpose of this post, I’m speaking of professionalization — with its stenographic and reader-may-care approach to news — as practiced, not as it should be. (I’ll have more on Lippmann in a later post).
The Hyperlocal Fad
There would be no need for a word such as "hyperlocal" if there wasn’t a void to fill in community news coverage. The bare existence of the term speaks to the unfocused and misplaced coverage of most newspapers over the past several decades. The advocates of "hyperlocal" needed a term to differentiate what most newsrooms did compared to what they should do; or for those outside of the industry who applied the word to their own Web start-ups, they used "hyperlocal" to describe the opportunity left gaping by newspapers.
But what we now call "hyperlocal" is what William Allen White called "locals." White saw no distinction between the role of a newspaper in its community and the community. The Emporia Gazette printed to be the community, not merely to deliver the news.
The narrative arch of the Gazette says something about what a community newspapers should be, and where local newspapers went wrong. As White grew older, achieved greater wealth, and settled into national prominence, he increasingly ceded editorial control of his newspaper to a J-school-educated, younger staff. In Home Town News, a biography of White, Sally Foreman Griffith writes:
The divergence between White’s vision of journalism and his staff’s reflected different conceptions of the Gazette‘s proper role. The divergence appeared most clearly in the continuing conflict over the paper’s locals. According to Frank Clough, Lambert’s successor as city editor, both William Allen and Sallie White constantly complained that their weren’t enough locals in the paper. But the editors argued that the Gazette was no longer a local paper and should emphasize "its district news, its associated press reports, and its features rather than its strictly Emporia news." Clough told Mrs. White on one occasion, "the Gazette is just like a boy who is too big for short pants and his parents don’t think he is big enough for long ones." ”Go along with you,’ she retorted. ‘Tell your reporters we need some more local items and don’t let your pants get too big for you.’" The two generations finally compromised on a policy of publishing the locals that were brought to the Gazette but seeking out only items concerning "the town’s more prominent citizens." From the point of view of White’s earlier broader vision of community, such compromise amounted to defeat.
Newspapers and Democracy
There has been much consternation of late among the print set about newspapers dying and its effect on society, such as this column in the Seattle Times, which asks:
Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?
Those are all fine questions, and certainly nobody is suggesting that a community should be without reporters who know how to hold government officials accountable, but there is also a trace of pretension in that line of thinking, that only newspaper journalists can do the job. and that’s the only kind of journalistic job worth doing.
Newspapers abdicated their role as stalwarts of democracy in the mid-20th Century as they moved away from conveying community life to takers of minutes and recorders of controversy, more dedicated to the process of government and wire reports than what their friends and neighbors might be doing at the church on Wednesday night.
Once people could no longer pick up the local gazette and find out who was visiting from California and when Helen Carter was going to sell her famous peach pies, the papers became less relevant to their lives.
Without that relevancy, society and democracy suffered. People became not only less informed, but less involved in their communities.
Consider that 57 percent of Americans say that if their local newspaper went away, both online and in print, they wouldn’t miss it and it wouldn’t hurt the civic life of their towns. The numbers are just as dismal when the question is isolated just to regular newspaper readers. This is in keeping with an earlier Harris poll that found nearly two-thirds of Americans say their local newspaper doesn’t serve its community well.
There is a nexus, I believe, between readership declines and less engaged communities that cannot be blamed entirely on the rise of radio and television nor on changes in urban-to-suburban lifestyles.
It’s not often discussed in newsrooms, but readership declines started at least fifty years before the introduction of Mosaic. Readership peaked in the late 1940s, more than a decade after radio became a commercial force, and years before television reached popular saturation.
And while U.S. newspapers are not alone in facing competition from new technology or changes in social habits, the readership slide is greater in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation, with American papers now ranking low on readership 1,000 adults.
There is certainly something going on with American newspaper readership that can’t be blamed on radio, television, the Internet nor changes in lifestyles.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes about Americans becoming increasingly disengaged from their communities in the final quarter of the 20th Century. People stopped joining bowling leagues, or the American Legion, or showing up for the big community fundraiser.
Putnam writes about social capital, the idea that interconnectedness among people is what sustains a community. Web 2.0 geeks like to talk about social networks, but social networks exist in the non-digital world as well. If you understand the importance of people learning about what’s going on in the lives of their friends, family and neighbors, it’s easy to see why a newspaper that carries such news is contributing to the social capital of its community.
When newspapers stopped making such deposits in the bank of community good will, they became increasingly disengaged and less relevant to their home towns.
By every measure, according to Putnam, civic engagement peaked in the mid-1960s, well after the rise of television and suburban flight.
It wouldn’t be surprising however, that people stopped reading their local papers long before they stopped attending Rotary meetings. People are, after all, social animals. The long habit of social networking with people in their community would be less easily broken than a connection to a paid-circulation newspaper.
Circulation and readership declines are lagging indicators of a failure to contribute social capital. Declining community participation is a lagging indicator of less knowledge about friends and neighbors.
Both might be equally blamed on the turn from community news to more professionally produced political and process coverage by newspaper staffs. I call this "Castor oil" coverage, as in "we think this is important and we don’t care whether you, dear reader, agree — take it and don’t whine about it."
(And note, too, readership declines started before newspaper chains became massive entities and were often publicly traded, so readership losses are not necessarily an ownership problem, either.)
Building Community on the Web
Sadly, its probably too late to save newspapers, and it’s too late for newspapers to save their communities.
The Web won’t save newspapers. The mere transference of newspaper journalism onto digital devices is a doomed business model.
But the Web can save and revitalize local communities.
I’ve spent my career in or around small newspapers. I’ve never worked for a big metro, and outside of once dreaming of an editorialist’s job with the San Diego Evening Tribune, I’ve not aspired to life at a paper of more than 100K circulation. I’m a home town boy at heart, even though I’ve never really had a home town.
One of the great benefits of launching The Batavian is that it brought me into contact with Bill Kauffman, author and historian whose books include Dispatches from The Muckdog Gazette and Look Homeward, America.
Before I met Bill, I never heard the word "localist," but I know now, that’s what I am (and I’m not alone; there is a movement in this country of localists/placists), and localism is at the core of my political philosophy. I believe strong communities make for a stronger democracy. Call me a Luddite in the face of digital globalization and international hyperlinks, I still believe in the importance and vitality of geographic communities (and I’m sure I’ll get the comment or two calling me naive for not bowing down to the inevitable gods of a one-world community, or communities of interest replacing geographic connectedness).
Kauffman writes of himself in Look Homeward, America:
I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.
Like so many of the subjects of this book, I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby.
You may not agree with all of Kauffman’s politics, but there is something to be said for finding fervor and valor in cherishing your home town and the unique individuals that give it vitality.
As journalists, we’ve gotten away from cherishing community — that isn’t objective enough — and it’s hurt not only democracy, but our business model.
Strong local communities are important to the education of our children, the safety of our streets, the growth of our businesses, the employment of our neighbors and the quality of our parks. By every measure, our well being depends on the quality of life were we live.
There’s nothing wrong with leading a digital life, but in the end you still need a life beyond the walls of your dwelling, and the kind of life you live in your community depends on the quantity of social capital you build.
It’s impossible to squander social capital and expect a community to thrive. We still share in the responsibility for potholes and clean parks, whether or not we drive or walk a dog. We are all part of a geographic community, whether we admit it or hide behind our Facebook friend feed.
And journalists, most of all, and publishers, and even the ad sales reps, can’t escape from social responsibility. If communities are to become vital again, journalism is going to either provide the bonds and lead the conversation, or cease even its current tenuous hold on relevance.
It’s ironic, given what I hoped to accomplish with The Batavian, that I picked Bill Kauffman’s community before I ever read a sentence of his work. The mission of The Batavian was never, in my mind, merely to fix the local news business model, but also to revitalize community journalism. Of course, to me, the business model and the journalism model are one and the same. Revenue declines are closely related to readership declines, so we must fix readership before we can fix revenue.
The early results of The Batavian drawing together a community and creating a more engaged readership is promising. I do believe the digital tools of instant publishing, unlimited space, conversation and connection can re-energize the kind of community journalism that inspired William Allen White to grow the Gazette into a great local institution.
If this approach works — whether it be The Batavian or similar ventures – we can reverse the trend of "bowling alone" and bring back the kind of community life that best serves a vibrant democracy.
But to make this approach work, it’s going to take people — including many of today’s trained journalists — to rethink everything they’ve learned about community journalism as practiced over the past half century or so. Merely promoting the "hyperlocal" fad isn’t going to get the job done. We need to bring back locals, and bring back the direct connection and involvement in the community by the people covering the community. This isn’t the detachment taught in J-schools. It’s participatory and social. But it will work. It must.
Books to Buy:
- Robert Putnam: Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community
- Walter Lippmann: Liberty And The News (1920)
- Sally Griffith: Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette
- Bill Kauffman: Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals
- Bill Kauffman: Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive