Craig Calcaterra -- a.k.a. Shysterball -- is one of the most thoughtful voices I’ve come across on the Internet. He’s a lawyer and a baseball writer. There should be a good joke in there somewhere. Here is Craig voicing his view about a potential editorial future of newspapers.*
*A quick editor’s note: Much of what he talks about here is not new but actually quite old -- I could not help but think that some of his ideas sound like the rewrite man back in the 1940s and ‘50s who would sit at a desk, have a reporter call in news about a fire and turn that into a story. Anyway, that’s how it struck me.
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The two central hurdles to get over to get us into the new era are (1) the access problem (i.e. who goes into the locker room to get the quotes and reports back from the press conferences) and (2) the usability problem of the blogsophere and other online media sources to people at large (i.e. the fact that it's really hard to know where to go for what unless, like me, you're online 24 frickin' hours a day).
What I am proposing is the transformation of newspapers into locally-organized clearinghouses for the vast world of online news and opinion, done mostly by independent agents, bloggers, freelancers, etc.
The rough outline: Ad revenue won’t support the purchase of paper and ink and delivery services and hundreds of reporters on hundreds of beats, but it could support a streamlined editorial staff and some niche reporters for whom access matters. Guys who cover the pro locker rooms and press boxes and guys who cover high level politics in which credentialing is required for space and security reasons. Most other beats can be (and increasingly are) being handled on a hyper-local level. People reporting/blogging about the PTA and the town council meetings. People reporting/blogging about the high school football game and the new shopping mall. People obsessively following the new licensing requirements for day care centers. People staying hip to the latest home and garden developments. They're all out there now already, doing their own disparate things, many whistling into the wind. Over time, however, they can coalesce into a volunteer army (mostly volunteer anyway; see below for more on this) that mixes more expository information into the subjects about which they're already writing thereby making it more useable for everyone. But yes, they can keep their opinions and hobby horses too, because I think one problem we have now is news that strains so hard to be objective that it's ridiculous. That's another rant, though.
So at the outset, burn down the current newspaper office and replace it with:
(a) the brand, archives, and history of the existing papers;
(b) a skeleton crew of highly skilled reporters to cover those access-dependent specialized beats;
(c) a streamlined editorial staff who spends way less time wordsmithing and far more time making sure every conceivable story of interest is covered in a given day’s digital-only edition.
(c) is the obvious new thing here, so let’s explore that: the editorial staff spends its time filtering content from the blogosphere and amateur reporting ranks and organizing it into usable form on the paper’s website. They’re not sitting at an assignment desk, really, as much as they’re serving the function of a crackerjack reference librarian, making sense of the sheer masses of information and opinion out there, and presenting it to the readers, who depend on them to make sense of the chaos.
They key is not to tie the paper to any specific writer or writers. Rather, the news dictates it: on Monday, the paper may feature, among hundreds of other items, stories/opinion from a guy in Brooklyn about a big housing development that broke ground. On Tuesday nothing is happening in Brooklyn, so they run with content from the uptown blogger covering the new restaurant and the guy in Queens who has a neat series going about the change in street crime over the years.The key is that every day, there are a million things happening, and as the blogosphere expands fewer and fewer things are going uncovered. The editors serve as gatekeepers, gatherers, ensurers of basic standards. The key is that the paper does not need to tie itself to much of a fixed staff and associated costs, nor does it need to worry about column inches. For the first time, we may actually get all of the news that's fit to print as opposed to the narrow swath of it for which the paper decided to devote editorial staff.
How do you incentivize/manage the content providers? Tricky, but not insurmountable. I suppose on some level a paper could have a choice: they could enter into loose and flexible syndication/freelance agreements that would allow the paper to take from the blogger what they think is worthy when they think it’s worthy, paying him some amount for used content and allowing him to otherwise ply their bloggy trade (or whatever their primary trade is) on their own simultaneously. If, however, the newspaper thinks they’ve got a great contributor, they can compensate him or her for greater degrees of exclusivity and regularity of content.
I would presume, however, that the majority of content providers would be part timers at best: people who work other jobs for a living but who use their expertise and insight into specific areas while simultaneously scratching that writing itch so many of us have and making a real contribution to civil society by keeping the rest of us informed. Nice byproduct: maybe the increasing isolation of modern life -- we spend our days with like-minded people and then retreat to our digitial caves at night -- will be alleviated as everyone not only has the incentive, but the opportunity to share some of their specific insights and interests with others.
Anyway again: so much of that system depends on the newspaper’s editorial staff making good content decisions. As we know from the present state of the papers, however, good decisions in this area aren’t a given. In a printing pressless age, however, the barriers to entry for such an aggregation service are relatively low, so if the new era newspaper is not serving the public well, a competitor “paper” will spring up and offer a better menu of contributors. Editors would soon learn, I suspect, that their job as gatekeeper isn’t as robust as that term is typically meant to mean, and the concept of “quality” is not synonymous with “a report written by a person trained at a J-school and put through a given paper’s corporate ladder.”
People want facts, some attention to grammar, balance, but not to an ignorant fault, and when we’re talking about opinion writing, intellectual honesty. Elsewise? Let people be themselves and let the information flow. Inefficiencies will reveal themselves, but incetives will exist for people to fill content vacuums. Over a period of years, however, we may very well find that we have more and better information that we ever had in the age of print newspapers.