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The Future Of Newspapering?

Frank Ahrens

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.

By Frank Ahrens  |  December 4, 2006; 2:21 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Comments

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Interesting concept, but I thought the entire reason to have a mywashingtonpost.com was to focus content on a much narrower area. I find that with the Post's huge coverage area, much of what is reported about the local area is, for all intents and purposes, in a foreign language. If you aren't familiar with the names of the District's traditional neighborhoods, or the location of every high school in the region it can be daunting. Sure, I want to know what's going on in my world, but I would hate to think the entire reportage of the local scene be reduced to almost trivia.

Posted by: Jeff in Alexandria | December 4, 2006 3:57 PM

The whole thing is a little scary. Our paper is going through the same issues. I work at a big paper in the South that has a circulation that is slowly slipping as the population booms. A lot of us got into to this business to find our own Deep Throat. We want to tell the stories that matter. We want to uncover scandal. We want to give a voice to the voiceless. We don't want to write about hunky calendars or the neighborhood book club. I cringed many times reading your story about the Fort Myers paper-- reporters going out on stories with folks from the advertising department!!!!
Why don't we all just get jobs in PR.

Posted by: Old School Reporter | December 4, 2006 4:20 PM

Some of this technology could be put to good journalistic use -- like covering zoning meetings and going out to take pictures of the land in question. But it has to be thorough, objective reporting. I fear contamination from ad and editorial sides would just lead to awful boosterism. If local papers had done more objective, labor-intensive reporting of vital local issues over the years, they would have kept readers. For example, never say a proposed project "will" do something, it should always be "would," especially when homes and trees would be taken.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 4, 2006 4:43 PM

Concentrating on covering local news could go a long way in bringing readers back to hard copy newspapers, I believe.
Early in my 35 years as a reporter (Mercury News in San Jose) I went to my managing editor and said I would like to cover Mexican-Americans who lived on San Jose's East Side.
His reply was "They have their own newspapers."
Subsequently he moved on and his more cosmopolitan successors allowed me to develop a career covering minorities of all kinds.
And I knew from comments from readers and community leaders that my stories were being read widely. People have an inherent hunger to see themselves in their newspapers and to know who their neighbors are and what they are doing.
Comprehensive coverage of the various elements in our increasingly diverse communities can allow readers to understand each other's culture.
Here in Portland, Oregon, where I live now I dropped the local newspaper because I felt it does a mediocre job in covering local news.
I subscribed to the New York Times as a replacement and get my local news on-line and from alternative weeklies.

Jim Dickey
Portland

Posted by: Jim Dickey | December 4, 2006 4:57 PM

I prefer the filtering, editing and quality control of traditional print journalism. I am not interested in reporters spurting out every thought on blogs -- like this one; I primarily came here to post this message. I am not a fan of the whole news blogging thing and mega-instant news updates that aren't as well reported and thorough as what I'll find in the morning paper. I think I have company, judging from how few people post to blogs like this and the holiday-home-shopping one. The only blogs on washpost.com that seem to get lots of comments are the ones where people can snap at each other for their life choices (eg that mommy one).

As for hyperlocal news, blech. I'll just subscribe to my neighborhood's Yahoo group.

Posted by: Alice | December 4, 2006 5:09 PM

Hi, Alice:

You've hit the nail on the head: Neighborhood listservs are the hyperest of hyper-local news and the last unmonetized frontier left in the industry. All of us are trying to figure out how to take advantage of that one. For them to work, they seem to need to bubble up from the ground, organically, as opposed to being forced down upon you from the top, say, from The Post. But that doesn't mean we won't try.

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | December 4, 2006 5:15 PM

I agree with Old School Reporter and Alice. I think there's still something so special about the morning paper (on actual paper!) with a fresh cup of coffee and breakfast on the side. I am currently living in a foreign country, so I use The Post's website, but I prefer something I can hold! As a recent graduate of a journalism school, I am familiar with these sad issues of circulation decline and newspapers' leaps of desperation these days. It makes me hesitant to go into reporting, even though I loved my classes and internships. I'm now in an international relations graduate school, and get quite annoyed at snide remarks that scholarly professors make about "journalists." I always want to say "Hey, if those 'journalists' didn't exist, where would you get your news anyway?" Bravo to journalists out there, persisting despite severe criticism from a public who knows nothing of the difficulty of your work.

Posted by: Kara | December 4, 2006 5:54 PM

Sadly, the Newpaper may be going the way of the Telegram. The news is already a day old when published. As a boy, I delivered the afternoon paper and sold the "Extra" that was published for major events. All that changed when TV came on the scene. Even the afternoon paper disappeared, and TV became the primary source for breaking news. Today, the bulk of the paper is advertising, the editorials are politically biased, and dissenting views are frequently relegated to the back pages. The Post web site is much more convenient for searching specific items of interest.

Posted by: Ken Leber Sarasota, Fl | December 4, 2006 6:04 PM

There was a time in newspaper history when advertising supported the news. Since I've worked on both sides--ad and news--at a relatively small local paper, it has become clear to me that the reverse is now true. The news exists merely as a place to put advertising, and when space is limited it is never an ad that's deep-sixed, it's news, local or otherwise. Newspaper publishers almost invariably come up through the ad ranks, not the news ranks, and the bottom line is what counts to the folks at the top. The sad part is that publishers forget that advertisers are readers too; when they realize that the paper they are paying increasingly more to advertise in is no longer interesting to them because it's nearly all ads, they will stop advertising as well. Is there an answer? Where I live, local weekly papers do a far better job of covering local news; too much of the daily paper is filled with wire stories chopped off at an "optional break" to make room for yet more ads. And advertorials, which are a particular peeve to me, are increasingly sold deliberately to try to appear to be content. I don't know what the answer is, but as newspapers become carriers of advertising that find room for a little bit of news, and much of that advertising is supposed to look like news, all credibility is lost. It's possible that newspapers as a whole are going the way of the evening paper, or will turn into places that just carry ads. The publishers argue that ads are now considered "content" to many readers, and also fudge circulation numbers into "readership" numbers, counting each delivered newspaper two or three or more times on what they say is the assumption that more than one person in a household reads the newspaper. More and more, it's becoming no one in the household reads the newspaper--or it's just skimmed, because actual content is too hard to find.

Maybe the answer is a return to integrity and a little less greed. Maybe somewhere, some newspaper publisher will promise that his or her paper will never be more than 30 percent advertising and will never print advertorials, then commit to what local news WILL be covered. I think it's possible a profit could still be turned, but integrity is sorely lacking at most newspapers these days.

Posted by: Clare | December 5, 2006 11:43 AM

I'm a reporter at one of Gannett's largest newspapers, and there is an intense effort afoot to reduce content, make stories much shorter and abandon a lot of the enterprise reporting that has made our newspaper special. Now reporters will focus more on intense local news for the Web. Problem is, no editors are questioning the quality of journalism we are producing. It's all about filling holes. As one can imagine, morale has sunk to an all-time low here. The exodus of talented reporters has left the newsroom with a major void. Our enterprise team is down to a few reporters. No one seems to care but the writers.

It seems that Gannett's Bible is whatever new readership study is published, as if readers know exactly what they want, not the professionals. Anyone remember a survey of people who eat at fast-food restaurants? The overwhelming response was that they wanted healthier choices. The restaurants responded wtih healthy choices. In the end, the sales of such food never rose to a level to justify their existence on the menu. I fear the same thing will happen to the media industry.

I remember the days when journalism was all about informing citizens of important news so they could participate in the democratic process. Not anymore. It's about "news to use," splashy pop culture stories and quick-hit articles that force reporters to skim the surface and parrot government officials. For Gannett and other newspaper chains, it seems every decision is dictated by meeting profit demands. That's too bad. It's also why many of my colleagues come to work with their heads slumped, their dreams turned to ash as traditional news values are turned upside down so newspaper investors can continue pocketing their 30% returns.

At a time when we most need it, today's journalism leaders are failing us. We should all be ashamed. I know I am.

Posted by: Gannett reporter | December 5, 2006 1:19 PM

Ultra-localism is a lovely idea, but how many of us live ultra-local lives? Here I am in rural southeast England, reading the WaPo, working in London...

Posted by: Adrian Monck | December 5, 2006 6:00 PM

I live in the Ft. Myers area and gave up on the News Press providing news over advertising. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall the day Kate Marymont made this decision:

Page 1 (pick one)

Iraq war?

Local building codes driving up construction costs?

News Press advertiser opening up new store in new mall?

"I like number three," she must have said. "Above the fold."

That's why newspapers are still best for wrapping fish before putting them in the freezer.


Posted by: Mike | December 5, 2006 6:05 PM

I think The News-Press is heading in the right direction.

However, the older generation of readers, referred to as the reason that the News-Press has held circulation higher than other papers, are usually interested in national coverage and international coverage. All we seem to get are the AP, Reuters, and major news chains that have been so discredited with the phony stories about the war in Lebanon, Iraq, etc. It would be a refreshing change to see print stories from "non-liberal" media sources assuming there are any out there. The News-Press should expand the concept to their national and international coverage as well using the blogs and on-line sources similar to the "Mojos".

I liked the description of Kate Marymount as a person who grew up as a Democrat but was a registered Republican in Lee County. I would imagine that she is a registered Republican so that she can vote in the primaries here and have a say in who is the final choice in this heavily Republican area. Not all that bad.

I too grew up as a Democrat, a John F. Kennedy Democrat. He was strongly for the military and service to the country, "Ask not what your country can do for you...." He was the inspiration behind the Green Berets and the Peace Corps. In college we were, and still are, strongly for civil rights (now as Republicans). Kennedy also cut taxes to stimulate the economy, now a solely Republican theme that as actually worked well under this administration and been ignored by the "Main Stream Press" because it isn't a Democratic Party accomplishment.

The overriding reason, in my not usually humble opinion, for the decline in readership isn't lack of coverage of local stories. It is lack of truth as seen in the eyes of the readers. Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio didn't rise to unparalleled success because of local stories. Conservative talk radio arose because the Newspapers and other media were clinging to ideas and opinions taught to them by liberal faculty members who weren't giving them the truth let alone both sides of the story.

The instances of lack of truth in reporting are now legendary, from CBS, CNN, and all of the networks to the NYT, the LAT and all across the country. What cost Dan Rather his career is the same thing that is reducing readership of newspapers.

Regardless of the liberal training of most newspaper people, there should be a vetting of every national or international story to determine "If the facts are biased by the teller of the story?" The credo of "Who, what, where, when, why?" that use to guide reporters died as a casualty of a war long ago. Now it is "Who, what, where, when, and how can I phrase this to fit my own views without actually saying it?"

Stories were published a few years ago that the Israeli's were demolishing Palestinian houses along the border with Egypt complete with weeping mothers and children in the accompanying pictures. The truth only came out on talk radio. The newspapers were too (biased, ignorant, or lazy: take your pick) to report it. The houses that were demolished were being used as the end points of tunnels from across the border to bring rockets into Gaza to then fire them into Israel.

We saw the same thing during the Israeli attack against Hesbolah in Lebanon only this time the Blogs and Internet Journalists caught the phony stories and pictures almost immediately. Result: conventional media got another black eye and many more canceled their subscriptions to the local paper that just repeated the AP, Reuters, and other news wire stories.

Contracts with news wires that prevent the local paper from changing the newswire copyright are NO excuse. Run the correct national or international story on the first or second page as "The Story" and get the rights to reprint from the Blog or web site where it originated (probably for free, they love the publicity). It might help to restore the credibility of print media. Using the web stories as sources for true national and international stories is similar to using the "Mojos" to report up to the minute local stories in my view.

Thanks for the very interesting story about The News-Press.

Posted by: Scott Jones, Fort Myers, FL | December 6, 2006 3:34 PM

thanks for asking this question. the washington post is doing nothing near enough to become more "participatory."

here's an idea that made sense about 10 years ago -- but was overlooked then. on the op ed page, print the opening paragraph of 25 user submitted op-eds -- and then let interested readers read the complete op-ed on the post's web site.

we really don't need to read another opinion piece from the "paid thinkers" who have been thinking the same thoughts for -- let's see -- about 20 to 25 years.

the paid thinkers need to be put out to pasture today, not tomorrow.

Posted by: phil shapiro | December 7, 2006 5:12 AM

Here's the core problem: We newspapers continue trying to compete with other media that we can't possibly compete with, i.e. TV, radio, Internet, etc. Those guys can do things instantly, but to do that, they sacrifice quality and accuracy. We have two things in great quantities that they don't have: ink and paper. We should offer the in-de[pth stories, the different angles, the analysis of what it all means to the average guy and then market ourselves that way.
The secondary problem is reporters' laziness. No one cultivates sources anymore, no one goes after stories they're told are off-limits by some government official, no one wants to dig. If I hear one more reporter say "They haven't issued the press release yet," I'm going to scream. The whole point is to find out what's behind the press release. As a reader that's what I want.

Posted by: A Southern journalist | December 9, 2006 12:42 AM

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