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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12 Responses

  1. @Illinoiswriter — Jurnos can pay their bill by inviting local business to buy advertising. That approach is working at WestSeattleBlog.com, QuincyNews.org, and BaristaNet, and we’re finding more. The post I did on Tuesday, Feb. 24, — A Modest Proposal for the Seattle Times — goes into that a bit. In an upcoming post, I’ll provide more details.

  2. […] But vacuums are fragile, and they don’t last long. Something will fill the journalism void left by the closure of big papers, and Jane Stevens at Rejurno thinks the likely filler will be what she calls “mini-metros.” […]

  3. […] its place “mini-metros” will form where metros once reigned supreme, Stevens said. These mini-metros will be niche […]

  4. So how do these new Jurnos pay their bills? Where’s the money?

    This sounds ambitious. It can’t be sustained without lots and lots of smart, hardworking people getting paid lots and lots of money.

  5. […] than it may seem “There’s no more inspiring time to be a journalist” Why I Blog The New Metros New local sites emerge as […]

  6. I think those weeklies CAN be the niche Web sites for their communities. And should be. They’re in the perfect position to begin to make this transition — they know their communities, they can begin engaging people in the communities to provide information. But it’s clear if they don’t, someone else will. This doesn’t meant that print goes away; it just becomes something different than what it is now.

  7. This almost reminds me of the situation in small-town communities with weekly papers. Their focus is ultra-local (when the town is the size of a neighborhood within a larger metropolitian area) and the weeklies I follow appear to be doing decently financially.
    Those same weeklies do still rely on staff to gather news instead of getting more community input. (At weekly I used to work at, my publisher said he wanted a limited web presence, because he’d otherwise lose money if people didn’t buy the paper, and he couldn’t sell ads at the prices he wanted due to declining circulation.)
    Any thoughts on how the small-town weeklies might transition over to a better/bigger online presence, or do you think they’ll go the way of metros eventually, and be replaced by niche web sites/blogs?

  8. […] is brighter than it may seem “There’s no more inspiring time to be a journalist” The New Metros New local sites emerge as […]

  9. […] she asks. “Many small ones. Mini-metros. Nichification on steroids,” she begins… Full story… (also picked up at the Knight Digital Media Center […]

  10. Thanks Jane! The proposal sounds like it has a lot of the same initial goals of the Representative Journalism Project (http://repjbonnie.wordpress.com/). Since July, I think we’ve even tried out a few of Jane’s ideas. I’m curious to see her ideas, or the ideas of others, about how to make it all work, from disseminating factual news to creating a job that would be attractive to skilled journalists to creating a product that simply looks good and is fun.

  11. Jane –

    Thanks for the framework for this discussion on entrepreneurial journalism, and all the work you and your colleagues at RJI are doing to develop the tools to help this effort.

    As you know, we have been working for some time on similar concepts, but without waiting for the disaster to strike to force us to act. We believe that such a system of interlocking collaborative blogs could actually strengthen a community, and make the newspaper stronger and more relevant.

    If you have not seen the slide show that Neil Perkin did, which is another take on why your vision is appropriate for this time, I featured it recently at http://cpetersia.wordpress.com

    However, it is way past time to move on to actual implementation. As we begin doing that, we are going to need all the help we can get to share tools and best practices. We plan on doing that, and look forward to working with you and RJI.

    Thanks for your help.

    Chuck

  12. […] integrated into a community as the metro newspaper continues to shrivel and maybe even disappear: The New Metros. Read this, and see if you’re not inspired to do something similar here in Reno, this […]

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