The Future of the Newspaper

The future of newspapers took on a new urgency in Connecticut when Editor and Published wrote about Two Connecticut Dailies Facing Shuttering if a Buyer isn’t Found. Those of us that follow media discussions at conference after conference may have grown a tad weary of the topic. Sure, there is a constant stream of stories about newspapers cutting back and dire predictions about the impact this will have on news coverage and our democracy, but the world continues to function. This, however, if something different, people warn me. Two newspapers may shut down completely.

I remain unimpressed. I remember when cities lost their morning or evening newspapers and continued to function. I remember when small towns lost their papers and everyone still seemed to know everything that was going on. No, the concern about the possible demise of local newspapers sounds an awful lot like the possible demise of banks or car manufacturers, and I expect that we’ll get through all of these events just fine.

Rick Green, of the Hartford Courant has an interview with Steve Collins, who is a reporter for one of the newspapers facing potential demise. Rick writes, “News blogs, which are popping up all over, aren't the answer, Collins said, because they can't possibly provide the breadth of a local paper.”

I appreciate Collins’ situation. He may be out of a job soon. Yet, I’m not sure that I agree that blogs can’t possible provide the breadth of a local paper. I’m not finding much in the local papers around here about the Woodbridge Board of Education meetings or the Woodbridge Democratic Town Committee meetings. With the exception of the videotaping of the Board of Education meetings for the government channel, I don’t believe there is anyone besides me reporting on these meetings. As to finding news about local births or high school sports scores, I’d much rather read the blog post by a grandmother whose daughter has just delivered a new grandchild or the father who has just seen his daughter win a swim meet.

I’m not the only person to disagree. Rick Hancock comments, “I guess I have more faith in the entrepreneurial spirit of people, even reluctant newspeople, than most.” I think Rick has good reason to disagree. It seems to me that his blog is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit.

There are plenty of other good examples of the entrepreneurial spirit being alive and well in journalism. Today, I received an email from Doug Hardy, an Associate Editor at the Journal Inquirer. Doug is working with efforts to help the Journal Inquirer survive better in the new media landscape, including working with radio and television stations as well as with others in the online world. The Connecticut and Politics sections of my blog now include links to recent stories from the Journal Inquirer thanks to Doug’s efforts.

Doug is well connected to other folks showing an entrepreneurial spirit in journalism. His wife, Christine Stuart runs CT News Junkie which is a great source of reporting in the state and CT News Junkie has close ties to the New Haven Independent which is often cited as an example of the future of journalism at so many of these media conferences.

On the national level last week came news that Gannett is acquiring Ripple6. Gannet is one of the large newspaper publisher fighting to survive in this difficult environment and Ripple6 is a “team of social media marketers and developers [that] combine the disciplines of knowledge management, software development, online media and brand marketing”. It looks like the folks at Gannett understand what they need to be doing to survive.

Lewis Green has a great article about the acquisition.

Lewis writes,

According to a Ripple6 paper, research shows that people feel a stronger connection with, and are better served by, companies that interact with them online in a social environment. They want companies to help solve their consumer problems, to solicit feedback on products and services, and to develop new ways for customers to interact with the brands.

This takes me to my thoughts about the Cs and Ds of the newspaper industry. It seems like everyone is focusing on the delivery of news, the dollars that are not longer being generated, and the subsequent demise of the industry. Instead, it seems like getting back to the basics is a starting point.

First, there is content. In this world of user-generated content, content is everywhere. CNN is trying to capture content from citizens through its iReport website. Various public radio stations have experimented with gathering content online, such as the highly successful Primary Place Online run by New Hampshire Public Radio.

If all you are doing is competing with all the citizen journalists out there, you might have a slight edge because your reporters are a little better trained, but that edge is shrinking. If you’re laying off your good reporters, that edge is shrinking even more quickly.

The second C of a successful media operation is context. In this endless stream of content, some of it user generated, some of it generated by professional journalists, what matters is providing context, is helping readers understand the full story and how it relates to their lives. This is what the successful projects that tap user generated content are doing. This is what can give reporters at newspapers an edge.

The third C is community. It looks like Gannet understands this and is why they acquired Ripple6. It feels like sites like CT News Junkie and New Haven Independent get this as their readers become more involved in the sites. It seems like Doug Hardy gets this as he tries to connect the Journal Inquirer community with other media communities around the state. It isn’t about distribution. You can argue about the pros and cons of paper distribution versus radio versus television versus online. Personally, I get my information from a mix of all of these distribution channels and will as long as I can.

It has often baffled me why more local newspapers don’t get this. The local papers are the people that have the closest ties with the local communities. This is incredibly valuable and should be leveraged. In online advertising, the big bucks are going to people that can target specific communities. Newspaper organization that can help local businesses build community around their brands through smarter advertising seems to me to be ideally suited for thriving in the twenty first century.

Of course, all of this requires getting past the gloom and doom of the current crisis. It requires getting past the hubris of thinking that only professional reporters can provide quality content, and instead embracing how your understanding of content can help provide context and community. All of this requires the entrepreneurial spirit that Rick Hancock, myself and others still believes is out there in the journalism community.

It will take many years to

paid professionals