A Modest Proposal, Part Two (for the Jurnos on the Sidewalk)

The Rocky Mountain News published for the last time today. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is next, with its last day likely to be sometime early in March. The Hearst Corporation is threatening closure of the San Francisco Chronicle if it can’t shrink that news organization to zombie status. rockymt(Definition of a zombie newspaper: a skeleton staff operating in an organization that provides them little support, no room to make a complete transition to the Web and holds a death-grip on the paper instead of modernizing it. There are a few out there already. Candidates, anyone?)

My previous post was a modest proposal for the Seattle Times. This one’s for the jurnos left standing on the sidewalk when a metro abruptly closes its doors.

Start your own geographic-based or topic-based Web organizations. Others have, and are making a living, or are closing in on that goal. Yesterday, David Westphal highlighted a few, including the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Baristanet, BlackWhiteRead’s group of community sites, Cornwall-on-Hudson, WestSeattleBlog, QuincyNews.org and New West. Around the country, a plethora of local ad-supported news annarbororganizations popping up. Journalists aren’t waiting; they’re keeping journalism alive in their communities and providing themselves a living.

Many folks have said that one small community news organization in a metropolitan area isn’t going to replace the heft of a large metropolitan daily, such as a San Francisco Chronicle or Seattle Times. That’s true. But many Web-centric news organizations in a regional network can and will. In the previous post, I used my puny artistic skills to produce a graphic of a mini-metro network. The network comprises two main parts: geographic-based sites and topic-based sites. Seattle’s growing both.

Besides WestSeattleBlog, there’s CapitolHillSeattle, run by Justin Carder, who’s part of a start-up that has spun off Ravenna Nation and The South Lake. There’s also MyBallard, myballardpart of Cory and Kate Bergman’s Next Door Media group that includes Fremont Universe, Queen Anne View, Magnolia Voice and Phinney Wood. I’m sure there are others that aren’t mentioned here, and I apologize for leaving you out.

Seattle also has ad-supported topic-based sites. There’s TechFlash (“Seattle’s technology news source”), co-founded by John Cook, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter. TechFlash partnered up with the Puget Sound Business Journal, which publishes a weekly business paper, and is owned by American City Business techflashJournals, which owns business journals (print and Web) in 42 cities. (As a resource for other jurnos who want to start Web-based news organizations, we’ll be doing detailed case studies on these and others, similar to the case study about WestSeattleBlog.)

Although local sites can operate independently, they’ll have more clout and more money if they develop their own smart network. A smart network shares trusted information on the fly, pings reporters in one site with relevant information from other sites, and enables targeted advertising. The jurnos within the network maintain control of their own sites, and share advertising across the network.

The extra revenue could help with the nuts and bolts of running a business: liability insurance, health benefits,  income to hire local freelancers to do special projects or to spell reporters when they want to take a vacation or must deal with medical issues.

So, all this is to say that if the Seattle Times (or San Francisco Chronicle or Chicago Tribune or Philadelphia Inquirer or Denver Post) doesn’t agree with Modest Proposal #1, and becomes a zombie paper or closes, there’s an opportunity for the jurnos on the sidewalk.

In David Westphal’s blog post, there was this from Tracy Record, editor of WestSeattleBlog::

I am adamant about the ‘hyper-local’ space being a place for local independents. I am sick to death of these national VC-funded operations (Patch, American Towns, whoever else) trying to swoop in and say, ‘Hey! We’re your plug-and-play hyperlocal news!’ No, you are NOT. Nor is a voiceless aggregator. Let’s not let this precious new type of coverage be poisoned the way the ‘big corporate media’ world evolved from local, independently owned tv/newspapers/whatever … It may happen eventually but don’t smother this industry from birth!

Every community has different needs, and must be served by someone who tailors the service based on what they learn in interaction with their community. I WISH that the people throwing money around would share some with those of us who are bootstrapping, rather than yet ANOTHER aggregator, or sharing site, or whatever. THIS is where the action is happening and the future is being paved. But I can’t get a Whatever Grant to so much as give me the time of day. Just not considered sexy enough to be busting your butt uncovering and/or sharing information and news in real-time re: your community.

I agree with Tracy. News, local or otherwise, has to be reported by someone who really knows their community…BEFORE they start reporting for it. A newcomer to doing news the Web way surprised me by understanding that instantly. Mallory Perryman, one of the Missouri School of Journalism students who’s part of a group that’s developing a local health site, was presenting the storyboard, or information architecture, for her section– affordable mental health. She’s spent the last couple of weeks mapping the mental health community in Boone County — identifying the communities, people and organizations that are involved or affected. In her storyboard, she included the basics — the beatblog, resources, data, etc. But there wasn’t a spot for traditional indepth storytelling. When I asked her about that, she said, “I’m not ready to do something big like that. Maybe after three years or so, after I get to really know the beat.”

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A Modest Proposal for the Seattle Times

In a couple of weeks, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is due to stop publishing its print edition. In the spirit of prodding journalists to move on with life, and concentrate on re-energizing journalism in our communities, here’s some seattletimesunsolicited advice for the Seattle Times. This could be an opportunity for the news organization to take its freedom and run with it…into survival and eventual success. Instead of spending its last dime doing business as usual, it could start a major overhaul that would create a different and modern Web-based nichified news organization with a solid local foundation.

A House that Jurnos and the Community Build

First, create geographic-based community sites: Put a pod of jurnos in each of the neighborhoods of Seattle that have a population of about 50,000 people, give or take a few thou. Each pod includes at least two reporters, an ad salesperson, and a community manager. (Take the U.S. News & World Report approach.)

Second, topic-based sites: Choose the beats you still own. Education? Transportation? Environment? Health? Rename them something catchier (for transportation, how does CantGetThereFromHere.com sound? Hey…I’ve been to Seattle.) And create another pod of jurnos for each of those sites. Reporters, ad salesperson, community manager.

Here's a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network. Sumopaint's terrific online software, but it can't improve bad art skills. I'll ask my friend and graphics expert Val to fix it up, after folks send in some ideas on how to improve it.

Here's a rough graphic representation of the mini-metro network. Sumopaint's terrific online software, but it can't improve bad art skills. I'll ask my friend and graphics expert Val to fix it up, after folks send in some ideas on how to improve it.

Do a serious competitive analysis of these topic-based beats. Do you still own sports? Or have MaxPreps, the professional leagues, and CBS Sportline swooped in, as they have in almost every other metropolitan area? Has ESPN put Seattle on its list of local sites they’re developing? What about entertainment? Many national organizations glommed onto the local movie scene long ago, including Fandango, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB.com. But maybe there’s enough local entertainment to keep a site alive. If a strong competitive topic-based site exists that has incorporated social networking, that serves its community members by giving them myriad ways to interact and provide useful information to each other…and many do, and that provides useful information, not just stories, move on to another topic.

Tango into the Webworld Format

Take the Web approach to create a social/news/information network. It’s so much more than a Web site. This must be a place the community thinks it owns. Remember the words “my newspaper”? Now you hear “my Facebook page”. You want people to think that way about this network. You want them to use it so much that they can’t figure out how they lived without it. (Talk to iPhone fanatics for inspiration. See how people use Craftster or Marketwatch and the Marketwatch Community.)

Map the communities. Find all relevant people and organizations that move and shake in a geographic-based community, or who push or put the brakes on issues in topic-based communities. Find out how the community works, how it communicates, what they need, what they want fixed. All that information gets organized into a Web shell of useful and user-friendly databases, resources, links, maps, etc. You don’t have to complete it before launch. Leave some for the community to add to and finish up.

Then, set up the site. Make the community the visual and functional engine. That means the site is a social network first. Big and prominent on the site is an easy sign-up. Free of charge. People have their own blogs, they form groups, they have discussions, they plan events, they buy and sell, give away and pick up, volunteer and ask for help. Anyone can look at anything on the site for free. People have to provide a real email address and their name if they want to participate. Their membership photos are on the home page. So are their blogs, links to their groups and their discussions.

The daily job of jurnos is to blog their beats. They post in a Webcentric way — some combination of text, still photos, videos, slide shows, graphics, polls, quizzes — a half-dozen or more times a day. They engage in a conversation with the community, which feeds them information (text, still photos, videos, slide shows, graphics). They ask this question about everything they put on the site: Is it immediate or contextual? Does it pick up or offer a chronological thread? Is it solution-oriented? How can I make this more participatory? Is this something that other communities would be interested in?

Sometimes jurnos do “traditional” iconic storytelling: a multi-part profile or analysis or summary.

The role of the jurno still fulfills important traditions passed down to us from the U.S. Constitution. We are fact-checkers, watchdogs, myth-busters, investigative reporters. Some people worry that if newspapers as we know them disappear, investigative reporting is doomed. In this network structure, I think investigative reporting thrives. In this structure, jurnos are much more involved in their communities, so problems are likely to be noticed sooner and followed more regularly. This approach has a better shot at preventing abuse. The other advantage is that jurnos can ask the community for input as they work on issues of individual or spot corruption or abuse, as TalkingPointsMemo did with the U.S. attorneys scandal.

What’s more important, though, is that with this structure, jurnos have a better shot at addressing issues of a corrupt, broken or ineffectual system that harms the community, such as a juvenile justice system that increases recidivism, or child welfare services that don’t protect children. They follow an issue until the community reaches its goal or resolves the issue. No more parachuting in and out of communities and stories.

This network does one more thing: it enables jurnos to share trusted information with each other. If it’s a smart network, then it can alert jurnos to similar issues cropping up in several communities, and help them work together on reporting an issue, as well as coordinate developments with jurnos in topic-based communities. This approach is already developing in a nascent form with Publish2.

Figure out how the content of this site can be accessible on people’s mobile phones. Start with the easy stuff first, useful information and tools that are branded and that drive people to participate more in the network.

This Can Make Money

The network is key to financing this operation. Geographic sites pick up the local advertisers who’ve been priced out of the paper for lo these many years. Examples of local ad-supported Web sites exist. One’s right there in West Seattle — WestSeattleBlog.com. (Key advice for the Seattle Times: Don’t try to compete with the WestSeattleBlog; learn from them; partner up with them; make them an offer they can’t refuse.) Topic-based sites pick up niche advertisers who’ve been priced out of the paper, as well as niche advertisers or general advertisers who want to reach several communities, or particular interest-based communities. Look at networks such as NameMedia, NetShelter, and Federated Media. Is it possible to develop a regional version of those national networks?

The organization doesn’t have to be all ad-based. It could throw a little Spot.Us into the mix, if the community gathers ’round an issue and wants to support an investigation. And for neighborhoods that don’t have enough business base to support a news network, perhaps some foundation money could get one started, and the jurnos could help foster the economic health of the community so that, eventually, enough business would exist to support the network.

The Paper

With a distributed news/information/social network, the Seattle Times won’t need a big central office anymore. Sell it. Rent it out. But  keep the printing presses. Yes, it would still put out a paper. It won’t appear every day. And it won’t look ANYTHING like it does now. Model the content on the new Web approach: graphic, community-driven, pushing people to engage with the network, i.e., each other.

Maybe it comes out Thursday, Friday and Sunday, to coincide with the days that advertisers want to reach people in the community with a print product. Maybe Thursday’s food day, and the content focuses on everything food, from restaurant reviews, recipes, to issues such as local food safety or how the community’s doing on its goal of becoming a neighborhood of localvores. Maybe Friday’s local entertainment and weekend outdoor activities. The movies may have been sucked up by Fandango, but there’s probably much more local activity that could support a paper. Sunday’s inserts continue to be as interesting as what jurnos provide (jurnos recognize that the community values information and news in advertising as much as traditional news and they embrace it), and frame a mix of fun and summaries and analysis of community issues.

It’s a Bottom-Up World

A small group of editors — if it’s financially warranted — can aggregate information/stories from all the sites. In this scenario, 90 percent of the organization’s effort is put into a couple of dozen inch-wide, mile-deep sites, and small group puts together a Newser for Seattle.

If the Seattle Times starts now, it could keep its good name, its dedication to good journalism, and its good entrepreneurial jurnos —  the kind of people who can nurture this nichified network through its growing pains. Maybe the organization won’t employ as many people as it does now, but in business-as-usual, the layoffs would continue anyway as the organization shrinks. A shift from mass-media to Web-based nichified media would encourage those who want to write only, who want to stay in a world of we-talk you-listen, who won’t embrace beat-blogging, who don’t see the value in social networking, to go somewhere else.

It would be a tough year or two of experimentation, learning to let the community help reconfigure what the news organization does for the community, learning to be flexible and agile, which means making as many mistakes in the shortest time possible, shouting out, “This is fascinating!” with each one. It’s uncomfortable, messy, uncertain, and scary. And that’s the way it’s supposed to feel if you’re making this very difficult and inspiring transition.

A friend once said about skydiving — if you ain’t scared, you ain’t having fun. In the case of transitioning to a Web-based medium, if you ain’t scared, you ain’t moving forward.

And if the Seattle Times ain’t moving forward, other folks will.

Here’s John Cook’s take on the Seattle situation. And his 10 steps for saving the Seattle P-I. He’s co-founder and executive editor for TechFlash, an online tech biz publication that’s partnered with the weekly Business Journal, which (obviously) also has a Web site.

In Webworld, How Do You Charge Money for a Flight 1549 Story?

Over the last couple of weeks, several articles have appeared about how to pay for journalism, mostly journalism in legacy media, mostly metropolitan newspapers. In Time Magazine, Walter Isaacson suggested micropayments were the answer. Steven timeBrill offered the New York Times a solution involving micropayments. David Swensen, Yale University’s chief investment officer, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst at Yale, suggested endowments for news organizations. (Here’s a thorough list of recent opinions about paying for content that Mathew Ingram put together.) Len Witt suggested a cooperative trust.

The back-and-forth between Len and Vin Crosbie in the comments is worth taking a look at, because Vin noted something important:

Newspapers shouldn’t be saved. Their staffs, practices and products need to change.

Case in point: Let’s take a look at what happened when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River on Jan. 15 after a bird strike shut down the engines. The news hit Twitter first — a photo from a cell phone, and people who saw the plane hitting the water. People on the ferries who rescued passengers took photos and sent them to Flickr. TV news crews flew helicopters over the scene and transmitted live video, pieces of which appeared on YouTube. USAirways posted regular updates on its Web site. The FAA issued public statements. CNN and AP, among many others, issued alerts that were constantly updated. Blogs picked up the news and spread it.

So, how does a reader-paid content model for such news work? What individual story about Flight 1549 would you pay 10 or 20 cents for? Do newspapers really think they have a chance of charging even micropayments for their news in such a situation? (Here’s Michael Kinsley’s take on this in a NYTimes’ op-ed “You Can’t Sell News by the Slice”.) Everybody’s on that story, including non-journalists.  (And sending out a swarm of reporters and photographers for a little piece of exclusive detail is cost-prohibitive, as Newsweek has determined. The New York Times reports that the weekly magazine won’t do that anymore. It quoted Newsweek editor Jon Meacham as saying: “The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”)

People who say that readers should pay for news still think in terms of an individual article, with a beginning, middle and end. Something that can stand alone and be packaged to sell alone. However, in a Webcentric world, the daily stand-alone story morphs into serial, collaborative beat blogs. Most reporting will be done WITH the community. Most blog posts won’t make sense if they stand alone — they can only be understood in context of what’s come before, or related linked information.

So, if it doesn’t make sense for news organizations to charge for news that everybody has, such as the amazing story of Flight 1549, or to charge for individual blog posts, because they don’t have enough context AND they’re collaboratively reported (does the community member who provided information get a cut?), what could news organizations charge for?

Even in a world where the blogging format dominates, there’s a place for iconic storytelling, investigative reporting, the status-of article that wraps everything up prior to a vote or public policy decision. But how much of a metro news organization’s content is this? Enough to support a 200-person news organization and keep it afloat in a sea of free content?

Probably not. The days of large metro newsrooms churning out general-interest, been-there-done-that, stand-alone, we-talk-you-listen reporting are waning. Communities were growing tired of that before the Web appeared on the scene.

It’s likely that large metros will be replaced by lots of small news organizations, as the explosion of (many ad-supported) niche-based organizations, geographic and topic-based, continues. In organizations that are making just enough money to support a staff that provides daily coverage, there may still be a need for extra funding for an investigative story or in-depth story. In those cases, perhaps a Spot.Us approach can work. Only, however, if that story relates to an issue about which the community’s already expressed concern, AND if the journalist stays with the issue until it’s been resolved.

Spot.Us sells itself is as people requesting journalists to do one-off stories, or journalists pitching one-off stories to the community for funding. In response to an LA Times column by James Rainey about the weakness of the stories done so far, David Cohn says that he’s creating code that any news organization can use as it sees fit — i.e., Spot.Us is not a product, it’s a platform.

My hunch is that a loose network of small news organizations within a metropolitan area will need more than a Spot.Us platform. They’ll need a way to share trusted information with each other, they’ll need a way to collaborate on issues, they’ll need a way to share ad revenue across the network, and they’ll need a way to raise extra funding for those indepth stories.

Who out there is putting that together?