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.