2010: There’s No Time Like the Present
Hope the holidays were good to everybody — I needed a recharge myself. But now it’s 2010 and time to get going. What kind of year is it going to be for the news industry?
It’s my hope that the combination of a reviving economy and the scary carnage of late 2008 and 2009 will spur news organizations to get more aggressive and more forward-thinking, actively experimenting and rethinking and asking hard questions about the way things have always been. So it was disappointing to begin the year with this survey by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds of the prospects for mobile, local and social-media advertising. Edmonds writes that “what makes sense as a high-risk, high-reward play for [venture capitalists and big digital players] should not be seen as a sure thing with immediate revenue prospects. I think you could blame the optimistic forecasts of recent years for mistaking a possibility for a trend. Even I don’t want to start the year on a note of digital denial. But perhaps 2010 will turn out to be another year of sorting out, rather than taking off, for ads in any of these growth sectors.”
Rabble-rousing isn’t Edmonds’ thing, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect it of him, but this was really frustrating to read — it smacks of the reactive passivity that’s left news organizations taking shot after shot to the jaw. If 2010 is going to be another year of sorting out, news organizations have to be an active part of that sorting out, instead of waiting around to see what happens.
Happily, Steve Buttry had already pounced, arguing in the comments that “if we don’t pursue mobile opportunities aggressively, we’ll regret this as another squandered opportunity. Waiting for serious revenue is not a strategy for success. Serious revenue comes to those who pursue it, not those who wait for it.”
Exactly. Quit waiting around — for things to settle out, for business models to emerge, for the Apple Tablet to change the game (I liked Andrew Golis‘s derisive tweet: “If my business model were dying, I would definitely just cross my fingers and hope Steve Jobs saves it. What could go wrong?”), for someone else to go first. Go out and figure out what your readers want and how they’re using technology to get it, and try and deliver that. If that means old ways of doing things need to be rethought or abandoned, accept that. If it means failing (and in some cases it will), that’s fine — figure out what worked and what didn’t and try to get the arrow closer to the target.
For example, you could take Judy Sims’s advice — she has seven New Year’s resolutions for news executives, and this parting message: “There’s just one problem with comfortable solutions. In the online world, chances are, if a solution makes you feel comfortable and in control, it’s probably not radical enough to work. … Stop trying to feel comfortable. You are not in a comfortable situation.”
Indeed. Yet uncomfortable experimentation doesn’t need to undermine the core values of journalism — it can support and restore those values.
In a nice get-your-guns New Year’s post for Nieman Journalism Lab, Gina Chen remembers Saturday night shifts on the city desk, answering people’s seemingly bizarre questions: “On what channel will the local college basketball game be shown? Is there trash pickup tomorrow because of the holiday? If I mail a package today, will it make it to my grandchildren by Christmas? A wise editor of mine explained that we should be proud readers came to us with these questions because it meant the newspaper was so intrinsic to people’s lives that it was the first place they went for answers. Newspapers still need to be that today.”
Chen is right — newspapers ought to be figuring out how to answer those questions, not training people to find answers somewhere else. In the New York Times, Daniel E. Slotnick writes about the Manchester, Conn., Journal-Inquirer’s use of SeeClickFix, a Web tool that lets people identify community problems for local officials to fix. That mission is perfectly aligned with a news organization’s mission to be a central hub of its community. Reading about it, I immediately flashed back to the Wilmington StarNews and MyReporter, which lets readers ask the StarNews newsroom questions that are then assigned to staffers. The site’s mission is to make the staff its community’s help desk, a perfect fit for the role Chen came to appreciate. (Read more about it here from Vaughn Hagerty.)
These are great experiments, which don’t replace a newsroom’s role so much as they reimagine it and extend it for a new era. The experiments that succeed can help restore news organizations to their old role as nerve centers of their communities — a role they have not yet lost but will soon if they continue to dawdle and agonize. And this experimental ethos and renewed mission should be extended to everything else. Instead of just selling ads to local businesses (or waiting around for a better read of the local-advertising tea leaves), go out and help local businesses set up their own online storefronts — and take a cut of sales. Instead of just running wedding announcements, use that section as a way to hook up other families with caterers and florists and bakers. (And take a cut!) Make the best damn interactive local-events guide you can imagine, so that the newspaper Web site (or some slice of it) is the default place to figure out what to do on Saturday night. Figure out how to make location-aware services work for everything from traffic updates to events to restaurant specials. Instead of sighing over lousy discussion boards in which people type in capital letters and call each other Hitler, give readers tools to create and police their own communities and figure out together what works.
The time for waiting around is over — the folks who want to take what’s left of our business aren’t going to spend 2010 waiting to see which way the business-model winds are blowing. It’s time to get out there and do stuff.