Two caveats to begin.
First, I didn’t attend Tom Mohr’s presentation at NAA/Connections. I didn’t make a conscience effort avoid it, but it also wasn’t a priority. I pretty much wrote off Tom Mohr based on his E&P column a few months ago (off line now, but bits can be found through this TechMeme link).
Second, I have an obvious prejudice in favor local journalism. It’s what I’ve done all my l journalistic life.
Here’s a bit from E-Media Tidbits:
… moderator Tom Mohr (founding director of the New Media Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) broached the thesis of the death of local as an organizing principle in an interactive world.
“People flock to task sites like MySpace, and today all ‘locals’ meet at the task,” he said. “‘Local’ is indefensible online.”
Mohr believes that newspapers can’t perform the same functions online as in print due to the lack of network effects, no scaled platform, missing bargaining power and no favored status at the key gates. His suggestion — that only a newspaper consortium that joins forces with big allies could survive on the Internet — wasn’t discussed in depth.
There’s why too much generalizing here to grasp, but let’s talk about the future of local and why, based on this and Mohr’s previous writing, that Mohr is wrong (and just as it’s worth noting Mohr’s present affiliation, it’s also worth noting that Mohr was an online executive with Knight-Ridder, not exactly the best example of a newspaper company that got it right online, and KR’s primary failure was its lack of respect for local).
To believe Mohr is to believe that local news has no value. This is demonstrably not the case, because well executed local news sites do bring in traffic — not as much as I like or want, but there is an audience there. And there is every reason to be believe that local news will continue to have value. Long before there was digital, local news ceased to be a dominating force (but there’s a line of thinking that blames post-Watergate newspaper attitudes for this, not changes in the wider culture), but local news is still vital to any community you care to name.
But the real illogic of Mohr’s thesis is that local will have value if we all just join the Borg Collective and publish on a common platform and in a common location. Suddenly, all of the local content newspapers produce will be attractive to people because it’s aggregated in one spot. Somehow, this equals scale and because it “scales” people will flock to it. In other words, people who won’t go to the local newspaper.com will go to the national newspaper.com to find the same news they could have gotten from the newspaper.com in their community, if it existed.
My suggestion to Tom Mohr: Rent the move Tron. The MCP will not save newspapers.
Or to put it another way, socialism will not save newspapers. The Switzerland Mohr dreams of would kill innovation, would kill the ability of journalists to serve their communities and would alienate broad swatches of audience. Local needs local brands serving local communities to succeed.