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It’s an interesting Monday morning for thoughts about where journalism might be going.
Last week Chris O’Brien wrote a very good blog post for MediaShift Idea Lab critiquing the idea that giving away online news is the newspaper industry’s original sin. Not so, O’Brien says — if there was an original sin, it was overvaluing the journalism newspapers provide and badly undervaluing newspapers’ importance as local community hubs and local community marketplaces. As he argues the case, journalism has always been a small piece of what readers pay for, and calling it the most important part of the paper is a decidedly journalist-centric way of looking at things.
I’ve subscribed to the notion as free content as original sin myself, and will continue to bemoan the fact that top papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post didn’t charge for their content years ago. I firmly believe they could have charged, and that if they had done so then (via a permeable model along the lines of WSJ.com’s), consumer expectations might be different today. But I think one reason I’ve clung so stubbornly to that belief is that charging for content seems like something newspapers could have done themselves, while a lot of the other changes that have battered newspapers feel like gusts in the whirlwind. But that’s awfully easy, and not particularly useful in figuring out how to go forward.
Meanwhile, I could not agree more with O’Brien’s conclusion: Local papers need to stop tying themselves in knots about how to charge, and instead 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 subscription model.
(Tip of the Cap Department: I found O’Brien’s post through Steve Buttry, who has another idea about the nature of newspaper original sin. To Buttry, it’s that papers lazily ported the print-ad business onto the Web, instead of taking the opportunity to innovate and help businesses built real connections with consumers. Again, I completely agree — this is part of the erosion of newspapers as the glue of their communities.)
Another big topic: Here’s the best explainer I’ve read so far on Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed, by Chadwick Matlin in Slate’s The Big Money. To that, add this Kara Swisher post on All Things Digital about what Huffington Post is doing with Facebook Connect. Taken together, you have a blueprint for where social media is going — Facebook is simultaneously putting a piece of itself into sites and bringing more stuff from sites into itself. Very soon, having a social-media “outpost” (the term itself is revealing) will mean absolutely nothing: Publishers need to follow the Huffington Post’s lead and make sure they’re harnessing social media’s possibilities in all directions. Social media is already a reader-driven distribution network for bits and pieces of one’s brand; it will also soon be connective fiber for readers within one’s brand.
Finally: If you haven’t read Bill Wyman’s two-part jeremiad about the failure of newspapers, do so. Compelling, passionately argued and thought-provoking.
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