Why we don’t read your paper

Tim Ball, in a post titled “Newspapers and why nobody reads them” writes:

“The problem for newspapers isn’t that I’m getting this information from another source. It’s that I don’t want it at all, and the local-local focus of metro newspapers in the last several years has made them not just less valuable to me, but increasingly annoying to me. I want to be able to pick up the local paper in a large city, toss out the Local section and get all that I need from the other sections.”

Go read the whole thing.

I’m a bit of an evangelist for local news, so I don’t agree with everything Tim says, but I’m definitely part of the market in question here.  And, living in a new town, I definitely couldn’t care less about what the city council or school board have to say.

Back in Santa Cruz, the circulation area was smaller compared to Rochester, even if the town was much bigger than the suburb we live in now, so the chances the local paper had of hitting a topic I was interested in were much better.

And more than that, because I could certainly read the (hyper)local paper here, the local politics, development issues, and crime stories always hit (literally) closer to home, and drew me in, even if it was just to criticize the paper’s coverage of a given issue.  (Yes, I ended up working there for a year, too.)

For more pontificating about local news, check out last weekend’s Carnival of Journalism, which I sat out with a hyperlocal sinus infection.

Building a local news site from scratch

[If you’re reading this in late April 2008, I’ve managed to post something on time for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Yoni Greenbaum this time around.]

Lately, when failing revenues and/or an ill-fated JOA results in a newspaper closing up shop, there’s talk of “what if” they continued publishing online, but I have yet to see anyone actually pull it off.

And this is where the update will go when twelve of you tell me about papers that have shut down in print but stayed online. I’ve definitely seen signs of papers that have switched from daily to weekly and boosted their online presence, but what I’m after are examples of papers that have totally folded, but rebuilt themselves as an online-only news source in town.

Once you get past the ugly preliminary steps (think: layoffs, dismantling the press, moving into a far smaller space), the fun part (yes, yes, perfectly aware of how flip I’m being about the ugly part) starts:

What tools do you hand a few reporters and photographers (and readers) to start from scratch?

My short list:

  • Drupal, for built-in community, commenting, reader blogs, and profiles, plus integration with third-party services like Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and news aggregation.
  • Nokia N95 or similar phones for live video via Qik, live text coverage of local events, and calling in audio reports. Lots of this should flow live to the site, unedited.
  • Laptops with wireless cards to file stories from anywhere, anytime.

Also, a good pair of walking shoes, because your reporters are going to be out in the community all day long, walking their beat and getting to know the locals. This is not a job you can do from behind a desk. If you didn’t leave the newsroom today, think about talking to a source in person tomorrow.

What’s on your short list of must-haves for reporters starting a local news site from scratch?

Mercury falling

[NOTE: What follows is a view of the last two years of trouble at the San Jose Mercury News from my personal point of view, as a graduate student in the neighborhood, a reporter (and later as an editor) working for the same parent company, and even as a reader. I don’t pretend to know everything about the inner politics of the Merc or MNG, but here’s the way it looks to me…]

In the Spring of 2006, when Knight Ridder was up for sale and the bidding was winding down, I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk that Jerry Ceppos gave to some faculty members and a few students at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State.

Ceppos, a former VP of News at Knight Ridder, spoke (off the record) about the possible outcomes of the upcoming sale of the company and the future of the Mercury News.

I had my own ideas, but really, the worst-case scenario that Ceppos presented has come to pass.

McClatchy bought Knight Ridder, spun off a set of papers that didn’t fit their model to cut down on the debt they were taking on, and then they were buried in debt anyway.

MediaNews picked up the San Jose Mercury News; the sale closed while I was interning on the ANG regional desk at the Oakland Tribune. A few of my best stories landed on the local front of the Merc, and I was proud.

___

I’m not going to go into great detail here about the many rounds of downsizing and layoffs at the Mercury News in particular or MediaNews in general.

While I agree with the people who say that MediaNews cuts with too wide a thresher, I also believe that most major metro papers have newsrooms bloated with role-players from a previous era.

I don’t believe your restaurant critic has better taste than the people on Yelp.

I don’t believe that local movie, TV, or music critics have a great amount of unique local value in the era of Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix. I don’t believe that a newspaper in San Jose needs a national issue on its front page every day, with few exceptions. I don’t believe in the Editorial We. I don’t believe that the best newspaper columnists can keep up with the best bloggers in the niches or styles I care about.

So given all that I don’t believe, I don’t believe in 800-person newsrooms, or even 400-person newsrooms.

But at some point, if the Merc is going to start moving substantially in any direction at all as a force in local online news, the bleeding has to stop.

___

But it doesn’t.

Matt Mansfield is taking a buyout.

Dean Takahashi left for VentureBeat, which started as SiliconBeat at the Merc before Matt Marshall took the concept on the road.

Mike Bazeley left, too.

Editors have left, and publishers have been replaced, and their bosses at CNP have rotated, and I’m not sure anyone left after Friday is going to have the time or morale (or approval from MNG) to Rethink much of substance.

I’m writing this a few days before a scheduled round of buyouts and layoffs at the Merc.

And at the same time, I’m on my way out of town, moving away from the Bay Area a few short weeks from now. So this is my send-off to hand-wringing that goes on here, in the part of the country where newspapers have probably been hit the hardest by the effects of the Web and the economic changes in the news industry.

I’ll miss seeing the Merc and the SF Chronicle and the Sentinel lined up in the racks around downtown Santa Cruz, but I’m looking forward to reading the D&C and the local GateHouse papers. Heck, we might even take a print subscription of the weekly in the town we’ll be living in.

___

Here’s what I would do if I were in charge of where the Merc goes online after this Friday:

  1. Abandon NGPS and rebuild the site in Drupal with proper commenting, registration, user profiles, blogs for all users.
  2. Take blog posts and podcasts out of the little ghetto-ized boxes on the homepage and feature them as you would feature any other piece of content.
  3. Make your multimedia players as big and bold and featured as the Las Vegas Sun. The work your staff is doing demands and deserves it.
  4. Recruit local bloggers from neighborhoods around San Jose to lead local social networks – if you built the site with Drupal, this wouldn’t be complicated. They can moderate, manage, and cheerlead as necessary. Give the readers/users a sense of ownership of their neighborhood coverage.
  5. Don’t feature national/world news on the homepage unless it happens in San Jose, with few exceptions.

I’m perfectly aware that very little of this is easy to do, given the development and design situation at MNG, but #4 could be launched quickly with Ning or (less quickly) with WPMU if you can identify the right bloggers. They don’t have to be writing about their neighborhoods already. I don’t write about living in Santa Cruz or local politics on this blog, but I was very excited about Citizen Santa Cruz while it was running. (I’ve been told it will be back soon – stay tuned, locals.)

These aren’t revolutionary ideas – they’re happening at other papers in towns with less economic, organizational, and environmental pressure to change.

So change. Or die.

___

Obviously, I’m curious to hear what present and past Merc reporters and editors think about all this. I’m sure there will be plenty of stories and blog posts and handwringers in the next few days as the lists of buyouts and layoffs circulate.

I’ll leave with this thought:

If a start-up were to hire 10 of the most talented people who left Yahoo and the Mercury News in the last short while, they could build a kick-ass innovative local news organization in any two towns in Silicon Valley.

___

[UPDATE: Mike Bazeley is in a much better position than I am to write an obituary for the Merc, as he worked there for 11 years. He’s written it here.] 

Work with us, people

GateHouse Media is hiring two reporters. Here’s the important bit from Boss Owens’ post on the matter:

The ideal candidate:

  • A recent college graduate (or graduating this spring)
  • At least six months experience blogging
  • Capable of shooting and editing his or her own video
  • Ready to do more than sit in an office and make phone calls or pull the latest agenda item from a city council meeting and try to turn it into a story
  • Believes in local news and local community and sees a role for journalism in helping a community communicate and learn about what is happening in that community

Go read that whole post and write to howens [AT] gatehousemedia [DOT] com if you’re interested.

As an added bonus, I’ll probably bug you on IM and Twitter and SMS all day about when you’re posting your next video or blog post or podcast or whatever you choose to produce.

ReportingOn.com

Thanks to everyone who noticed the pillow-soft launch of ReportingOn.com in the only link in my Resolutions post, and especially to those of you who commented, e-mailed, tweeted, or blogged about the project.

At the moment, it’s just an URL, an idea, and a comment thread, but it’s building momentum, and that’s pleasant.

A few thoughts:

  1. I’m not doing this for any sort of financial gain, although I may get a grant or two to help pay the server bills, if there ever are any.
  2. I am hoping to use this as my Master’s Project to finish the graduate program I’m (still) enrolled in at San Jose State University.
  3. I’m no one’s competition. I’m doing this because I want to, because I think it’s necessary. If it’s successful, I’ll be happy; if no one ever uses it, I will have had a good hunk of practice at trying to do this sort of thing, and hopefully learned quite a bit in the process.

Initial feedback on the idea:

David Cohn:

“Ryan’s idea, as I understand it, is to take the new found obsession with instant conversation (and gratification) and aggregate these conversations in order to improve local reporting.”

Greg Linch:

“I’m a competitive being, as most journalists are, but the purpose of our profession is to inform. If you don’t want to be scooped, don’t give away the scoop. We must continue to adapt how we do our job to better inform readers and this site would be a great way to help do so.”

As the idea evolves, I’m thinking strongly that the Twitter tie-in and a Facebook application are the two places to start.

Dave Cohn is right: Herding a boatload of journalists – pro or amateur – over to a redundant social network feels forced. I’m not going to encourage reporters to seek out their sources in popular social networks in one breath, then ask them to join another network in the next.

Or maybe I will, I don’t know yet. Tell me, what would you want out of this?

My basic thought, the tagline for the site, service, app = The backchannel for your beat. I want this to be a place/way for reporters in far flung places to talk to each other – quickly and relatively publicly. A rising tide lifts all bylines. Seriously.

A wildcard: Poynter Groups?

I’m not sure the Poynter idea is exactly what I’m picturing — actually, I know it isn’t, but I still think it’s a good idea. Is Poynter the best possible place for a social network for journalists?

Many questions. Answer what you can. Thanks.

Manifestology

{In the spirit of the journalism blog carnival, I’m linking to posts by some of my fellow barkers on display today as I have time.}

Pat Thornton lets fly with a manifesto + examples in “The Web is the greatest thing to ever happen to journalism.

A clip:

Go local – Many papers are adding more and more wire content. That’s not why people read local newspapers. They come for local stories. If you don’t deliver what people want, why would they come to your site? Don’t try to out-CNN CNN, because you won’t. Own your local stories, and people will come. You can only own the stories within your own sphere of influence. But you should rock those stories to the core.”

Go read the whole thing. It’s a nice time of year for manifestos. I might have to pen another one. 😉

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, CrowNews.net, 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 CrowNews.net, 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.)

Meeting story hydraulics

John Robinson, editor at the Greensboro News & Record, on stepping away from the “meeting story”:

“Welcome to the world of hard choices. It’s always been this way. We don’t cover everything. We don’t even cover what we used to. Newspaper staffs are getting smaller, yet the number of meetings and events, of commissions and government agencies grows. Partly as a result, newspapers are also moving away from devoting as much energy to covering “buildings.” Not only are there fewer reporters, but there is evidence that readers aren’t as interested in what traditionally is produced by that coverage: stories about meetings and bureaucracy. For every big scandal story, there are 100 smaller process stories required to get there.”

Something I’ve heard more than a few times, wise advice from experienced editors: If you can’t find the photo in your story, you might not have a story.

My version: If there’s a meeting in your lede, you need to find a person in your community affected by the decision made at the meeting, then rewrite your lede to include them in it.

The trick: Getting the photo to be of the person in your lede. Never as easy as it sounds.

None of these tips, of course, address the issues of how to cover local government with a shrinking staff.

A scorecard graphic? Still takes reporting time to boil down to facts.

Stringers? Still costs money.

Reader blogs? Works well enough to get the information from meetings to the Web, but this can’t be the best way to give your community a voice.

Video? This can work really well, but it’s time consuming to find the highlights, much like editing lots of football game footage late on a Friday night. But it can work. Check out this h2otown clip.

Now that’s clearly a story about something that happened AT a meeting, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m advising, but would you have a feel for all that emotion in print? Depends on the town and the writer, I suppose.

Thinking out loud about this; feel free to join in.

All I’m going to say about the Google/AP thing

Google News now links to wire stories from the original source (AP, AFP, etc.), hosted by Google, in addition to the 5,137 versions of each wire story posted at individual news sites.

Three reasons why this is good for newspapers:

  1. Newspaper.coms no longer have to spend time, money, and resources on trying to build the best semantic, SEO-friendly code for their wire stories that are the least unique content on their sites.  They should work on doing that for local news and information anyway, but stop worrying about how you host AP stories and what that does to your placement on Google News.
  2. The rewards that newspapers with higher PageRank and more incoming links get on Google News might slowly diminish as the Google-hosted wire stories draw more attention.  Again, worry less about SEO and more about creating local content for local readers.
  3. The page view spikes from getting a wire story or an editorial on a national issue to show up on Google News are nearly worthless, anyway. A reader from Poughkeepsie who clicked on the AP story hosted by your newspaper.com in Jackson Hole isn’t coming back to find out how the rodeo turns out.

See Weaver and Hartnett for more rational thought.

Rearranging the lipstick on a sinking pig

Mark Potts, fresh from the demise of Backfence, rolls out a to-do list for newspapers who actually want to re-invent themselves — as opposed to those that want to have lots of meetings about re-invention.

A few of these I’ve been throwing in your face for quite some time, dear readers, so I won’t give you the blow-by-blow, but obviously one of my favorite bits is the one about giving readers what they can’t get anywhere else:

“Get local. Very local. Does every paper really need to have the AP story on Iraq or Bush or Paris Hilton on Page One? That news is available all over the place. Bring your readers something they absolutely can’t get anywhere else–news about what they care most about.”

Lots of good ideas, of course, if you can get your organization, or corporation, or mega-conglomerate to implement any of them.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it?

Are news organizations just too damn big to turn around at this point?

In the comments on Mark’s post, it looks like Christopher Mims, a blogger at Scientific American, has this to say:

“In other words, no institution as hidebound as a newspaper can possibly have the agility of the nascent startups that are going to replace them.”

Yikes. He’s right, of course.

So here’s the mission: Make your newspaper function like a start-up. How would you serve your community if you were the small, agile online news site in town?* That’s the question we’re all trying to answer — that we must answer — if we want to survive.

Get busy re-inventing, or get busy making plans to get out of the business.

*Credit where credit is due: I didn’t use this “let’s pretend we’re a start-up” bit until one of my bosses said it. In a meeting. About re-invention. I’d love to hear some real answers to that question.