Like all brilliant ideas, it came to life in a bar.
It was after some event, I think a local selectmen’s debate, that my paper the Whitman and Hanson Express had hosted. My boss, Duxbury Clipper Publisher Josh Cutler, and I went across the street to grab a post-debate beer and started talked about the future of newspapers. Our papers were weeklies, but we started talking about what we’d do if we owned the local regional daily papers.
Most of the good ideas in that conversation came from Josh, but I’ve always wanted to elaborate on that beer-fueled brainstorming session and really outline in detailed form what I think the newspaper of the future would look like.
Couple things to set the stage here. I think there will always be niche publications, organizations that focus on finance, or international affairs, or politics, and who have a dedicated audience that will follow them from print to online. They don’t need to be substantially reinvented, just moved. I’m putting the national papers, your Washington Posts and New York Timeseses into this category as well – there’s an audience and a need there, the news they deliver will survive even if the ink-and-pulp disappears in a few years. I think they need to reinvent their delivery system, not necessarily their content.
But the type of papers that need most to adapt or face extinction are the regional and metro dailies, that’s the business model that simply doesn’t work any more. And I think the metro daily, something like the Boston Globe, will have to turn itself into a basically a big regional daily to survive. So my example is going to be a regional daily.
So, our fictional newspaper of the future is a regional daily whose parent company also owns (or owned, a the case may be) a chain of weeklies.
What’s also important is why this matters, why it’s important that this country has thriving regional dailies. This may seem simple, but there needs to be entry-level journalism jobs. While I think those national papers and niche products I described a few paragraphs ago will survive, with very few exceptions people aren’t going there straight out of college. So if those jobs are there, more college students will be interested in journalism, and there will be a trickle-down effect.
Also, local news matters. And I think the whole hyper-local Web crazy is fizzling. Mid-level newspapers are the only coverage some communities have, and an informed and active citizenry is essential to the health of said communities.
So what does the newspaper of the future look like?
The first and biggest change would be to take the current relationship between dailies and weeklies and turn it essentially upside-down. Right now, at regional papers, the daily paper’s content filters down to the weeklies. The Internet killed that model a long time ago. Repackaged, days old content is not interesting to readers in this age where being minutes behind the curve can make a story old news.
It can also create a situation where a regional daily covers an area where the company also owns weeklies, but the daily paper swoops in for bigger stories and the weekly reporters are left to pick up the fluff/municipal meeting stories. It’s always struck me as an inefficient and not-cost-effective system, and I don’t know how you attract talented, agressive and hungry reporters to those papers.
The other part where the current model doesn’t work is it ignores the fact that while people are turning to other sources like the Web for what they once looked for in a daily paper, all signs point to weeklies making a comeback. There’s still a desire there from people who want to hold a paper in their hands, and therefore, those papers can be attractive to advertisers. People still consider print advertising part of the the content in newspapers, it’s not as easily ignored as a TV commercial or a pop-up ad so I think there’s still value there.
And while people turn to the Web for breaking news, I think they’ll still read a print paper (even if that paper eventually goes digital as an e-edition, I’m still considering it “print” because it would be approached in a different way from a Web-based product. One of the attractive parts, to me, of adopting this business model is that you could phase out the paper product without reinventing the wheel.)
So here’s what you do: Stop the presses on the daily paper. Take that brand and turn it into a Web only product, sort of a local aggregator that collects content from the “weeklies.”
Reporters for the weekly papers will basically turn into Patch-style municipal reporters, people without an office who are based in their communities, armed with iPhones and laptops, ready to report news as it happens. Even though there’s a print product, these reporters will have to think digital first, reporting breaking news as it happens. I’m also assuming if there’s a bigger city/town that’s the “home base” of this organization, there’s a weekly there as well.
The print papers would be built around a few longer stories and event coverage that can be planned out in advance, packaged with a collection of the news that happened that week. Things like police items can be presented like a rundown, I think that content can be put into the paper with minimal tweaking without reading like old news as long as it’s presented well. These papers would also have the traditional staples of community papers, things like event calendars, Around Town/social page information, upcoming meetings, school lunch menus, etc.
The news staff from the daily paper can now become reporters who focus more on project reporting, or multi-town beats like courts, county commissioners, etc. (There will also be a small sports staff that will work with the town reporters. One think I never liked about the Patch model is they ask their reporters to do a little too much sports coverage. I think sports can work in this model if short game results are posted immediately and the paper contains summaries of the week’s games, features, previews of big games the following week, etc.)
The goal here is to have a fluid newsroom structure that can respond quickly to breaking news events, while the staff still has the resources to pursue more in-depth projects and investigative work. Being freed from the daily paper grind should substantially free up those central newsroom staffers, but there would still be quality local news delivered to readers on a daily basis.
I don’t want this post to go on forever, so I think I’ll just post bits of it from time to time, things like what the papers and web site itself will look like, what a typical day for a staffer would be, how the business model would work, etc. Would love to hear feedback, so comment away!