Next Newspaper

Funny thing about the newspaper business.

If you’re interested in innovation, you find yourself constantly trying to demonstrate the present to people with their feet (and desks, workflow, and hierarchy) planted firmly in the past.

And while The Future of Newspapers mostly gets ink for being bleak, the future of news does not blink, or miss a beat, or stop to have a meeting to decide what color the background of its new Web site will be.

The future of news is Qik and Twitter and Friendfeed and Google Reader and Seesmic and Yahoo Live and whatever launches tomorrow that lets the people in your community share information and produce content by pushing a big red record button.

The future of news looks more like Blade Runner than Minority Report. And I don’t mean the part where Deckard reads the print edition. I mean the crazy chaotic floating blimp advertising and the bits of information flowing around mobile screens in places like taxicabs and the exposed innards of machinery.

So stop waiting for The Future of Newspapers to arrive, wrapped in a plastic sleeve with a business model printed on the outside, slipped politely behind the screen door by the paperboy. He got laid off last week. You’re going to have to try something new if you want to survive.

Your real competition

You *think* your competition is the guy at the TV station who always rip-and-reads your stories, or the reporter on your beat at the major metro from the big city 12 miles away, or that alt-weekly with the nasty cartoonist, don’t you?

Sorry, but that’s simply not the case.

Oh, sure, your ad reps and their ad reps might be calling the same local businesses and trying to squeeze a few more upsells out of them, and in that sense, yes, you’re competing with other local news organizations for advertising dollars.

But what are you doing to compete for the attention of your audience?

Your competition is the Web.

It’s Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and blogs and iTunes and IM and Ning and Digg and Delicious and e-mail and Flickr and Yelp and Amazon and now is not the time to wave them off as something someone other than your readers spends their time doing.

If you’ve said the words ‘Oh, well we’ve always done it that way’ in the last FIVE YEARS, you have a problem with addressing the question of who is competing with your organization.

If you’ve said the words ‘Oh, but that won’t work here’ in the last THREE YEARS, you definitely have a problem with addressing the pace of change in the news business.

Paul Conley says the time for training dinosaurs is over. I say it’s worth the effort, but the first step is helping them understand they have a problem.

Dave Cohn says the time for evangelizing for change is over. I say he’s right that it’s time to put up or shut up; my job is to do shepherd along journalists who are quick to pay lip service to the Web, pushing them through the next steps of actually changing the way they work, every day.

If it weren’t for those meddling Montana kids…

The funny thing about disruption and disintermediation is that you never see it coming if you’re the incumbent, the old school, the big slow mover lumbering into the future baby step by baby step.

Know what I mean?

Wes Eben, publisher of the Big Horn County News in Hardin, Montana knows what I mean. Well, he does now.

Eben’s small, rural, community paper is suddenly getting its butt kicked online by a J-School project running out of the University of Montana’s “Rural News Network.”

The site,, is updated with content produced by the community and students in the program.

Eben’s complaint, lodged in an interview with the alt-weekly Missoula Independent, is that the school should have found a community more in need of extended coverage instead of muscling in on his territory.

But looking at the Big Horn site, and others owned by the same company, I can’t help but think that these communities are clearly not getting the coverage they deserve.

Without delving too far into the particulars, I’ll just give you a feel for the quality of the sites by pointing out that many of them feature a Comic Sans-like font and frames. I did manage to find some photo galleries two clicks deep, which isn’t bad at all.

Compare that with the blog-software powered, with audio slideshows, video, and comments front and center.

The message to community newspapers, often with a long-held monopoly on news and advertising in rural towns:

Move first, move fast, and be the dynamic news source for your town before someone else launches a disruptive project in your neighborhood.

(Missoula Independent link via Journerdism and Romenesko.)