Friday, August 24, 2007

BostonNOW, BostonNOT, BostonNO!

Street freebie papers seem like a good idea. Great Caesar's ghost! Boston has more than its share, bumping shoulders for distribution and ad revenue.

An old hand (likely my age) in the news biz, John Wilpers marched alertly into this battle last spring, to be the new editor of BostonNOW. We met at the New England News Forum in April at UMASS/Lowell. There he spoke of his innovations in planning to integrate blog content in the handout tabloid.

He's a wispy little fellow. Unfortunately I didn't take a picture and those I see all have copyright claims, except for the accompanying Steve Garfield one that NPR used, which is under Creative Commons. (I hope this is not a trend where citizen snappers and bloggers start claiming all rights willy-nilly. I don't.)

Yet, he is more substantial than he appears. The soft-spoken and slight Wilpers carries a shield of experience. He speaks with the confidence of the competent.

After he had a successful run starting the Boston Metro — in the black within 18 months, he says — he ran the Washington Examiner. That freebie had both subway handouts and driveway deliveries. You can read his take on how that went and what he sees as the niches for freebies in a PBS article here.

Interestingly enough, it appears from a short in MediaBistro when Wilpers resigned from the Examiner, that he is not entirely above spin. He said then, "It's time for me to reconnect with my family and for me to find a work situation that is more harmonious with my personal life. I am proud of the job that has been done over the past year in transforming the three Journal Newspapers into the Washington Examiner and proud of the role that I played in that success." That's not exactly Dick Nixon declaring victory in Vietnam, but Wilpers did not have the financial success in D.C. that he did initially in Boston with the Metro, and investors can be very impatient. Here too, main guy Russel Pergament is known for wanting fast ROI.

Up in Lowell, Wilpers didn't make politician-style promises, in his presentation or directly in our conversation. He didn't even use the buzzword hyperlocal.

The idea of bloggers as per-street, per-neighborhood town criers will likely get pretty tired pretty quickly. In execution, it often involves picking up mundane pebbles or straining at cleverness. On a big scale, aggregaters like do this and hope to make a buck, and in our part of the world examples of doing this right are UniversalHub. or H2Otown. Yet, done poorly, highly local minutia has the dreadful sameness of the original blog model of my cute kitten, my cute kid and my cute girlfriend.

Instead, Wilpers hoped to augment the MSM here, who badly falter and fall on local coverage. The press and broadcast continue to slash staff, filling ad time and space counterpoints with syndicated and wire stories, or worse, press releases. Yawn.

His model was to take good bloggers' material and augment the predictable with the fun, voyeuristic and, yes, hyperlocal, if it was worthy. He said that when BostonNOW made a profit, some of that would go to small payments to bloggers. Meanwhile, they'd be unpaid stringers. They'd get a plug for their sites and expect to up their traffic...maybe. That would be great for their egos and if they used ad links, like Google Adsense, they might make a few dollars while they waited for nickels and quarters.

Maybe I'm just not the entrepreneurial or self-promoting type, but I told him I'd wait to see what the rest of BostonNOW content was over a month or two before signing up as a blogger. I did not like the start or what has happened. I had some snarky comments recently in a piece on another freebie.

Some more expansive and nastier comments appeared in this week's Media Farm in the Dig.

After Wilpers was exiled to the nebulous role of consultant last week, the Dig cited their initial interaction with him, and stated, "We can't imagine that this (the firing and the oft-dreadful paper) is how Wilpers envisioned things would turn out. When he spoke to the Dig this past spring, Wilpers was brimming with optimism and with ideas on how to save journalism."

They recall him telling them that the MSM circulation drop "has a lot to do with newspapers' irrelevancy to people's lives...There's no content that's relevant to many readers. They still think with that gatekeeper model for what belongs and what doesn't. We don't agree. We're opening up the floodgates. Look out!"

While the Media Farm liked most of Wilper's vision, but suspects that "the model he helped dream up is itself broken." There judgment is that putting snippets from local blogs next to short wire pieces does not leverage blogs' advantages and "doesn't work journalistically" (whatever that means to Dig generalizers). However, I do agree with the conclusion that "when you've got no real way of cultivating and rewarding talented writers while suppressing dreck, dreck is what you get."

In theory, it doesn't have to be that way. Smart, literate, insightful bloggers might have thrown themselves at Wilpers. In another fantasy world, walk-on players might produce a national-championship college football team. Neither is likely to happen in our lifetimes.

It seems the BostonNOW people ramped up too quickly (do impatient greed and opportunism play here?). Media Farm cites publication before reader input was enabled on the net and with no copy editor to start.

I worked down at Ft. Point Channel while this very tiny drama played. So, I'd gather freebies daily, weekly and monthly — BostonNow, Metro, BayWindows, the Herald on afternoons when it was free, Epoch Times, the Dig, the Phoenix, Exhibit A, and a few other. I went to journalism school and truly have a newspaper jones.

None of the local freebies manifests the model of making a newspaper meaningful to people tired of the insipid local dailies. There are many dozens, maybe hundreds, of local stories that the Globe and Herald are too understaffed or too arrogant to report and run each week. In one area, I've even been seeing increasing crime and accident coverage in blogs that neither covers. Great Caesar's ghost, you get better police stories from the items the BPDnews than the dailies. But translating that into a form that works in an ad-supported handout is yet to be done here.

I suspect that someone somewhere else will develop this model. It may look more like the European dailies that have quickly growing circulations and are beautifully designed.

Then once a company in San Francisco or Chicago or wherever does it, we can copy it here. I look forward to that but don't expect any of our current players to do it on their own.

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