Thursday, March 19, 2009

Craig: The Paperless Paper

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.

* * *

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.


  1. I really, really like these ideas! Someone still needs to do the reporting. Someone still needs to provide local coverage for news items that don't jump off the AP wire. All too often these days, the local newspaper only offers the same AP stories that I saw online the day before. Having someone provide an online "news aggregator"-style service built on local reporting, be it done by professionals or bloggers (or anyone in between) would be fantastic!

    For my hometown newspaper, the one area they dedicate a staff of reporters for local coverage is sports. They don't do stories on National headlines or pro teams. They only focus on what's going on with high school and college teams locally, which is content not provided anyplace else. Which is a good thing for local subscribers; I don't get the local paper except for the Sunday edition because I'm not a fan of any of the local teams.

    The one thing I see is that virtually all small-town newspapers outside the major metropolitan areas do a terrible job of maintaining their online presence. The Newport News Daily Press had a terrible website. The Champaign-Urbana, IL News Gazette has a terrible website. The biggies, like the Washington Post and the WSJ Online, have great websites. Local newspaper people need to figure out how to solve that problem ASAP, and then do what Craig recommends above.

  2. Craig - Great ideas, and I see something like this working very well for most larger papers in metropolitan areas (NYC, Chicago, etc.).

    My question to you is do the smaller papers utilize this idea? Or even the medium-sized paper? I'm in Billings, MT and the Gazette is the only paper in town. I expect there is a number of people posting their thoughts on restaurants opening downtown in larger cities, but in Billings (at about 100,000, so really not all that small), you'd be hard-pressed to find that much of a presence in the blogosphere from this part of the country. How does a paper like the Gazette cultivate those type of sources when they aren't around? That might change in the future (and I expect it will), but ad revenue continues to plummet, and that "volunteer army" of bloggers may not be around in time, and I expect this is a real problem for most mid-size to smaller papers as well.

    On another note, how would this new style of newsroom confront breaking news?

  3. Steve -- I'll have to give more thought to the first problem because as I sit here right now I really don't know. I mean, I can picture every place however small eventually having a critical mass of people online and contributing, but that's certainly not the case yet. We'd probably have a gap.

    The breaking news problem may present an instance where papers have to finally realize that first isn't always best. As it stands right now, breaking news is almost always on television (or on the TV station's website) first. It's simply much quicker to get a police-scanner monitoring blow-dried TV reporter and his cameraman out to the scene of the explosion and broadcasting quicker than it is for a writer to gather and report the information. I don't watch TV news, but that dynamic (which has held for some time, really) hasn't messed with my consumption of breaking news too much. It usually breaks down like this:

    1. Breaking news hits the website for Channel four, probably with video. It's a superficial who, what where report (if they're even that detailed; they just want to show you the "amazing pictures").

    2. Within a very reasonable time, bloggers have mentioned or linked the report and have started talking about the event. These contributions, intentionally or not, tend to provide a ton of background. Many voices, both bloggers and commenters: Hey, that explosion is on the site of the old ball bearings plant. Yeah, isn't it a Superfund site now? There was talk about Wal-Mart wanting to build a store there, wasn't there? I drive by there every day, and it's been overrun with drug dealers, etc. etc.

    Within a few hours of an event, between TV and the amateurs, we have a pretty nice picture of the story. As the official world takes over -- say, a police investigation which spins out public statements and news conferences -- we're back out of the breaking news world and back into the way any story comes out, making it amenable to our semi-professional stringer/rewrite man/editor world.

    Like everything else I've said on this: it may not work, but it's a setup that flows with the current dynamics in play.

  4. I like this idea, and I think the compensation is potentially already built in - after all, while the bloggers are providing a service for the papers by providing content, the papers are providing a service to the bloggers as well by increasing their traffic. That increases potential ad revenue and/or ego-massaging for the bloggers.

  5. Distribution of content-generation is plausible -- your idea of a next-generation newspaper is already being done at the "USA Today" level by content portals such as Yahoo. But the one key deliverable in this model is fact-checking. When a newspaper reports something, there is a greater burden of expectation that it has to be true. Putting words in print makes them a matter of public record in a way that the endlessly editable world of online content does not.

    With a mutable news record, you will see news being placed under even greater pressure from public relations. ESPN, one of the most powerful online news sources, has pulled or modified numerous stories from their website to protect their own brand or that of their advertisers. This is a luxury that does not help inform the reader, and subtly infringes on the freedom of press. This isn't to say that newspapers don't feel and succumb to similar pressures now, but moving away from a printed record further erodes the high ground.