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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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

US News & World Report reorganization

In case you missed the US News & World Report memo about its 2009 growth strategy that was sent to Romenesko last month, it’s worth taking another look — whether you’re an independent entrepreneurial journalist (or soon to be), or inside an existing news organization.usnews

…we are organizing our efforts around five key vertical content channels that will operate as self-contained editorial and business units with their own goals for development and growth, and their own dedicated teams – Nation & World/Opinion, Health, Money & Business, Education and Rankings & Reviews. This is the next phase of our brand transformation that began last spring when we announced that we were moving away from a weekly magazine with a discrete website to become a multi-platform digital publisher of news you can use and analysis.

…each channel will feature a dedicated interdisciplinary team incorporating reporting, editing, sales, marketing, business development, circulation and manufacturing. Teams will be charged with producing even more targeted consumer products, including special reports, daily news updates, blogs, newsletters, rankings, guides and videos, as well as developing lead generation businesses and partnerships.

Yep, they’re creating Web shells and integrating reporting, sales and marketing. Some journalists will moan about losing the wall between news and ads. But jurnos won’t. They operate from the point of view of their communities. They know Continue reading

Solution’s right under our noses

A few days ago, in “Non-Profit Model for Newspapers May Be the Answer” in Editor & Publisher, Joe Mathewson suggested that newspapers might survive if they become nonprofits:

The model is public broadcasting — or, even better, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Inc., which ownseandpbulb the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
Not-for-profit, tax-exempt. No longer dependent on commercial advertisers. A brave new world!
These not-for-profits would be supported by corporate sponsorships and by contributions from foundations and public-spirited citizens who care about the community and who understand how it would be diminished by the loss of its newspapers.

And a few days prior to that, the Journal Register Co. closed 16 weeklies in Connecticut. The buzz around that news was to look to citizen journalists to fill the gap.

But why?

Why lose all the experience and institutional memories of those journalists?

Why switch to non-profit mode?

We don’t need to do either.

The business model is right under our noses: create a place for the community to share all pertinent information. That includes the information from journalists, people who sell products and services, and members of the community. It worked for decades before the metro news organizations lost their way. Thousands of small newspapers are doing quite well with it. Even Web-based news organizations are succeeding with the approach. On top of that, journalists somehow forgot that their communities LIKE the information in local ads. It’s news, too.

What’s broken is the business model of the last 20 years or so: public newspaper chains run by non-journalists and beholden to shareholders, not their communities; cannibalizing their organizations to maintain 30 percent profit margins until collapse or bankruptcy; holding on to a print-only (or TV-only) mentality in newsrooms AND ad sales departments.

It’s simply a matter of embracing the model that’s worked for decades, and transforming it to fit the nature, the characteristics of the Web. Well, maybe not so simply, given that the newspaper industry dug its grave so efficiently and nearly took journalism down with it. But doable.

Here’s how we’re going about it: Put feet on the streets for journalism.

See the next post for details.

Jurnos as Community Managers

One of the new jurno jobs in Webworld is community manager. It’s rapidly becoming a must-hire at news organizations, and it can be an opportunity for journalists to do journalism at non-news organizations. (“Community manager” seems to be the term that’s sticking. It’s also been called “social networking coordinator”.)

What does a community manager do? That job’s still evolving, so it’s defined by the organization and/or the journalist. Huffington Post’s OffTheBus projects director Amanda Michel and her team, who worked with 2,000 contributors during the U.S. presidential campaign, could be called community managers. The Washington Examiner, one of the string of Examiners across the U.S., is advertising for a community manager, who’ll be doing this:

This new and exciting job will monitor the blogosphere, talk radio and social media for hotdcexaminer stories and inform all online and print staff of such stories. You will also work with Examiner staff to link, blog, distribute, and/or report on all hot stories to the paper’s web site.

Additional responsibilities include: Serving as ombudsman for user complaints and dispute resolution. Managing internal social network content. Pushing content to external social media networks i.e, (Facebook, Digg, etc.) Supervising and executing the delivery of daily digest emails to subscribers and other possible email lists.

All kinds of organizations are looking for community managers, says media consultant Amy Gahran, of Contentious (and who helps edit Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits), including trailer parks and large corporations. She gave permission to reprint this from a discussion on the Society of Environmental Journalism‘s listserv:

As I said, there are so many of these jobs available right now that you can afford to be choosy

Amy Gahran

and only go for the ones you want. The job descriptions may sound like marketing/PR because that’s the kind of job descriptions HR people are used to writing — and so far people from those fields have been most of the folks grabbing those jobs. That doesn’t mean what they really need or want is marketing/PR. As someone said here earlier, what’s more effective is an ombudsman-like role.

Amy Gahran

It’s up to you to define the kind of work you want to do. These organizations generally aren’t completely sure what they’re asking for in community manager roles and are generally open to allowing a qualified candidate to define their guidelines and expectations. Look at these job listings as starting points, and approach them with your ideas. Initiative and creativity definitely pay off on these fronts.

Trailer parks [don’t sneer….the 4,000 people living in Duroville Mobile Home Park in Thermal, CA look as if they could use a good jurno or two], corporations…and nonprofit organizations: When I was editorial director of TOPP.org, a forward-thinking niche science organization that hired a science journalist (yours truly) to revamp its Web site, we brought on a social networking coordinator last year for a long-term reporting project about elephant seal migration. Nicole Teutschel did a great job distributing the project’s content to social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, blogging, and involving members of the community — including state park docents, visitors to Año Nuevo State Park (coastal home to a couple of thousand elephant seals) as well as elementary and high school students — in various aspects of the project.

As Webworld evolves, a journalist’s role is changing. In larger news organizations, modern journalists — jurnos — manage beats. Increasingly, as large organizations shrink or die, and nichification expands, they manage their own niche organizations. (Even in a large organization, a beat becomes a nearly independent niche organization, not tied to a centralized hierarchy, but operating as a flexible unit in which reporters/editors make most of their own decisions. So, let’s just call beats within large news organizations niche news organizations, too.) Managing a niche news organization comprises many tasks. First, jurnos are responsible for creating a Web shell that serves as the go-to place for that topic.

  • It holds the jurnos’ blogs. These nodes of continuous conversation about what jurnos are doing and exchanges with members of the community they serve replace daily stories. The information and stories in those blogs are some combo of video, still photos, audio, graphics and text.
  • It holds the most useful, relevant resources, links and databases for their community (or communities). This is the “useful” part of the site. This stuff is what generates the most traffic.
  • It contains longer stories — profiles, or the status of an issue, or backgrounders that explain an issue.
  • At the core of the site — visually and spatially — are the voices and input of the community. This is the nerve center of the beat or organization, and the engine that drives it: the community members’ blogs, forums, discussions, chats, news aggregations. This is participatory journalism. Community journalism. (Citizen journalism, schmitizen journalism….when you need ghostbusters to do the heavy lifting, you want the gals with the proton packs whose full-time job it is to hunt them down.) In their role as community managers, jurnos watch and manage that input. They watch it to jump in when the community can use their input as fact-checkers, watchdogs or investigators. They manage it to highlight issues that affect more of the community, or may be of interest to more members of the community. They are beholden to the community, just as a city manager is.
  • Community includes businesses and services who pay to reach the members of this community. If you modernize the advertising/marketing/search functions the same way that journalism is modernized, why wouldn’t people who want to reach a targeted community want to be part of that community? Many Webcentric news organizations have done this. More about that in another post.

In addition, community managers distribute the niche news organization’s content to other sites and social networks, as well as to other platforms, especially mobile. Mobile is the new video. Video used to be the new blogging. Blogging used to be the new podcasting. Or was it vice versa?

btw, for more information on the Washington Examiner community manager position, contact James Dellinger — jdellinger@dcexaminer.com

Real Jurnos Think Like Google

flumap

Is Google’s Flu Trends site cool, or what? Say Google didn’t figure this out. Say a jurno did. Hey. It could happen. This is how:

One day, a snuffly, misable, virus-laden jurno types in “flu symptoms” to see if what she has is indeed the flu. She searches for the latest remedy floating around cyberspace, and, for curiosity’s sake, checks out the CDC site to see how hard the flu’s hitting the U.S., and, in particular, her town. The CDC site says Columbia, MO, doesn’t have a whit of flu. Jurno knows better; half her friends are misable. They’ve been passing around news about the latest remedy — some cinnamon-honey-goat cheese concoction — from their surfing sessions. Hmmm. She checks the CDC site to find out how it gets its info. Wow. A two-week delay between gathering data on the ground and passing it up the line. Wouldn’t just tracking locations and hits for “flu, flu symptoms, flu remedy, flu shots, etc.” give a better picture?fluchart

Google thought of this, and showed the CDC that this approach would work: for them and for the rest of us potential flu victims. But a real jurno could have. A real jurno would also know that the best way to present all this info would not be in 1,000 words of text, but in an interactive graphic. A real jurno wouldn’t necessarily do it; she’d call upon her two partners: the database guru and the graphics goddess. They’d figure out the map and chart that update automatically; two searchable databases, one to zero in on state flu levels, the other to find places to get flu shots; an RSS feed with flu news; and a link to the CDC. The jurno would dash off a definition of the flu. [All this Google actually did.] A real jurno would also work with the graphics goddess to put together an interactive graphic of how the flu virus invades and multiples in the body. And she’d provide a spot on the flu trends site for people in the community to offer up their home remedies, and have flu experts rate them one to five stars, and explain why they don’t or do work. [Google actually didn’t do this.]

Voila! A Web shell about the flu. And the news runs through it.

The point: Jurnos are Web-savvy adventurous journalists charging into Webworld with trumpets blaring and video-cellphones recording every move. They understand how this medium works and they use all its bells and whistles to serve their communities in the best ways possible.

btw, just since last week, the flu marched into a few more states, heading east from Kentucky and Mississippi. If I were living in Tennessee or North Carolina, I’d be wearing a mask over my mouth, goggles over my eyes, and rolling up my sleeve for a flu shot.

This won’t help news orgs

A recent article in Forbes, “How to Make News Cheaper”, focused on Helium, which says it can help failing newspapers:

In essence, Helium is a market maker for content. The company licenses a software widget for its Web page to allow newspapers to solicit stories from their readers for a fee. Submissions are ranked by some 150,000 Helium users who evaluate them inside a private Web site run by Helium as a way to ensure the newspaper only pays for the story it likes best for its site or print publication. Already, GateHouse Media’s State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., has signed onto the program.

Mmmm. Fill pages (Web or print)? Sure. Help failing newspapers? I don’t think so. Not if local news organizations are planning on being a source of news and useful information. That requires locally-oriented Web shells of news, databases, backgrounders, resources, etc., organized around a community-fed engine of blogs, forums, and news/info aggregation. A news organization would do better by using Daylife, which does topic pages, and other types of aggregation. Don’t local news organizations know their communities and their local freelancers better than anyone else?

If news organizations switch to Web-first thinking, and spin off to print (and mobile), they’ve got a good shot at surviving. But chasing pieces of the Web, i.e. plugging the (newsPAPER) dam’s leaks with podcasts one year, blogs the next, and now all video all the time just won’t work in the long run. For a news organization, Helium’s just another stopgap.

Ahhh. Just thought of one way that it might work: if a news organization lays off its experienced jurnos, then the young jurnos wouldn’t have enough institutional memory to be able to separate the useful articles that Helium offers up from those that are repetitious or cover a topic so shallowly that it’s not really useful. The catch is that the news organization’s community would.