Reinventing the Newsroom

Memo for San Diego: Start by Creating Communities

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 6, 2009

I’m not in San Diego, though given the grisly weather here in New York City I wish I were. Nor am I a newspaper executive. (And I’m very glad I’m not!)

But if I were somehow transported across the country and magicked into a suit and tie for the formerly secret meeting taking place on the sidelines of the Newspaper Association of America’s annual get-together, I’d say something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, we are on a burning raft. Our papercentric business model is vanishing, and needs to be replaced with something new. Nobody, least of all me, knows what that something new will be. But I can guess at the underpinnings of it.

All is not lost. We have a business with a number of strengths that executives in more-nascent industries would kill for: a highly trained work force with skills that aren’t irreplaceable but are hard to duplicate; actual revenue and customers; a longstanding place in society that even doubters and grousers regard as critical; and an institutional history that’s woven through the larger history of our cities and towns.

The problem is we need to transfer those strengths from serving the crumbling model to the new one that’s being built experiment by experiment. Now, it’s hard to place bets on experiments, but most all of the experiments seem to agree on one thing: Our news operations have to become part of strong, self-identifying and self-reinforcing communities of readers.

Web sites that work are more than just distribution vehicles for producers of content — they’re communities where readers come to visit and stay a while. There, those readers talk back to stories and news. They talk with each other, forming friendships and romances and enmities and cliques. They push sites in directions they want them to go (which may not be the same destinations the site creators have in mind). They point out errors, logical flaws and missed opportunities. They bring news of their own to the discussion. They care for the communities and defend them against both outsiders who would do them harm and insiders who aren’t living up to community standards.

There’s no made-to-order recipe for creating communities like that — when a site “tips” and becomes one, it’s wonderful to see. In my own daily Web rounds I see it lots of places, from snarky sports sites to Brooklyncentric blogs to discussions of Star Wars to my own co-written blog about the Mets to Facebook to Twitter.

But I don’t see it very much on newspaper sites.

Which, if you think about it, is very strange. We have traffic, yes — but we’ve done poorly in getting those visitors to stay, in turning traffic into communities. By now it’s not terribly helpful to debate what we did wrong — better by far to figure out how to change it. We can do that in a number of closely related ways. We have to push our reporters and writers farther down from the mountaintop, so they’re not just writing for readers but interacting with them in forums, live chats, beat blogs and blog chats and social media. We have to pull our readers higher up the mountain, so that their own stories and voices and news have a place in our news organizations. We have to grab hold of our towns in any way we can, so our newspapers are once again gateways for finding out everything from society events to Little League games, latest crime stats to distant history, drink specials to local-government salaries. We have to get that information to readers whether it comes from our own newsroom, our competitors’, or from readers themselves. And we have to do it via whatever device or medium our readers want.

That may sound like a laundry list of stuff, but it’s really two ideas that will reinforce each other: Reclaim our towns and build communities around that work.

Right now there’s what looks like a curious inversion in the world of the Web: Hot social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter command breathless headlines despite having no clearly defined plan for being viable businesses, while long-established businesses like ours are treated like they’re already dead. But the conventional cyber-wisdom is correct: Facebook and Twitter may not have enviable P&L sheets, but they have a bedrock foundation of solid, self-reinforcing community upon which they can build. For the most part, we don’t.

That self-reinforcing community is the foundation that every news operations that wishes to survive must now build. Without it, attempting to implement any new monetization scheme would be a doomed exercise in building on sand. The sooner we create communities, the sooner we can come back here and turn our attention to what they’ll pay for and how they’ll pay for it.

That’s our mission. Now let’s go out and get to it.

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7 Responses

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  1. Kristin said, on April 6, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    In mainstream newspapers, The Washington Post seems to have done the best job I’ve seen of creating mini-communities, in chats with columnists (although I’m not sure how well that’s extended to the news sections).

    Gene Weingarten’s and Carolyn Hax’s chats seem to bring back many of the same people over and over, as do the Reliable Source columnist chats. There are mini-communities there, and the chats create relationships with the writers in a way that, say, the “Ask the Newsroom” sessions with New York Times staffers don’t. The Times blogs are starting to have more of a give-and-take feel, depending on how often the writer responds to reader comments.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on April 7, 2009 at 12:41 pm

      Hey Kristin — yes, I agree that WP and NYT are making good inroads here. The Post has an admirably deep roster of reporters and writers who understand the conversational tone of online writing and seem to genuinely enjoy a give-and-take readers, and the Times is conducting an enormous number of interesting experiments, including social media.

      What I’d really love to see is local and regional papers doing the same thing. I think they have simultaneously the most to gain and potentially everything to lose.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. [...] L’ottimista:”Facebook e Twitter conquistano titoli enfatici benché non abbiano piani definiti per fare soldi in maniera realistica, mentre imprese consolidate come le nostre sono trattate come se fossero già morte. Ma il cyber-senso comune ha ragione: Facebook e Twitter non avranno dei bilanci invidiabili, ma hanno fondamenta sulla roccia di una solida comunità che si autorafforza sulla quale possono costruire. Per la maggior parte noi non le abbiamo. Questo tipo di comunità che si autorafforza è quello che ogni impresa giornalistica che desideri sopravvivere deve ora costruire. Senza di essa i tentativi di applicare nuovi schemi di monetizzazione sarebbero vani tentativi di costruire sulla sabbia”. Tags: crisi giornali, Jarvis, jason Fry, modelli di business, Tom Glocer [...]

  3. [...] I said in my Memo for San Diego, news organizations have a lot of strengths, but they’re wasting them trying to shore up the [...]

  4. [...] plan is implicit in a lot of what he proposes, but I think also deserves emphasizing: We should be investing and experimenting in community-building. Newspapers need to grow online communities around their refocused content, creating the digital [...]

  5. [...] met behind closed doors again to talk about how to make people pay for online content. Last time they were in San Diego; this time they were in Rosemont, Ill. Which is another distressing trend [...]

  6. [...] work to regain their status as community hubs and community marketplaces. Heck, I’ve said much the same thing. This is Job One; if papers succeed at it, maybe (and only maybe) can they think about moving to a [...]


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