Scrapbook news, now online!

December 12, 2008

In a post on Publish2.0, Josh Korr wrote about scrapbook news, and how it could be applied to online journalism.

The truth is, scrapbook news written by journalists is effectively the same as scrapbook news submitted by the would-be scrapbookers. If the story is “Megan won the 4-H award at the fair,” how much of a difference does it make to have a journalist write the story rather than Megan’s mom? (Though you’d probably still want some minimal level of editing so every item didn’t say “Goooo, Megan!” Or maybe that would be ok too.)

The key would be to acknowledge that while scrapbook news is news, certain kinds of news might not carry the same burden of expertise, professionalism, polish or “objectivity” (if you believe in that sort of thing) as city council coverage might.

This theory becomes even more compelling with online journalism, since the Web removes the hurdle of publishing. Megan’s mom used to write in to the paper about the 4-H award so she could clip out her daughter’s name and put it on the fridge… and prove to Sarah’s mom how much better her daughter was. And back then, the town newspaper was the best source for town news. In many small towns, it still is. But even small towns have the Internet now. So why not let Megan’s mom get online and write about her daugther’s award on the newspaper’s site?

Allowing citizen journalists to become involved in the paper could do two things:

  1. Boost customer loyalty and involvement
  2. Take the weight of boring stories off journalists’ shoulders

Obviously, opening up a newspaper’s site like this has a lot of risk, as John Zhu writes about on his blog.

I have no qualms about publishing user-submitted scrapbook news, but I do worry about publishing it with little editing. That concern doesn’t stem from a distrust of non-journalists, but rather the lack of faith in the ability of the bulk of humanity to write something good enough for public dissemination and consumption. Everyone — journalist or not — needs editing before their work sees the light of day in the form of a professional publication. This is the view I’ve formed from more than a decade of editing other people’s writing in journalism, advertising, education, and public relations.

But if a paper were careful in setting up the system, let users edit other users’ content, and clearly flagged user-submitted content as different than professionally-produced content, then Megan’s mom would visit the site more often, interact more often, and click on advertising more often. Then, once Sarah’s mom wins the pie competition, she’ll start doing the same. And then they can start posting screenshots of their stories to their personal blogs. Suddenly you could have a swell of content written and read by a tight-knit community. Suddenly, you’ve allowed that community to interact online. The newspaper becomes its own social network for its coverage area. And now you have a bunch of subscribers writing content that THEY care about.

People might ask if that’s newsworthy, to which I’d ask what could me more newsworthy? To me, a story is newsworthy when it has an impact on people. Certainly, Obama’s weekly addresses are more newsworhty than Megan’s brother winning the pie-eating competition. But both affect the audience. They can feel like they “own” that part of your newspaper; that they are part of the newspaper. Once you’ve got that kind of brand loyalty, once it escalates to brand evangelism, then your subscribers are far more valuable.


Adapting-to-the-World Fail

November 29, 2008

In the grand tradition of, print journalism has been stuck in a steady Adapting-to-the-World Fail holding pattern for quite awhile now. Over at Publishing 2.0, Scott Karp and Robert Young write about this regularly, with regular backlash from entrenched print journalists whose ink-stained glasses apparently let them ignore all technology advancement since Fletch.

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Back in the ’90s, most newspapers saw the Internet as an unrelated, passing fad. Like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. Admittedly, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and their 8-bit cohorts aren’t as popular as they once were. But their grandkids have grown up to be a $9.5 billion industry. The Internet went through a similar, over-enthusiastic period. And while much of the hype was more over-blown than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade decorations, there have been several legitimate behemoths born out of the Internet – Google, Amazon and Facebook to name a few.

The newspaper industry, however, failed to adapt to the changing world and how their consumers were getting media. And now, newspapers all over the country are bemoaning their state. As examined in a great piece by KCUR, the Kansas City Star is a perfect example of the modern newspaper dilemma: a corporate entity expects the same bottom line when it hasn’t adapted to the new, online marketplace. When that doesn’t happen, the corporation makes cuts.

The industry of news readership, however, isn’t dead. As KC Star Publisher Mark Zieman points out, news readership seems to actually be growing. The problem, then, is not a lack of audience. People still want to be informed and to understand their world.

Just as news readership isn’t dying, online journalism is not hopeless. With some leading the way (the Lawrence Journal World and Washington Post, for example) newspapers are slowly adapting to the online realm, where advertisers want to spend more money. The problem, then, is not just making money. Advertisers will pay newspapers once newspapers are a worth-while option again.

The problem, then, seems to be making enough money to satisfy corporate owners. And because the newspaper industry simply does not have the market monopoly it once did, that may no longer be possible. Corporate ownership is good for securing longevity, but it’s not known for agility or innovation. If corporate ownership and its bottom lines can’t find a better fit within modern journalism, then a new breed of agile, independent news sources seems set to take up the banner.

With so many excellent journalists being flushed into the market, and the overhead for Web sites so much smaller, the era of profitable news consolidation may be in its twilight. Distribution is no longer the barrier it was in the age of the printing press. Many online-only publications have already succeeded in this: Politico and Ain’t It Cool News, for example. While the profits of these organizations will never match News Corp, they don’t have to. When you’ve got a Yankee’s payroll, you can’t afford Royal’s attendance. But if you’ve got a T-Bone’s payroll, a Royal’s attendance is a record. And if you’ve got a T-Bone’s payroll with Yankee’s talent, people will come, Ray.