Saturday, February 28, 2009

No news, which is bad news

This is one of a series of posts by Chuck Taylor and me about the decline of the newspaper business and what that means for Seattle journalism. Chuck last posted at his Seattle Post-Times blog, and I wrote previously here.

While I admire the hard work and can-do sense of optimism that have gone into events like Thursday night’s “No News Is Bad News” panel, the recent spate of discussions on Seattle’s journalism future have left me frustrated, and a bit winded.

For all the motion I don’t sense much movement. The conversations, though pinging among smart, involved people, tend to be circular -- and repetitive from event to event. Yes, it’s a drag that newspapers are dying; and yes, it’s important for society to save, replicate or replace the vital reporting function that metro dailies have provided lo these many years.

But listening in the other night to a live-stream of the NNBN event (video here) I found myself wishing we could stipulate those and a few other points:

* Newspapers have brought some of this shit on themselves, through arrogance, laziness, fear of technology and collective head-in-sand disease.

* “Newspapers” do not equal "news"; nor for that matter does “mainstream media” equal “journalism.”

* Bloggers are people too. Blogging is a platform, not a (lacking) style of reporting or writing.

* That said, not all bloggers or citizen journalists practice the kind of fact-checking that distinguishes the best of legacy professional journalism.

* Whatever comes next, a viable business model is key.

OK. So now what do you want to talk about?

For a few minutes the other night the discussion did swing around toward business models for news outlets -- panelist Art Thiel’s pitch for a Green Bay Packers-style community ownership plan, for example. Somebody else ignored an official admonition and uttered the word micropayments. But none of that talk got too far, nor was there much exploration of what readers actually want to see in their newsiness publication, whatever form it may take.

At one point I tried to interject via Twitter. “Question for #nnbn: Moving on, what will/should local newscape look like post-PI, or post-newspaper?” And I was pleasantly surprised that emcee Dave Ross picked up my question and repeated it to the panel. Alas it didn’t really go anywhere.

Now, I understand, the NNBN folks are talking about putting together a second event to continue the discussion, this one focused more on business considerations. That may prove helpful, but -- I’m sorry -- I’m dubious. And Chuck, I see that you’ve launched a nifty wiki to take on some of the same questions. That strikes me as a cool tool, essentially an extension of the public-meeting discussions, but from the comfort of our homes and with no closing gavel. Personally I’ve never felt comfortable contributing to wikis, but I like the concept and I’m sure some good thinking will surface there. I’ll be watching for sure.

Like the old-school, curmudgeonly dinosaurs lamented in these recent panels, I find myself naysaying a lot of stuff without offering any genius ideas of my own. One difference, maybe: I welcome the new. In fact I launched my own online news digest site 10 years ago, worked for at startup three years before that, and have been a big advocate for Web-first, blog-centric and Twitterific reporting ever since.

But where does all that leave us? I still worry that whatever emerges from the ashes of dailies like the P-I will need some time to get its act completely together.

For instance, as much as I read and admire West Seattle Blog -- Tracy Record’s work ethic shames nearly every newspaper reporter I’ve ever known -- I got in WSB's virtual face a couple of weeks ago regarding a crime report that I thought was irresponsible in its description of a suspect. As much as I respect Cory Bergman, of MyBallard fame, I disagree with his premise -- noted in a comment on your recent post, Chuck, -- that what’s needed is a breach of the “Great Wall” between journalism and the business side of news operations. Actually, disagree is the wrong word. I’m not even sure what he means. But I know I believe in that wall.

This week, Eli Sanders at The Stranger speculated a bit about what the next, online-only P-I might look like: a lot of aggregation, he supposed, including links to formerly competing publications including the Seattle Times. That seems logical and even smart to me, although I know there’s a lot of angst about it among soon-to-be-former P-I staffers.

What do you think, Chuck? And what’s your take on the emerging news sites taking off around town -- PubliCola, Seattle Courant and the various neighborhood blogs? I have some thoughts on those, but I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts, and those of our readers, first.


Anonymous said...

I'm one of those soon-to-be-former PI reporters, and I've said for a couple of years that the PI ought to link to Seattle Times stories on its web site. When Lincoln Millstein was hired by Hearst in its new media operation a few years ago, he came to the PI on a meet-the-troops trip and held an open meeting with staffers. In it, he outlined a vision in which would be the go-to site for all things Seattle -- news, restaurant reviews, best gardening stores, buying Mariners tickets, whatever. It would, in effect, be the Seattle portal: If you wanted to find out something about Seattle or go somwhere in Seattle or buy something in Seattle, you'd go to He didn't say anything specifically about linking to Times stories, but it seemed logical to me: If wants to be the best source of information on all things Seattle, then it should provide site visitors that info, no matter where it comes from.

But that still doesn't solve the underlying problem: How do you generate enough revenue online to support a news operation at anything near current newspaper levels?

Curt said...

I agree, Mark, let's stipulate those points you mentioned. Seems like they've been discussed ad nauseum and we can just agree they don't need to be argued anymore.

I see the No News is Bad News group as a place to talk but not where solutions will necessarily be formulated. People are going to have to find and create the new news models on their own, not in a public discussion group.

To answer Greg's comment, I don't think online will, for now, generate anything near the level of revenue we've seen from print. It may never generate that level of revenue. The new models will be smaller newsrooms with fewer employees.

As I said at the NNBN meeting last week, let's get on with it! Endless discussions and finger-pointing don't move us forward. Getting to work, trying to see what might be possible, does.

In addition to the next NNBN meeting, which will focus on "where do we go next," check out the next edition of The Pitch, Jason Preston's occasional event. He's going to focus on local news entrepreneurs. Should be good.

Anonymous said...

In case it's of interest on the business model side, those who didn't hear it might want to give a listen to a recent On the Media segment that talked about
Kachingle as a way for newspapers (and other web sites) to receive money from readers. Probably not enough, but what the hell.