Reinventing the Newsroom

The Experimental Age Demands Patience

Posted in Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on December 9, 2009

Over on his personal blog, Benji Lanyado asks if hyperlocal is all hype, worrying that the ad dollars will never arrive to sustain it, or that the need for a lot of hyperlocal content will drag down the level of quality to unacceptable levels. “Hyperlocal has been talked about for years, but a eureka moment still hasn’t materialised,” he writes.

I think Lanyado has surveyed hyperlocal ably and asked some very good questions. I’m not out to bash him. But it struck me that his skepticism, while well-founded, seems entirely too early — just as it does when attached to other news experiments by other commenters. Take nonprofit journalism, about which I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for Gelf Magazine’s Media Circus in Dumbo Thursday night. (Details here — come by!) If you read the nonprofit model’s detractors, you’ll conclude it’s clearly all hype too, whether the problem is that philanthropists’ agendas will distort things or that news organizations that don’t try to make money will wind up irredeemably flabby in allocating resources. Citizen journalists? Untrained hacks who can’t be taught the first thing about accuracy and fairness. Wikis? Poorly policed and prone to vandalism. Social media? Dooms us all to echo chambers of likeminded thought.

Skepticism is good, and we have to keep our revolutionary fervor in check lest our hopes for new journalism become cheerleading. But we also can’t let doubts and worries lead us to dismiss experiments while they’re still running. The newspaper industry’s current travails have taken a lot of these experiments off the back burner, and they’re now getting real attention — along with real money and, yes, an excess of hype. We need to resist excessive enthusiasm and cynicism and simply let the experiments run, giving ourselves time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what kind of worked — and then run variations on those experiments. And then do it again. And then some more. Right now we’re like biologists peering at the brew of lightning-stoked amino acids and grousing that this stuff will never produce a decent opposable thumb.

To borrow Clay Shirky’s line, “Nothing will work, but everything might.” It’s going to take time to find the mights and iterate them into some part of some successful model. And I bet that model will have little resemblance to what we’re thinking about now, here at the end of 2009 amid the early winter of the print age. The daily print paper as we knew it for generations isn’t exactly an obvious mix either: Who’d think to take news about distant lands and news about nearby towns and political editorials and sports and lifestyle pieces and advice columns and humor and cartoons and horoscopes and comics and crosswords and help-wanted ads and for-sale signs and coded personal messages and kids’ drawings and movie reviews and entertainment listings and neighborhood gossip and lots and lots of retail ads and present it as something that people would not only pay for but come to cherish as part of their morning routine? Yet that worked, and it worked for a long time. We need to bear that in mind, and be patient in figuring out what will work next.

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4 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Hensley, Jason Fry. Jason Fry said: Skepticism is good about digital #journalism experiments, but we also need patience. http://bit.ly/4qIdFe […]

  2. Perry Gaskill said, on December 10, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    No offense, Jason, but it seems to me both you and Benji Lanyado have missed the main dynamic in the discussion about the hyperlocal sphere. On one hand, you have a top-down franchise model seeking to use large economies of scale for sustainability; on the other, a bottom-up model trying to find a threshold for sustainability at a local level and generated as a local effort. Gina Chen over at Nieman Lab did a piece on the launch of WikiCity back in August, and to avoid repeating my comments on problems with the top-down model, you might be interested in this link:

    http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/08/wikicity-aims-to-tap-hyper-niche-markets-for-news-and-information/

    Personally, I tend to think the bottom-up model shows the most promise because, for example, it has the potential to find a sustainability threshold faster than existing mass media forms such as the NYT can both downsize and shift focus. And the focus that would need to change isn’t anything radical; it’s a matter of swinging a pendulum back to a type of news more common at a prior time.

    Sometime around 1910 the news business started to swing from being primarily a community mirror to one of being a community window on the world. Which is why today we tend to know more about a roadside bomb in Baghdad than we do about why our local city council decided to double the price of parking meters. And it can be argued that the reason for the change is that the Baghdad story is both cheaper and safer. Cheaper in the sense of being able to rip it off the wire, and safer in the sense that there’s less risk of offending anybody.

    Doing good community journalism is not an easy thing, and it sometimes makes me wonder if an additional bit of baggage the top-down model carries is the notion that communities in the aggregate are the same as communities taken one at a time. The idea that out beyond the Hudson River there’s a generic otherwhere that could make World Domination Corp tons of money if only those pesky small-town readers would get with the program.

    At the risk of going off topic, there’s yet another dynamic that comes into play with all this which is an advertising issue. For a variety of reasons, there’s been a long-term trend among newspapers to concentrate on helping to sell stuff instead of services. Most of the services market, small businesses such as roofers or accountants, went instead to phone company yellow pages.

    So a reasonable question to ask, as things move online, is to what extent a bottom-up local news effort can use its knowledge of the local service business community to help build the sustainable news model it needs to survive. This is not suggested as a silver bullet, but instead as a potential piece of the puzzle not on the usual radar.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on December 13, 2009 at 12:29 pm

      No offense taken at all, Perry. I think that’s a very persuasive argument, and an excellent point about the shift from community mirror to community window on the world. Thank you!

  3. uberVU - social comments said, on December 12, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by MetaCase: Hyper local news reporting: ‘all hype’ or ‘too early to tell’? @JasoncFry asks for patience in the experimental age. http://bit.ly/7Eq8fn


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