Reactions to Nieman, Part 2
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 MyReporter.com, 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.
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