Reinventing the Newsroom

Reactions to Nieman, Part 2

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors, Going Local, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on September 18, 2009

Yesterday’s post was becoming a goat-choker, so I split it up into two parts. Here’s some more reaction to the excellent Nieman Report on journalism and social media:

Steve Buttry writes about the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel’s running “locals” in the 1970s — short items “submitted by area busybodies, telling who was visiting whom, who was ill and who had just returned from vacation.” His remembrance, in turn, made me recall that such columns were in their final days at the New Orleans Times-Picayune when I arrived there as the World’s Greenest Intern in 1989.

Like Buttry, in my youth I regarded the locals as an odd sideshow to the business of “real journalism.” Now, they look like the kind of small-scale, intensely community-focused news we perhaps ought not to have abandoned, and might revisit as part of the effort to rebuild ties with readers. Buttry, referencing his own “C3” model, imagines community moments like those noted in the locals as gateways for connecting readers with sellers of gifts and flowers. For me, it’s a valuable reminder that the past can be an instructive prelude. The locals were Facebook with faces. They were user-generated content when it wasn’t a buzzword. They were hyperlocal without the prefix. (Or maybe with a different, mellower prefix? Easylocal!) In trying to rebuild community, why not look at how we used to do it?

As for, it’s brilliant. As Vaughn Hagerty explains, readers ask questions of the newsroom of the Wilmington StarNews, and the newsroom tells the questioner its plan for handling the question, then assigns someone to answer it. (If questions are too specific or meant to resolve disputes, the paper suggests possible resources for the questioner.) The idea came out of a challenge to the staff to be a help desk for the community, and it’s been that. It’s also creating a Wiki of resources for the community, and proving a source of story ideas. (For instance, Hagerty says it’s led the StarNews to focus more resources on transportation and development issues.) I also imagine it’s a great way to rebuild trust between the community and the newspaper.

One article in the report struck me as off the mark, though — Robert Picard‘s urging that newspapers reconsider the mantra that they make their news available “anytime, anywhere, on any platform.” Noting papers’ constrained budgets, Picard thinks newspapers should demand to know how new technologies will generate money, and look askance at technologies for which there isn’t an answer.

As with Paul Farhi’s suggestion that papers retreat from the Web, this would be perfectly sensible if the newspaper industry’s current business model was the right one for a healthy, long-term future. But I don’t think it is. To steal from my own comment on Picard’s piece, the print-centric business model is a burning raft — and when you’re on a burning raft, you have to plan differently. True, that dark spot on the horizon might not be the mainland. It might be a little island where we’ll live rather limited lives. It might not have water or a source of food. It might only be a mirage. We don’t know what will happen when we reach it — but we can predict what will happen if we stay here.

Given that the raft is burning, now’s not the time for a symposium on the ROI of rowing.

7 Responses

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  1. Thom Thomason said, on September 18, 2009 at 11:12 am

    I’d say print media is less a burning raft than it is a shrinking raft.

    And I don’t know whether I agree that online news, social media reportage and blog journalism represent distant islands. Seems too convenient an argument.

    Rather, I’d argue print and non-print modes of journalism serve distinct, audience-specific purposes. Each can be effective, effectual. Each is its own ‘raft.’

    While tossing on a rough sea, why not strap together as many ‘rafts’ as possible? Of course, it’s possible one raft may become too waterlogged to support the others.

    It’ll threaten to sink – to become an ‘anchor.’

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on September 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Whee, metaphors!

    OK, Thom, I like yours too, even though we disagree on burning vs. shrinking.

    My critique of Picard’s article remains, though: If the print raft is shrinking fast, and we need to strap together various rafts to stay afloat, let’s get about the business of doing that. His advice would call for a lengthy analysis of the long-term feasibility of these new rafts, even as the one he’s got continues to shrink and people are left swimming.

    Appreciate your reading and commenting!

  3. Mark Coddington said, on September 20, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Every one of the small-town weekly newspapers I read here in rural Nebraska still have those “local” sections. Even as someone whose reporting beat includes those towns, I’ve never assigned those notes much value–mainly because pretty much everyone writing them or submitting items is retired and not writing about doing much around town besides seeing friends and getting visits from their grandkids.

    So I’ve never thought about some sort of update of that having value for a news org. It seems that Facebook, with its reach into just about every demographic and its river-of-news-like feed, might already be serving that purpose for a lot of people.

    But you and Steve have got me thinking that there may be something there. I’ll have to ponder this one for a couple days, then see if I can come up with anything.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on September 21, 2009 at 9:27 am

      Hi Mark,

      You’re right about Facebook, which strikes me as yet another reason FB is such a big challenge for newspapers. It’s great to have one’s stories shared, emailed and discussed, but if much of that discussion moves to Facebook, what have you gained in terms of engagement and reader loyalty? Yet I doubt papers will have much success mimicking Facebook on their own sites.

      Facebook Connect is part of the answer, I think — but the problem of where the engagement happens remains. I think what the Huffington Post has done with Facebook is intriguing — essentially, they’ve created a Facebook island within HuffPo, trying to keep the engagement without losing the simplicity of using the FB idea in which readers have so much invested. I wonder if the same “social media island” concept could fuel a pretty interesting digital version of the locals.

      Appreciate the comment, and look forward to what you come up with….

      • Mark Coddington said, on September 24, 2009 at 10:56 pm

        The pingback below is what I came up with after chewing on it for a couple of days. I didn’t have any magic bullets come to me, but I tried to build off of what you and Steve said a little bit.

  4. […] On the contrary, feeding those two habits are, of course, the essential function of Facebook. As Jason Fry put it, “The locals were Facebook with faces. They were user-generated content when it wasn’t a […]

  5. […] hate to see the hay a Wikipedia hater would make with that quote, but it made me think back to the locals, which never got much credit as journalism but might be more valuable in building engagement with […]

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