Sunday, May 10, 2009

Who'll Report the News?

Quite reasonably, much is said and written of news gathering in this era of dying daily papers. Extremely unreasonably though, many media types deride online sources, particularly blogs.

Every conference I attend and in MSM reports, there is a triple lament:
  1. Newspapers are disappearing.
  2. As reporters go to other work, less news will be available, including for online links.
  3. Bloggers do a piss poor job of original reportage.
The paper and electron worlds are increasingly full of this. You can get your own fill after the last week's Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing chaired by Sen. John Kerry. The subject was the grandiose and morose "The Future of Journalism."

The dual stereotypical villains who attended represented online competitors to papers, as well as that future. There was a VP of Google Marissa Mayer and glam blog lady, co-founder of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington. Their counterweights were not the MSM guys; they did their predictable whining. Rather, The Wire producer and ex-paper fellow, David Simon defamed blogs and other online media.

Links note: Those three links are to their opening statements to Kerry's subcommittee.

With a combination of disdain and admiration, I note that Simon is a relentless self-promoter and a self-styled gadfly. He's no one's intellectual or prophet. You can get a sense of the coverage of his remarks here, and other reports of the various testimony here and here.

Simon typifies the current cliché about blogs and other online news sources. That is, they don't do a very good job of citizen journalism. The corollary he and other detractors like to get to is that as newspapers fail, blogs are so bad at covering local news (think municipal meetings) that news as we know it will die with the papers. There'll be nothing for any online sites to link to without the reporters.

I remember from my own J-school classes and working dailies how little newspapers actually printed. Particularly those typical rags with AP and UPI full subscriptions performed constant triage. The term for setting aside news never likely to be in print was spiking. That came from the old fashioned desk accessory with a base and a pointed rod sticking up; editors would push a clip of wire copy onto the spike just in case they ended up with a hole at layout time.

The rule we were taught was that with all the hard news, state, national and international stories, plus the sports, soft features and the short brights of filler material, 10% of wire copy would appear on a given day. So back then when there were multiple highly competitive wire services on top of the local reporters, readers never knew how little news, noise and opinion they got.

Now when the blog haters go on with their tripartite lament, a bit of context is necessary. Saying that blogs don't do news anywhere near as well as newspapers is pitifully simplistic and quite naive. It's like damning a toddler who's learning to walk for not being able to perform ballet or tap dancing.

Newspapers have been failing and firing local reporters in clumps for decades. Local reportage has telescoped down pitifully. The spike is no longer the evil prop on the city editor's desk. There isn't enough local news for decent triage. There aren't enough reporters on the street and phones to provide the news.

In fact, recently I have found that our local dailies and weeklies in Boston do decent coverage only in areas they can sell ads against. Think music, restaurants and such.

When I want nits and grits of local color, gossip, crime reporting and what used to be a daily's business, I click over to UniversalHub or H2otown for it. Those and similar sites have a ton more local interest news, opinion, photos and more than either Boston daily. In fact, even area and neighborhood weeklies have picked up for the dailies.

So far, such sources make no effort to cover the State House or such thoroughly. You still need to pick up the Globe or Herald (or their sites) for full sports coverage and timely state and national government too.

Yet like my non-dancing toddler example, bloggers haven't had to do that. Almost to a one, they haven't been paid more than a few dollars in online ad revenue to do so either.

Let's not stop with the sophistic argument that online media don't do news very well and only a few of them do it at all. The real question lies far beyond such simpleminded analysis.

Instead, let's ask what happens when enough newspapers in a market have folded or have canned enough of their news staff that they are no more insightful, timely and pertinent than a CNN or FOXnews. If the Times closes the Globe and the Herald remains the pale and asthenic little critter it is, where will people get their need-to-know and voyeuristic fixes of local coverage?

The answer almost certainly is from blogs and other online media. They'll learn to dance, or in this case, to cover more news and extract money from advertisers, subscribers, both or some new model.

Blaming blogs for not being real newspapers is too silly. Newspapers in the main are no longer real newspapers either.

Instead, I predict more muscular online media as newspapers dig their own graves. Because the old model failed does not mean no one can succeed.

Look for blogs or blog-like objects here and there to create workable business models and for others elsewhere to copy and then improve on what they do. This could get exciting.

Meanwhile the blog haters wail that newspapers failed to make a living off their online offerings. Even the New York Times blew its Select system of some paid content. Somehow the anti-online media types conclude that this proves no one can do it. They don't seem to have any sense of technology shifts or of entrepreneurship.

I don't have a great example of the future. We have seen a few blogs making money and many scattered about covering real news and not just commenting on newspaper and magazine articles. They are likely the seeds from which the new models will sprout.

I give this toddler a few, very few, years to start dancing.

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1 comment:

Adam Pieniazek said...

Great article. The major newspapers really need to stop blaming bloggers and google. For one, like you said, most bloggers are not trying to directly compete with newspapers. Instead, we're a complement to the mainstream media. We keep them on their toes and expand on points they make. As for google, that argument constantly pissed me off since any site can remove themselves from google with 2-3 lines of very simple code. But they don't because they love the free traffic google delivers.

I wrote a post about How to Really Save the Boston Globe a few weeks back that covered some of the same points you make. Check it out if you get a minute, but basically, newspapers need to embrace bloggers and work with us rather than trying to fight us (along with other changes). If the mainstream media isn't careful we bloggers will join together and put out an online news publication that directly competes with major newspapers. It won't happen overnight but allowing anyone with valid information to publish it is the future.