This month's Atlantic includes a fascinating article by Michael Hirschorn on what newspapers have to do to stay relevant in an increasingly diffuse, almost schizophrenic, media environment. We've got blogs and MySpace and YouTube and, shucks Jimmy!, however are newspaper supposed to stay afloat? Certainly, as everyone's been saying for some time now, the future doesn't look bright. Circulation figures are dwindling, younger generations havenÂ¹t developed their parents' taste for broadsheet, blah blah blah barf. Being forced to read these same stories over and over is almost enough to make you throw in the towel and root for the Death of the Newspaper.
Occasionally, though, a piece of doomsday-ism comes around that is too entertaining to deny. EPIC 2014, which Hirschorn kicks off his article describing, is one. Produced in 2004, it foretells the death of old media at the hands of a hyper-personalized news disseminator run by Googlezon, which is what Google and Amazon call themselves after the predicted merger. Before watching the video, two quick notes: 1) Don't forget that everything after 2004, not 2006, is pure conjecture. 2) Thrill to the way the narrator gratuitously emphasizes certain words--"participatory journalism PLATFORM!" It's delightful and also a little creepy.
I wasn't kidding about the over-zealous narration, huh? Anyway, as tiresome as newspaper death stories are, solution-based ones can be fun, if for no other reason than you can look back three years from now and see how silly we all were for writing this stuff down. And thatÂ¹s precisely the kind of piece Hirschorn has written, and as smartly as can be expected.
His suggestion for staving off impending doom is this: newspapers should move the business of breaking original news"“"in the form of stories, postings, and community""“entirely to the web and leave the paper version for longer analytical pieces akin to the New York Times' occasional Washington Memos. It's a relatively simple and, it seems, inevitable step, since the public is getting increasingly used to reading and commenting on the news not every morning, but more like every minute.
I believe his specific proposal is unlikely to succeed, however. He says, by way of example, that the Times should give its music critic Kelefa Sanneh his own blog/social network so that he can post his own reviews, myriad thoughts, and the like, and his readers can respond in kind with their own reviews, myriad thoughts, and the like. That way Sanneh isn't bound by the strictures of a daily publishing schedule and can reach out to his readers whenever he has something to say. And, in turn, his readers can reach out to him. Interactive-errific! A number of studies suggest that readers respond to that kind of give-and-take, and, according to Hirschorn, almost every reporter would have his own blog: Dana Priest of The Washington Post would write about intelligence, Adam Nagourney of the Times on Washington scuttlebutt, etc.
My problem with this plan is that as much as it strokes my ego to think readers recognize bylines and would follow individual reporters to their own sites, I seriously doubt itÂ¹s true. It's too much of a media world-centric point of view for me. I understand this is anecdotal, but whenever I mention the name Adam Nagourney to fellow journalists, they
instinctively respond, "Oh, you mean the guy who can't find enough ways to write a story about The Democratic Party In Turmoil?" But when I mention him to other people outside the bubble...crickets. It's natural. I can't name more than two hedge fund managers.
The idea of moving breaking news to the web is essential"¹especially, as Hirschorn notes, if newspapers wise up enough to "microchunk" the content, syndicate it, and get a share of the the ad revenue from sites that pick it up--but the parent companies would be a lot better off if instead of giving reporters their own blogs, they gave sections of the newspaper their own blogs. Say, intelligence.washingtonpost.com instead of danapriest.washingtonpost.com. In addition to combating the false sense of name recognition Hirschorn believes in, this approach would also be able to better harness the collaborative advantage newspapermen have over bloggers. It's not Dana Priest who makes all the phone calls and does all the research. She has an excellent research team, and she occasionally works with other reporters on the same story. Don't make her the star, make the Post's intelligence team the star. The site can still have all the social networking you want, but you'd be playing up your home court advantage. Plus, identifying a section of the paper rather than a single reporter is better for strengthening brand loyalty.
Using this approach"¹if we take a very rosy outlook"“might also help some of the mid-major newspapers that, according to media critic Jack Shafer, are too small to compete with the Times and the Post and too big to focus on the very local news that'll most likely keep the smallest papers alive. How? Let's use the Detroit Free Press as an example. They can scale back on some of their more expensive national and international coverage by picking up syndicated pieces not just from the AP, but from other papers, too. Then, they could put more resources into creating their own newspaper destinations that other papers would link to and they could earn syndication money from. The obvious example for the Free Press would be to generate the country's best automobile industry coverage. And in the same way, other mid-major papers would jockey for their own little
niches. Gardening for the Orlando Sentinel, for instance, or travel for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Papers fill be scrambling to these gaps, and as a result of market forces, the quality of journalism would have to get pretty high to become a niche leader. I, for one, am dying for a Pulitzer-winning gardening story. Where are you, Orlando?
Okay, all this is just a start. The issue is obviously complicated enough to write a book about. But I want to know what you think. Am I crazy? Is there anything you agree with me on? Do you have any other ideas on how newspapers are going to survive the next ten years? Let me know.
And I promise to write about something totally frivolous next week.