Apocalypse 19: The Bright Side

By , 19 March, 2009, No Comment

Not a week goes by these days without some casualty of the journalism apocalypse. Unlike so-called media pundits who simply make money celebrating the demise of media, I am generally saddened to see good papers die. Not because I have any attachment to dead trees, but because I believe the future of news media–digital and collaborative as it will no doubt be–has to involve the expertise of the people in those newsrooms.

Startups should lead old-timers in the right direction (more opinion, more interactivity, more transparency) but not disparage them. A scalable replacement for the social function of print will come from an organization with some scale that merges with some smaller newbies or a newbie that acquires scale by harnessing the expertise and resources released by the old organizations. The assets and talent underneath the managerial fat at many of these papers cannot be allowed to go gently into the night, and laughing at newspaper folk does not exactly build a base for future collaboration.

Some new media evangelists are better than others at being modest. Clay Shirky’s poignant, stunningly written indictment of poor managers and how they got us to this point gets my approval because he stops short of the self-congratulation that seems to accompany others’ writings on this topic. He admits he doesn’t have a better solution, yet.

Some print outfits are better than others at making the transition. The FT’s decision to launch its own content aggregator for businesspeople is a good experiment, though it’s not entirely original–BusinessWeek did the same months ago. The policy journals–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy–are doing a great job turning their websites into a collection of blogs to which the print ‘zine can be a collector’s bonus. A handful of daily papers–the Boston Globe, the SF Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian–are building websites that can become standalone hyperlocal offerings, if only they could take the leap and make these sites the primary offering. Unfortunately, the papers that are actually forced by their finances to make the leap to killing their print product don’t have such developed web products to fall back on, and they often just close up shop.

That makes the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and its replacement by the all-online SeattlePI.com, especially notable. Seattle’s Congressman, Jim McDermott, was here on Cappuccino some weeks back brainstorming funding models to keep papers like his afloat in print, because, at the time, he seemed quite convinced that the Internet just couldn’t fill the same role. Now, he’s a blogger who says the changing times have all the progressive potential of the 1960s. Whoa. Commenters are beating up on him for taking a job writing for the PI site, since the old paper was fairly sympathetic to him and it seems like backscratching but I’ll come to his defense: give credit to a Boomer who can get his head around change this quickly. And give credit the new SeattlePI.com for being exactly the kind of expert-audience collaboration we want to see online.

Of course, making a website like this pay for itself is still a challenge. The Pew Project’s most recent “State of the News Media” report says we’re spending too much time on models that won’t work (micropayments) and not enough exploring options that might. The Pew folks suggest: giving news organizations a cut of the fees we pay ISPs, like we do with TV broadcasters; turn mass news websites into portals for commercial activity (example: an Amazon widget on the Book Review page that lets you buy the book right there); the Newsweek model I’ve discussed before, of subscriber offerings for elite niche audiences.  All three suggestions have potential, though I wonder if the first isn’t just a proxy for state supported media, since we’re eventually headed towards free public broadband access in most markets.

Also, the Pew crowd say there was more news content produced about politics with increasing frequency in 2008 than in previous elections but that it was more reactive, passive and less investigatory than in year’s past. That’s quite a rebuttal to those who see citizen-media as somehow replacing the Fourth Estate. Some of these citizen/professional partnerships, however, might just do it; here’s to hoping the recession brings on some more of those.

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