The New Metros

Dollars to donuts, sometime in the next 12 months, residents of a metropolitan area will wake up one day, go to their doorsteps, and wonder why they don’t see their newspaper. They’ll check the metro’s Web site, and it won’t be there. Or, there might be one that’s so pared down that only tatters remain: entertainment, some sports and a small continuous news desk operation.

The shut-down will come with only a day or two of warning.

It’s not very healthy for communities large or small to operate without a reliable journalistic presence. (Even Google thinks so.) The basic reasons are that, even with the amazing and overwhelming amount of information available on the Web, communities need a reliable and trusted source to aggregate and investigate, if necessary, what’s going on that affects the health of the community. That includes economic health, physical health, educational health, environmental health, mental health, spiritual health, etc.

So, what’s to take the place of that one large metro news organization?

Many small ones. Mini-metros. Nichification on steroids.

Here’s how I think it’ll play out:

A large metro area comprises several communities, each made up of several neighborhoods. These communities may be municipalities within a county — or perhaps a part of a city represented on the city council. A small — two- to four-person — news organization covers each community in a collaborative, serial method, 24/7, along the lines of WestSeattleBlog.com. At first, these news organizations are financially supported by advertising from the local businesses who couldn’t afford the high ante to get into the metro news organizations’ publications.

Those community-based operations can cover their local schools, roads, health, events, etc., extraordinarily well, and will bring the community’s voices to bear on local public policy. But they won’t have the resources and depth to cover regional issues, such as education, transportation, the environment or growth. Issues in those areas are usually resolved at a regional or state public policy level. In a metropolitan area, these topic-based news organizations might be supported by those who sell products and services related to that topic. I’m going to try it here in Columbia, MO, with a local health site.

These sites won’t look like the traditional news organizations’ sites. The jurnos will do serial reporting — what Jay Rosen calls beat-blogging. That means jurnos, instead of doing the traditional standalone been-there-done-that story, they follow an issue throughout a day, a week, a month, a year, investigating as they go along, in some cases.  The reporting is solution-oriented —  jurnos don’t tell their communities what to do….they provide their communities with accurate information all the way to their goals — with a LOT of input from the community. So that makes it serial, solution-oriented, collaborative reporting. (The WestSeattleBlog folks estimate 30 percent of their content comes from community members.)

In fact, the community will be the visual and functional engine. The daily conversation and the community’s collaborations will be embedded in a contextual Web shell of information that the community uses — databases, backgrounders, wikis, aggregations of local blogs, forums, and — yes — news and information from those in the community who sell products and services. These sites will be the go-to place, the starting point, for most of the people in the community.

But these enterprises won’t operate as the metros have in the past — standalone operations in competition with every other news organization. They’ll be part of a network in which they can exchange information and help each other cover stories (check out an early start to this approach in Washington State where reporters used Twitter and Publish2 to share the best information about a regional storm) horizontally, across the communities, as well as vertically, with the organizations that focus on regional topics. That network can also be used to distribute information from people in a community who want to sell products and services across several communities.

The era of entrepreneurial journalists — jurnos — is upon us. At last week’s RJI Collaboratory Talkfest, we launched the RJI Collaboratory network, to bring in experts in advertising, technology, entrepreneurship, community organizing, social networking, and — yes — journalism, to help spawn the hundreds, if not thousands, of jurno enterprises needed to step in to the vacuums that are being, and will be left when metros shrink or close. We also want to help jurnos in suburban and rural communities that need journalists, and we want to help jurnos within traditional news organizations that are financially and structurally flexible enough to make the transition.

Through this network, we want to build assessment tools, to help jurnos figure out how large a community must be and how many businesses that sell products and services must exist to support a small news organization. For example, we don’t know what the optimum population and economic base should be to support a two-person operation. And, if the population exists, but it’s an economically depressed community, perhaps that’s the place that needs a couple of years of foundation funding to get a journalism organization in place that helps catalyze economic enterprise so that the enterprise can be locally supported. (Yes, jurnos do that!)

We want to help create a “cookbook” that jurnos can use to start their organizations, and a roadmap to help them over the entrepreneurial and technological humps as they grow. For example, display ads may be a good way to start, but when a site starts growing and hits 1 million page views a month, what’s the next step? Is it the Marketplace approach that LJWorld.com has put into place?

There are some folks who think that this network can be put in place as a structure designed before the network nodes are in place. I don’t think so. We’re in Webworld — solutions here come from the network as it grows organically.

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WestSeattleBlog — Don’t Call Them ‘Bloggers’

Just because they’re using a blog format, says WestSeattleBlog co-founder Tracy Record, it doesn’t mean they’re “bloggers.” (Unfortunately, that’s still a perjorative term in the journalism community. That’s too bad, since the blogging format is the Web “story” format.)

Tracy and hubby Patrick Sand started blogging about their West Seattle neighborhood in

Patrick Sand and Tracy Record receive 2008 Citizen Appreciation Award from Seattle Police Chief Kerlikowske, left, and Southwest Precinct Lt. Steve Paulsen

Patrick Sand and Tracy Record receive 2008 Citizen Appreciation Award from Seattle Police Chief Kerlikowske, left, and Southwest Precinct Lt. Steve Paulsen

January 2006 while she was still working at local TV station KCPQ.

Mark Poepsel, my research assistant at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and I have done a fairly thorough case study on them.

Besides being a model for jurnos who want to start their own geographic-based news organization, theirs is an interesting story.

They call themselves a commercial news site operating in a blog format. They do original reporting, posting 11 times a day, on average. They support themselves with display advertising, which most people in the Web ad world think is passé. But there’s a layer of businesses that  have been priced out of metro dailies for a long time.  At this point, display ads work very well for them — at least in West Seattle. And if you’re doing a community site — in this case a community of 68,000 people — wouldn’t you want to include the people who sell products and services?

After all, ye olde newspapers were catalysts for economic enterprise; why shouldn’t Web-based news organization be, also?

WestSeattleBlog is hitting home runs on so many levels…advertising, community-building, collaborative reporting, continuous and contextual coverage. They’re so successful that they’ve outgrown WordPress, their free content management system. They could use some help in Web shell and database development.

At next week’s RJI Collaboratory Talkfest, “Putting Feet on the Streets for Journalism”,  we’ll be talking with them, and exploring how a news organization incubator might help people starting out, as well as people like Tracy and Patrick, who are ready to move up to the next level of content management systems, and even, perhaps, advertising.

If you have more questions after reading the case study, let me know. I’ll pass them on.

NYT’s Carr Doesn’t Understand Webworld

In yesterday’s NYT, David Carr suggested that Steve Jobs’ iTunes model, in which many people pay a tiny amount for stories, might serve as a way of convincing people to pay for news.

Those of us who are in the newspaper business could not be blamed for hoping that someone like him comescarrstory1 along and ruins our business as well by pulling the same trick: convincing the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspapers sites that it’s time to pay up.

I respectfully disagree with almost everything that Carr said, as well as his reasoning. It seems as if he doesn’t understand the newspaper business. More importantly, he doesn’t understand the new Web medium that is replacing print, radio and TV as the world’s principle principal communications medium.

In Webworld, stand-alone stories won’t be the norm; contextual beat-blogging will be. (On many sites, it already is.) In Webworld, news and information is collaborative. In Webworld, a jurno becomes a community manager of news and information. So, for much of news, it will become practically impossible to isolate an individual blog post to sell it. And the question arises: if news and information is a collaborative work, who owns the information?

A few words about the dilemma of metropolitan newspapers, and then I’ll yammer on a bit more about Webworld: Metros aren’t imploding because advertising can’t support them. What’s crushing them is mountains of debt; news corporations no longer have the 30 percent profit margins they hoped would pay off that debt. Thousands of other small dailies and weeklies are still doing fine with display ads, in print AND on their Web sites. (For now — eventually, they’ll have to make the transition, too.)

And a few more words…about convincing people to pay for news: They haven’t paid for news for decades; why should they start now? Newspapers have been 80 – 85 percent supported by advertising.

Back to Webworld. Here’s where Mr. Carr shows he doesn’t understand the Web medium:

Then again, a friend in the business sent me a link to an item in TechCrunch (yes, it was also free) that described a gadget that actually might work for newspapers.

“Expect a large screen iPod touch device to be released in the fall of ’09, with a 7 or 9 inch screen,” the item suggested.

The device would allow scanning of pages with a flick of the finger. It sounds promising for newspapers and magazines. Now all we need is a business model to go with it.

The basic nature of the Web medium is that it is participatory, interactive, contextual, solution-oriented, and uses a combo of photos, video, audio, graphics, and text (i.e., it is multimedia-oriented). People like this. Hundreds of millions of them enthusiastically use the Web this way. They converse; make and send photos, music, video; share info and news. Most will never want to scan a non-interactive page. They’re integrating the medium into their lives so completely that it’s like electricity — they use it without thinking about it. They expect journalism to adapt to the new medium, too.

Hence, to adapt to this medium, the way journalism works is changing.

As I mentioned above, in Webworld, stand-alone problem-oriented stories are replaced by beat-blogging — continuous, contextual, solution-oriented beat-blogging. (See the info in the tabs above for much more detail, and please add your own ideas — the info in the tabs is just a starting point.) Solution-oriented does NOT mean a jurno provides answers. It means the jurno follows the issue until it’s resolved to the satisfaction of the community, AND the jurno provides links and resources for people to become involved at many different levels. In beat-blogging, the jurno includes its community members as collaborators and supporters. Community includes business owners who sell products and services.

There are plenty of examples to show that many jurnos grok Webworld and are using most of its characteristics. WestSeattleBlog. Baristanet. MaxPreps. Marketwatch. There are many others. All these organizations are Web-based, and all are ad-supported.

As journalism moves into Webworld, it’s likely that many different forms of success will emerge. At the Reynolds Journalism Institute, we’re establishing the RJI Collaboratory — a Web-based news organization incubator — to provide some useful roadmaps for journalists who want to make the transition. We don’t know what all those forms will look like or how they will function. But it’s clear that all must embrace the nature of the medium if they want to thrive.

We’re hosting a Talkfest next week to start this process, and we’ll launch the RJI Collaboratory Network at the same time.

We have a few initial hypotheses about what may happen over the next five years. It’s very clear that the days of large metros employing 300 reporters is gone. There’s probably a place for the mile-wide, inch-deep approach that’s characterized most large metro (and local TV news, for that matter). (Aggregators like Huffington Post are an example.) But not until there’s enough inch-wide, mile-deep news and information to support it. Many of us believe that the first to fill the metro-newspaper vacuum will be hundreds of small news organizations, each operated by two, three or four jurnos. These jurnos will blog their beats. They will collaborate with their communities. they will serve their communities, whether they are geographic- or topic-based.

How many small news organizations will replace one metro is hard to say. Can an urban neighborhood of 100,000 people support one small news organization or four? How many businesses need to be in that community to support a news organization? What are they willing and able to pay? How much does it cost for jurnos to start such organizations? What do they need? What’s the financial progression? If a small news organization can be supported by display ads from small mom-and-pop businesses, how does the ad model change over time? There are a ton of other questions. We hope to have some answers by the end of this year.

Back to Mr. Carr. I can’t fault him for his beliefs. He’s probably seeing the world from the point of view of the New York Times. But the Times doesn’t represent the predominant model any more. It — with the Washington Post, NPR, Wall Street Journal and USA Today — are in their own class. They’re much larger, have a bigger financial cushion, and are able to move much more slowly. They’ve made significant progress toward Webworld, and they have many good people within their organizations pushing them. But they’ll end up immersed in Webworld, too, someday.

One telling example of the world in which Mr. Carr lives: although you can comment on some NYT articles, you can’t comment on Mr. Carr’s.

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It’s Not About The Business Plan

Business plan. Business model. Business plan. Business model. Jeez Louise it seems that’s all you hear about these days. To survive in Webworld, it’s going to take a lot more than developing a new business plan. To adapt to Webworld, the entire approach to news has to change. No business model will help. If you start a Web site, and it looks and functions just like the site that traditional news organizations are doing, it won’t survive.

Lots of folks blame the Internet for screwing up the newspaper business plan. But even without the Internet, newspapers would be in trouble. The dirty secret is that newspapers were losing readers LLOOONNNNGGGGG before the Internet started seeping into our lives. [Weekday newspaper readers had already dropped, from 77.6 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 to 58.6 in 1998]. As the shift to national ads, national reporting, the emphasis on prizes, and corporatizing — being beholden to shareholders — trumped listening and staying focused on serving their communities, journalists, especially in metro areas, had begun losing touch with their communities, which included their local advertisers.

No matter now. Onward.

Webworld demands context. So, Nujurno is an inch wide and a mile deep. (Oldjurno is a mile wide and an inch deep.) It’s not just about the stand-alone story anymore. It’s about never-ending stories in context, embedded in a matrix of really useful information (solution-oriented).

Why am I prattling on about this? Because in Webworld, the news structure — what’s covered and how news is presented — is completely different, which makes how reporters do their jobs very different, too. By focusing on that aspect first, we will figure out how to support and sustain it.

In Michael Hirschorn’s very interesting column about the transition facing the New York Times in the Jan-Feb 2009 Atlantic, there was this:

Like neighboring hospitals coordinating their purchases of expensive MRI equipment, journalistic outlets will discover that the Web allows (okay, forces) them to concentrate on developing expertise in a narrower set of issues and interests, while helping journalists from other places and publications find new audiences.

That’s a very good observation, and it’s been happening outside traditional news organizations for the last several years, as other folks (some abandoning the ranks of traditional journalism to do so) grokked the nature of the Web very quickly and created Web-based social/news/information networks. These include Marketwatch, MaxPreps, and Theknot.com. [Hirschorn may not be on target with some of his financial assessment, according to Rick Edmonds at Poynter, but that’s a separate issue.]

At the November 2008 New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY, many good ideas emerged. But they stopped short of Continue reading