The Future Of Newspapering?
Today, I wrote about the eye-opening and eye-popping things the Fort Myers News-Press is doing to fight the newspaper industry's ongoing trend of declining circulation and ad revenue.
At Fort Myers, it's all about the Web and hyper-local coverage. It's all about the go, go, go! Get fresh stuff up on the Web as quickly as possible and sometimes, it seems, without discriminating on content.
The paper has a fleet of mobile journalists, or "mojos" that prowl the area working from their cars, with laptops and wireless connections, filing directly to the Web without editing.
The paper is doing some other unconventional things that I didn't put into the story, for space purposes and because they didn't really fit the theme of the piece. Staffers there are intent on breaking down traditional newspaper walls, but some of those walls are held as sacrosanct by journalists. For instance:
* Like some other Gannett papers, the News-Press has "citizen members" of the editorial board. These Regular Joes apply for a one-year term on the paper's editorial board. They do not write editorials, but they influence the paper's stand on issues and they vote on endorsements. The News-Press has three, one of which is a former inmate, four times imprisoned, once for manslaughter. The paper knew this when it appointed him to the board. Now, that's diversity.
* When I walked into a meeting of the editorial board during my visit there before Thanksgiving, I was surprised to see executive editor Kate Marymont sitting there. As executive editor, Marymont directs the paper's news coverage. But as a member of the editorial board, she has a vote on the paper's opinion. This means she will direct coverage of a political candidate and could vote on endorsing that candidate. This is a significant breach of journalism orthodoxy: The wall separating news and opinion. Now, I know a bunch of you are going to scoff at this and of course, reporters' opinions leak into stories. However, institutionally, the two sides have traditionally be separate.
For instance, here at The Post, news staffers can't even access the next day's editorial page lineup, so we don't know which editorials and columnists are going to appear in tomorrow's paper, much less read them. The editorial page, however, can read our stories before they go to print, which they do to check facts in their editorials and columns.
When I asked Marymont why she is on the editorial board, she said it's been that way at other Gannett papers where she worked. She said, "I recuse myself if there's a conflict of interest." I said, "When isn't there a conflict of interest?" But they're all about transparency. She told me that at the beginning of each year, the paper runs an information box in which she discloses that she was raised a Democrat and has Democratic leanings but is registered Republican in Fort Myers.
* The News-Press has several reader forums where they can post just about anything. Here was my favorite, which tells a tough lesson of the new newspaper economy:
"I am missing JOE, a one legged cockatoo...Brother left cage open and door open and Joe flew away. Lost in the santa barbra traflager area, but he is a bird. REWARD...If he lets you get close enough, you can put a towel over him."
Aside from the sheer entertainment value of the posting, it tells a tough economic truth: Five years ago, if the owner had lost Joe and wanted to use the newspaper to find him, the owner would have had to buy a classified ad. Now, they get a free ad on the Web site.
For decades, the posture of newspapers was: Here's what you need to know. Because we said so. Eat your spinach.
As a business model, that worked fine, as long as newspapers controlled the local advertising markets and had only the three television networks for national competition.
Nowadays, the explosion of other news and information sources -- cable news, the Internet, blogs and so forth -- has forced some humility on the mighty newspaper. Except they may be going too far in the other way, and trying to be whatever it is they think readers want them to be. If we're not necessary, the marketing plan suggests, at least we can be liked. Please?
Newspapers today are learning what local television news operations have been practicing for years, which can be seen nightly in their slogans: "On your side," and "Building our station around you." In few places is the attitude shift in newspaper marketing more evident than at The Washington Post, which dropped its snooty slogan, "If you don't get it, you don't get it," for the more accommodating, "If it's important to you, it's important to us."
My question to you is: Are we going too far the other way? Newspapers believe that what readers what is a one-stop location for everything they need -- news, information, calendar listings, everything. Of course, we can't do that in an ink-on-paper product. But on the Web, almost everything is possible.
You're going to see more of that in the future from The Post: Earlier this year, our Web site hired a guy named Rob Curley, who worked at the rival of the News-Press in Florida, the Naples Daily News. He is thought of as a pioneer in turning newspaper Web sites into hyper-local multimedia sites, with everything from your traditional news to ESPN-quality video highlights of local football games.
Is that the right track?
Let me hear from you.
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