Wednesday, November 30, 2005

An interesting vision of how blog technology can save newspapers

This piece was posted on slashdot, one of the biggest blog sites of them all, and written by a longtime writer for slashdot and its parent company. He has a lot of experience with online journalism and building online community sites, and has a big suggestion for the newspapers of the world. See, in the face of TV and Internet the typical newspaper circulation is shrinking. It seems the newspaper teams are not grokking the online world and how to best ride the tiger to their success, which is a shame because there's a natural fit between newspapers and localized online community.

A Recipe for Newspaper Survival in the Internet Age (Posted by Roblimo @ slashdot on Wednesday November 30, 2005 @11:28AM)

He says a lot of very interesting things ... which I don't want to repeat .. instead I'm going to hit on the high points.

First, newspapers have a potential role that's a natural fit for them. They could easily be a hub for a local interactive community website. They just have to marry articles with user comments in a strong way. And newspapers could easily tap on locals to do some of the writing.

Instead when newspapers allow user comments it's usually buried in a web forum elsewhere on the site, not connected with the articles, and perhaps requiring a separate login from the newspaper. This is probably a technology problem in that the newspaper content management system probably doesn't allow for comments, and so to provide a space for reader discussion they tack on a bulletin board on the side but then it might be difficult or impossible for both software packages to use the same user identity database.

It's also related to an article I posted here yesterday. Namely, in the past corporations have seen blogging as a PR nightmare waiting to happen. Newspapers probably see user comments in the same light, and in Roblimo's post he does go over several classes of users and how some of them will post problematic comments. That just means having a good moderation system to handle problematic comments.

Second, he has a strong statement about newspapers and their "local" roles. That's an interesting thought, since by their nature newspapers serve a specific area. There clearly is a need for local coverage of local matters. But what one gets from viewing most news media is that the only important activity that happens is in Washington DC, New York or Los Angeles. Well, excuse me, but what about the rest of the country?

There clearly is a need for news media that covers the national scene, just as there's a need for news media that covers the local scene.

I think one problem is that newspapers are not local any longer. Instead the management is through national chains. There might be reporters and editors hired in each local place, but the managerial tone is set from the national office. In particular the national chain might be providing the bulk of the news through their national news desks in NYC, DC and LA and the local outlets are simply supposed to reprint whatever the national chain sends them.

Third, he has a revolutionary concept of the way to produce the newspaper.

Eventually, I expect print newspapers to become "snapshots" of their Web editions taken at 1 a.m. or another arbitrary time, poured into page templates and massaged a little by layout people, then sent to the printing presses, a pattern that has potential for significant production cost reductions if handled adroitly. From that point on, their paper editions will be distributed the same way newspapers are now.

This is rather a large departure from how newspapers function today, so it's worth delving into this a little.

The paradigm he spins is that the newspaper site would be the primary repository of content. The content (articles) comes from a mix of hired reporters, user comments, and locals who provide either story leads or full articles. The latter, locals who can provide a full article that's good enough to run with little editing, might get paid on a per-article basis. I think they could be called a "stringer", right?

The web site would get continually moderated and edited throughout the day. Hence the news organization still needs editors to oversee the articles for quality. It's just that when the editor is finished editing the article, it can be directly published to the web site right away.

The last step is what he describes ... laying out a printed edition can be easily done automatically with software. As he says, the software would take a snapshot of the web site at a given time, automatically do layout and formatting, perhaps with a little human tweaking, and send it to the printers. There's even a potential advantage in that the software can select advertising based on keywords and suddenly print media could have relevant advertising just as we enjoy today with AdSense based advertising on web sites.