Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

Perspective is important

For newspaper executives the world over, this should qualify as an “ah-ha!” moment:

Twitter3

This is what runs through my mind when I read on Facebook or Twitter, journalists pleading/guilting/etc their friends and/or colleagues into buying a newspaper. Newspaper as a medium is not sacrosanct, much to the chagrin of every member of the Newspaper Association of America and most newspaper editors.

I doubt newspapers, the physical product, will go the way of the Dodo any time soon. They still have a purpose. In London millions of people read the numerous free dailies that are handed out each morning and evening.

They read it, put it down, and someone else picks it up. The digital readers like Kindle have a long ways to go before they dominate that set of consumer group, so until then it will be newspapers. And in some communities, newspapers are still preferred. But they’re fading.

But seeing people who don’t  buy newspapers as people who “abandoned” newspapers is a very wrong way of looking at it. Newspapers don’t own their readers. They can try to imagine some sense of reader loyalty, but that’s mostly imagined.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, ,

A new brand of hyperlocalism

This post adds to the topics touched on in the previous blog post about knowing your community’s bloggers and making use of them. What I’d like to talk about now is the evolution of hyperlocalism and the role of New Media and the Internet in it.

On top of the many ills that the newspaper industry current suffers from, one that I’m interested in analyzing is how small titles over time pulled back from its readers and enforced a ‘one-way-street’ mentality with the news.

The ‘one-way-street’ approach is very print-oriented. A press release rolls in, a few calls are made, a story is written, edited, and put in the paper. Titles have grown very accustomed to throwing news at their readers and hoping it sticks.

In a sense it suggests that the title knows whats best for its readers inherently, and is thus giving it to them without actually asking.

The Internet has changed that. News is a two-way street — especially hyperlocally. Titles should represent the community that they cover, while at the same time evolving with what their readers’ wants and needs are.

What I’m suggesting is a new approach to hyperlocalism. The idea of giving a community more of a stake in covering itself and letting its voice be heard. You do this, at a base level, by knowing every single important person on your beat. You then ask each of these important people if they would be willing to write blog posts detailing the goings-on of their areas. You’re giving them a voice.

Stay in touch with these people regularly. Ask them if they’ve had any ideas for blog posts. Then have them pitch it to you. This is a somewhat radical concept, but I think it’s important. Your community — your readers — should be pitching stories to you. You do this by setting up a group of well-known community members as pitchmen (and women).

You’ve got to give the community a stake in its coverage. Pass some of the onus onto them. The best way to get the community involved and caring is to let them, in a way, cover themselves.

I’m not suggesting this works at every level of the publication. What I am suggesting is that it would likely give the community a greater sense of ownership over a title that is supposed to be representing them and giving them the news that they want and need to know.

The Internet makes this possible and I believe it’s a direction that titles should seriously consider taking, first at an experimental stage and then, depending upon its success, pursuing it further.

It’s refined citizen journalism. These people aren’t journalists by trade. But they do have valuable information and are considered important people in the community. Not giving them a platform would be a mistake.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , ,

The revolution will be aggregated

The news industry is in the midst of the Digital Revolution. It’s not a secret, but occasionally it needs to be said as some — most recently, The Associated Pressseem to forget.

A major part of this revolution is the rise in prominence of content aggregators. If you think about it, news aggregators have been around for a while. They started as RSS feeds. You could put them into readers, such as Google Reader or Feed Burner, and get the news delivered to you. Some browsers even come pre-packaged with a news aggregator in the upper-left corner in a drop-down format.

What’s changed now is that aggregators now have a fancy face and greater interactivity. Many, many people still use standard RSS feeds, but that hasn’t stopped the evolution of the aggregator.

Some of the most popular news sites on the Web are at least part-aggregator. Examples of this: The Huffington Post, Wonkette, Drudge Report, Gawker, and on and on.

The new news consumer can’t be bothered to find the news they’re interested in. They want it at their doorstep. And then once its on their doortep, they want someone to read it for them and pull out the interesting parts and spread them out on the table for them.

What this means is over the next few years regional and local news aggregators will sprout up and they will gain prominence. What this means is that local news outlets, instead of being the place people go for content, will instead become small AP-like outlets that supply content to aggregators. The second part of that I don’t expect to happen for a number of years. Not until local and regional aggregators have firmly asserted themselves.

But once they do, look out. It will be a game-changer.

Filed under: Aggregation, community journalism, newspaper websites, social media, , , ,

Crowdsourcing my dissertation subject decision

This is a bit of a break from what I typically write about, but I thought if anyone could help me reach a decision on this, it’s the industry professionals who read this blog.

Many of you already know that I’m currently pursuing an MA in Electronic Publishing at City University London. I came to do this degree because I wanted to gain an edge in the ways of new media, both through shooting and editing A/V, and Web development.

For my dissertation I have two options: I can write a full academic dissertation; or do a project and write a shorter “dissertation” to accompany it. I’ve been thinking about this dissertation for a while. My first ideas were pretty far-fetched and (most likely) involved more travel than I can afford. But I have a new plan. It’s a project that I’m very interested in doing. But I do have reservations.

The project

In February 2008 I had something of an epiphany about my hometown newspaper, The Oakland Press. I realized how badly they needed to launch a Web-based youth-focused news magazine. I know this because I’ve been a resident of Oakland County nearly my entire life. But before going to the paper with this idea, I decided to do a bit of research to see if my theories about the county’s population were at all as I believed they were: young, educated and affluent. Here’s a excerpt from the proposal I eventually sent to the paper:

Today’s Oakland County resident is dynamic, well-educated, Internet-savvy, and young. According to a recent American Community Survey, the 18 to 24 segment of the population grew almost 8 percent between 2002 and 2005, to 91,228. In that same survey, it found that the 25 to 44 age segment represented over 28 percent of the population, totaling 339,210 in 2005. It also found that children in Oakland County made up almost 25 percent if the total population and numbered 297,331 in 2005.1 These same young people are also affluent. According to a recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Oakland County has the third-highest per capita income in the nation, at $52,274. That is up 7 percent from 2003.2 A population that is affluent, dynamic, Internet-savvy, young, and well-educated is unlikely to get their news from a standard newspaper.

I saw this as a great opportunity that needed exploring. Unfortunately this proposal came in March 2008, when the industry was beginning to enter its current free-fall. It didn’t help that the company The Journal-Register Company, who own The Oakland Press, was essentially bankrupt at the time. So new spending in an atmosphere of consistent staff layoffs made getting this project off the ground increasingly unlikely. The paper expressed interest, but not in the idea of me producing it for them. They asked me, in effect, to freelance for my own idea. Obviously I couldn’t accept that.

In the time since I sent my proposal, local media coverage in Oakland County has essentially evaporated. With The Oakland Press experiencing an identity crisis, The Detroit Free Press canceling their regional publications, and a major monthly glossy magazine going belly-up, there exists a vacuum.

With my dissertation project, I’d like to fill that vacuum. My idea, however, is smaller than the original proposal I sent out, of a county-wide Web-based publication. Instead I’d like to go hyperlocal, focusing only on the goings-on of my home communities of Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.

This would be a one-man operation: me. I’ll write the code, write the stories and shoot the multimedia. I’d do this from the middle of May to the end of September. At the same time I’ll be writing the accompanying “dissertation” about the project. I feel confident about being able to develop this because of my background in journalism and, by then, my background in launching online-only news magazines. My second one will launch either by the end of this month or the very beginning of next.

My concerns

It’s important to face facts: The journalism industry is currently in a death spiral. Here in the U.K. the impact is being felt, however the situation is not nearly as bad as it is in the U.S. In the limited amount of time that I’ve been living in London, I’ve been able to afford myself a number of quite lucrative opportunities in the industry and have met very intelligent, well-connected people. Because London is increasingly becoming the global capital once again, the potential opportunities here are more plentiful than they are at home.

There’s also the question of what I do after the project is finished in September. In spite of what the president believes will be the eventual turn-around of the U.S. and world economies, I suspect the trickle-down effect on an individual state basis will take a considerable amount of time. Michigan’s economy is worse off than most other states, so the likelihood that my publication would be bought by a preexisting organization is unlikely, at least in the short term. If the publication is sustainable, I could run it myself. The problem with that is, even running it as a one-man operation, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to even be able to begin repaying my student loans.

Another possibility is being hired by a preexisting media organization following the completion of the project, to work on their Web side. I see that as being the most likely outcome if I did return home to complete this project. But is that what I want? Put all the time and effort into creating a publication, making connections, establishing a rapport, just to leave it?

There’s something to be said for picking the industry up by its bootstraps and “being the change” that the industry needs. What I don’t know is if it’s the right thing for me to do.

What do you think?

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, student journalism, , ,

4 ways a paper’s Web site can use blogs without overstretching reporters

A lot of titles will say that their reporters simply do not have the time to pen a blog on top of their responsibilities as a reporter. I can sympathize with that. But that isn’t a good reason not to have a blog section at all.

Here are four opttions that editors have for maintaining a blog section without having to expend the time and energy of an already over-stretched reporting staff.

  • Guest blogs: Enlist the help of well-known local personalities, in any number of trades or positions, and commission them to write blog posts on specific topics. I visited The Daily Telegraph at its London headquarters last week, and this is exactly what they did. They took the news of the day, then phoned people and commissioned them to write a blog post about this subject. This way you stay relevant, pay only for what you need, and enable your staff to stay on track with their respective beats
  • Bloggers as staff: Hire part-time or freelance-based bloggers to write on specific subjects a few days a week. This gives you the freedom to tell someone when you need a blog post, or when you don’t, but you’re never without someone available to you to write a blog. An added perk over guest blogs is that this person would likely be a professional blogger, or at the very least someone who understands the basics of blogging. Therefore the final product will, likely, be better.
  • Bloggers as interns: Most interns flooding into newsrooms today are what are known as “digital natives” so they likely will already know what a blog is, how they’re supposed to look, and what the difference is between a good and bad blog. Through the interviewing process you’ll be able to find out about their specific talents, insights, and what they feel they would bring to the publication as an active blogger.
  • Bloggers as community members: This is similar to the first point, of bloggers as guests. But what I’m referring to here is the idea of having, say, a person on a city council, or a community’s fire chief/police chief/hospital director being brought in to write blog posts on the paper’s Web site. A sort of “from the source” blog. You do run the chance that these people won’t know how to properly blog, however that could be overcome with only some basic training. This would encourage futher engagement with the community and bolster the title’s image as being that community’s paper, not the paper that reports on that community.

A major pitfall that every editor should be sure to avoid is offering blog posting priveleges to corporate entities. The money would likely be tempting, but when you do that, you will be sacrificing the trust that your community has in the paper.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , , ,

2009: The year of the community journalism boom?

I believe 2009 will mark a dramatic change in the way news organizations approach local news. There has to be a fundamental change in how it is approached. People still want news about their community. They still get excited reading about themselves in the paper, and when they send copies to all their friends relatives. That is still there. But what isn’t there is the relationship with the reader.

For community journalism to succeed, readers have to feel a tangible connection with the publication that represents their community. If they don’t, then why bother?

Where the mid-size titles have failed, smaller, online-only start-ups will take their place. Two examples of this come from the Boston area: Universal Hub and myDedham. These are online-only, hyperlocal news sites dedicated strictly to their communities. There are no AP wire stories or attempts to localize a large national story. The story is born in the city.

With tens of thousands of laid-off/semi-retired journalists now idling across the country, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that a handful of them will get their act together and put out an online, hyper-local product all their own.

A recent blog post by Seth Godin points out that it’s not terribly difficult to start a hyper-local publication on your own. In the post he says it’s all about reaching your local audience at a personal level. He’s right — that is critical to the survival of any community news organization.

Hopefully 2009 will be a watershed year in community journalism. The kind of change that affects the entire industry will come from these smaller titles: If it works for this title with their 20k readers, perhaps we can make it work for our regional title with 200k readers.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , ,

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