The ‘Or’ World and the ‘And’ World
Like a lot of journalism folks, I’ve been avidly following the drama surrounding the fate of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — and needless to say I’m rooting for the P-I to succeed as an online-only publication after the print paper ceases to be.
In The Stranger last week, Eli Sanders crafted a gripping portrait of a newspaper whose reporters are betwixt and between, torn between wanting to continue at a far leaner, online-only P-I and wondering if they’d be better off on their own. Sanders discusses some of the experiments already under way at the paper, such as prominent home-page links to other publications, including ones that could be seen as rivals. And he nails the philosophy behind such links: “[I]f enough Northwest readers choose to always begin their online information-gathering journeys at the P-I—even though the links there may quickly take them to Lifehacker or West Seattle Blog or Slog or even the Times—the publication could return, in an online way, to the role that traditional newspapers used to enjoy: powerful gatekeeper.”
Yep. That’s the idea — that there’s still time for newspapers to reclaim their role as the connective tissue of their towns, not by being one of the sole sources for reliable, easily distributed local news and information (that era is long gone), but by making their local-reporting expertise, institutional history and brand strength the core of something new. Perhaps that something new will be a loose network of news and community and micro-sites and guides built up by reporters and readers and advertisers and others. The P-I‘s current experiments are steps in that direction.
But if they’re going to get there, papers will have to confront reactions like the one quoted by Sanders, from an unnamed P-I reporter reacting to the home-page links: “Sheesh. What’s next? Linking to the Times?”
Well, yes. Absolutely. To me, this goes to the core of how newsrooms need to reinvent themselves for the digital world.
Newspapers used to be built around the concept of the Or World, aiming themselves at a hypothetical reader who would pass by the newsstand or the boxes on the corner, take a quick look at the front pages (above the fold) and pick one paper or the other. That world is long gone. Today we live in the And World — the Internet rapidly spreads scoops and good reads everywhere, and a reader who’s interested in a topic will devour everything he or she can find about it from a wealth of sources. Web rules, in other words.
Applying And World rules drives a lot of the practices followed in online journalism, or urged upon those trying to make the transition to it — and some of them understandably strike Or World folks as heretical. There’s Jeff Jarvis‘s maxim to “do what you do best and link to the rest,” for example, as well as the various strategies for aggregating links and/or having editors “curate” coverage by linking to other sources. (The Daily Fix, the column I first edited and then co-wrote for WSJ.com, was an early — and I thought very effective — example of curating links.)
These And World philosophies can be used as cover for slashing staff and dumbing down a paper by jettisoning coverage of international news, national news, business, science or the arts. But to me, that’s misusing them: The idea isn’t “do what you do best and ignore the rest,” and there’s a big difference between the And World and the Not World.
Well-chosen links are an exercise in trust: They admit that a paper may not have everything, but promise readers that the paper will be a trustworthy source for finding anything. Keeping that promise makes a paper more likely to be a starting point for readers — a looser version of the gatekeeper role papers once enjoyed, and could still recapture. But the flip side is that not helping readers find information they want — for instance, by ignoring a chief competitor’s story — erodes trust. In the And World, that’s a surefire way to get discarded.
So yes, the P-I should link to the Times. Once that was forbidden, and anyone who suggested otherwise would have been thought crazy. Soon it will be mandatory, and the same rule will apply.