New(s) Ecology

SUCCESSION is a fundamental concept in ecology…

…(it) refers to more-or-less predictable and orderly changes in the composition or structure of an ecological community. Succession may be initiated either by formation of new, unoccupied habitat (e.g., a lava flow or a severe landslide) or by some form of disturbance (e.g. fire, severe windthrow, logging) of an existing community.

Journalism That Matters confabs have influenced the thinking of many people over the years. The first time I heard the term “news ecology” was from an Oakland community organizer who mentioned it at a JTM meeting in 2006 in St. Louis.

But it was the JTM retreat at the Fetzer Institute in October 2005 that set my head spinning. Included in the 29 people who attended that meeting — The World Publishing Company’s Ralph Gage, Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck, We the Media author Dan Gillmor, Institute for New Media Studies’ Nora Paul, Common Language Project’s Sarah Stuteville, Lew Friedland from the University of Wisconsin, Fresno Famous founder Jarah Euston, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, Reclaim the Media’s Jonathan Lawson and Karen Toering, and one of my fellow RJI Fellows, Matt Thompson, best known as co-creator of Epic 2014 (aka Googlezon).

Everyone offered her or his ideas about how established newspaper organizations had to change. Together we formatted a roadmap to a new news ecology.

  • Disentangle from Wall Street. Days of 20-30 percent profit margins (40-50 percent in TV) are over.
  • Create a Webcentric newsroom; Web first — spin off text, video and audio to several different platforms, including paper, cell phone, PDA, iPod, iPod w/video.
  • Publish a paper only three or four days a week, not seven days a week. And that paper will be something very different than what it is today — no breaking news; instead, heavier on analysis and second-day stories.
  • Distribute the newsroom – reporters will be in the communities in which they do their reporting, accessible to the members of their communities.
  • Train all reporters and photographers to be multimedia reporters.
  • For most geographic-based news organizations, focus on local first, state second, little national.
  • Put everything in context. Embed stories of the day in Web “shells” that hold maps, searchable databases, resources, archives, timelines, and a place where members of community can contribute information and stories. It’s the end of been-there-done-that journalism.
  • Everything’s a conversation – the end of one-way, I lecture, you listen, I know more than you do. As Giillmor pointed out: the community knows more than we do. Information from citizen journalists appears shoulder-to-shoulder with professional journalists.
  • Consequences: Our role as journalists is changing quickly, and dramatically. We become managers of information and the most trusted source in the community.

[btw, JTM’s Peggy Holman and Stephen Silha are organizing their next conference at the Poynter Institute in March 2009: Journalism in the New News Ecology.

Well….. 2005 was a few eons ago in Webworld time. YouTube was born in 2005. Facebook was a one-year-old infant. Many of us were clinging to the hope that metro newspapers had a chance at surviving…..if they just followed that basic list. Most haven’t.

So, just three years later — this is what the new news ecology is emerging to look like in the nation’s hundreds of metropolitan areas. We’re moving away from:


…..i.e., one large metro newspaper (only a few cities have two) providing millions with the basic foundation of news, from which “competing” local television and radio news derive many of their leads (in addition to the local police scanner), financially supported mostly by large local or national chain advertisers and classifieds….



….small independent geographic-based news organizations founded and led by journalists and covering neighborhoods (size = 30,000 to 90,000?). They can be supported by local retailers and service-providers. Journalists and members of the community deal mainly with solutions that affect and can be handled on a local level….
….augmented by several topic-based (health, environment, growth & development, etc.) news organizations that cover the topic across a region, over many neighborhoods. Journalists and community members deal with solutions of a regional public policy nature. They can be supported by people who sell products and services to this interest-based community.

Both types network to share information and sell advertising across a network (this network does not yet exist).

In the mix are many news and information organizations that aren’t founded or led by journalists. Yelp. Max Preps. The Knot.

The roles of journalists in a traditional news organization:

  • editors (in chief, managing, executive, city, section, copy)
  • reporters (general assignment, beat, feature, investigative, database)
  • photographer
  • graphic artist

The basic news bit is a stand-alone daily story, with the economic equivalent of one story/one reporter.

The financial support for these people comes from people who sell ads, and do marketing and promotion of the “product”.

The roles of journalists in the new news ecology:

  • beat reporter
  • community manager
  • database reporter
  • infographics reporter

In this scenario, where journalists are managing a geographic or topic-based beat, all reporters know how to do video. All reporters can do feature reporting. All reporters can do investigative reporting. It’s a function of covering the beat.

The basic news bit: A blog in which a journalist engages with input from members of the community to the extent that it’s difficult to separate where information from the journalist ends and that from the community begins. The community provides some of the editing function: setting much of the “agenda”, providing corrections and direction for follow-up.

The financial support for these people is engineered by people who sell ads and do search-engine marketing and community managing, aka social network managing.

(Just a note: Traditional news organizations could survive if they followed the list compiled in 2005, updated below (not much has changed), AND reorganized into semi-independent pods covering neighborhoods and beats (health, environment, growth & development, transportation, etc.

  • Merge news and digital.
  • Publish to Web first, mobile second, print/TV/radio third. Change or ditch the print version.
  • Focus resources around core “community” issues and what you still own, and make the community the engine that drives the issues, topics and beats. (Many news organizations have already jettisoned science, international reporting, entertainment, and unwittingly lost prep sports, college sports and professional sports.)
  • Integrate local businesses and services (or interest-based business and services) into a searchable community marketplace that links to information and stories. (Check out the Lawrence Journal-World’s Marketplace for inspiration.)
  • All journalists are multimedia journalists. Minimum requirements for this medium: using a videocamera (or video-equipped cell phone) as a reporter’s notebook, and being able to decide, within available time and resources, what part of a story is told in video, still photos with audio, graphics, text, and/or games. (Quit chasing pieces of the Web. Three years ago, it was podcasting, two years ago, it was blogging. This year, it’s video and useless databases, next year, it’ll be mobile. The Web isn’t any one of those; it’s all of those.)
  • Coverage moves away from traditional one-off stories to blogging the beat (it’s a continual conversation!!…a format, not content!), creating contextual Web shells chock-full of community aggregation, blogs, group discussions, and links and resources useful to the community, providing iconic contextual multimedia stories, and sending all this content to other platforms and into the Social Network Universe.
  • Transform the copy desk into a distribution desk, which massages the content for different platforms. (Ditch that ridiculous idea about outsourcing the copy desk to India….the distribution desk is the heart of the organization.)
  • Distribute decision-making to reporting groups. Build the organization around these reporting groups. They build and maintain their Web shells and participation in beat-specific social networks. They’re nimble! They can adapt and change without IT and editors having six months of meetings.
  • Establish and integrate social networking into all beats or issue coverage. The community knows more than we do. Make their discussions, aggregations, participation the centerpiece. (All those Moms site….great. But they’re shunted off to one side, a tiny link on the news organization’s self-important home page.)
  • Try anything and everything. Make lots of mistakes.
  • Oh, yeah. There’s a No. 11. Ditch Wall Street. Put Web-savvy journalists back in charge. Being beholden to shareholders instead of the communities that journalists serve, and putting MBAs with no journalism background in charge was an odd idea to begin with. Especially for something that’s part of the U.S. Constitution, i.e., by, of and for the people.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the input, Chris. Quite a few people are already making money in the new news ecology, especially networks of sites, such as Federated Media, NetShelter and CBS Digital. Each one of those networks has hundreds of reporters, producers and editors.
    In one of my not-so recent posts (my poor neglected blog), I provided a modest proposal of what a regional news network might look like:
    And you could sell ads across it. In fact, that’s what the national niche news networks are doing.
    To answer your other question: I think everyone has to carry a video camera (even a video-equipped cell phone), because that’s what the new medium requires at a basic level: the ability to do basic reporting, writing, still photography and video. The more you do, the better you get (as in any medium). If you have the skills to do great video, then you can do great video, like Brian Storm does, and there’s a place for that, too.
    Quality might have little correlation with popularity in many media…think National Enquirer!

  2. Wonderful and thought-provoking ideas here, especially the new news ecology outline.
    My question is – how do you monetize it? I’m pretty sure we (news outlets en masse) missed the Craigslist boat, the targeted niche advertising boat. News outlets don’t have the technology and programming expertise to make money the way Yahoo and Google are doing. I know you can partner with them like w/ Adsense and Yahoo targeted advertiising products but is that going to support a roomful of reporters and producers and editors?

    Also, why not have reporter specialists by media? No one is good at everything. Doing good video is a different skill set than crafting 500-word quality dispatches. How do you maintain high quality when everyone’s a one-man band?

    On the web, it seems, quality has little correlation with popularity.

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