What does the newspaper of the future look like?

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!

Posted in Fixing Journalism, Newspaper of the Future | Tagged | 1 Comment

Reporters are people too

When I first started working as an editor at a weekly newspaper, we got two very different complaints within a few day of each other.

Everyone who has ever worked at a college or small-town paper has probably had to do the “question of the week” feature, ask a question of five different people, get their response, run their headshots, etc. We had a guy refuse to answer the question of the week because he thought the paper was liberally biased. Within days, I got an earful from a town official calling us a Republican rag because we’d run something positive about the Republican state representative.

That’s how I’ve always seen the whole idea of bias. It’s completely in the eye of the beholder, meaning people project what they want to see on the newspapers or media outlets they don’t like.

It’s one thing that’s always bothered me, not because there’s never any truth to it – because there are obviously isolated incidents. I’m not saying it never happens.

But for the most part, the myth of “the mainstream media is liberally biased” is lazy, boring, tired and not true. It’s just a canard that feeds into a particular ideology. If you perpetuate this myth, anytime there’s a story that paints your side in an unflattering light you can brush it off as “that biased media again.” It’s a built in excuse, and it’s just lazy. It’s victimization culture at its absolute worst, and it prevents any kind of self reflection when you can’t see negative articles as legitimate criticisms.

That time the man refused to answer my paper’s question of the week because he thought the paper was biased toward the left? At the time, the editor was an arch-conservative who freelanced for a right-wing magazine. Again, people see what they want to see.

In fairness, the idea of bias is a complicated one. A study done during the 2008 presidential election cycle found that at the same time people were perceiving that the media was “going soft” on then-candidate Barack Obama, he was actually getting more negative stories written about him. But other studies show that most reporters identify as liberal. From my own experience, I’ve found that most editors and publishers/owners skew conservative, and most (but certainly not all) reporters in the newsroom tend to be liberal.

But what does that mean? Does that self-identification have any kind of automatic transfer to the work produced?

Frankly, I don’t think how people identify politically has to have any carry over whatsoever into their work. I’ve always thought it was the easiest thing in the world to separate my personal feeling – especially on political matters – from what I was covering. If anything, when I have strong feelings on an issue, I’m even more careful to include all perspectives in a story. When bias leaks in to what should be straight news reporting, it’s usually more about lazy reporting that it is some deliberate ideological agenda.

Again, it’s not like there aren’t isolated incidents where people don’t seem to be able to separate their feelings from their coverage, like this reporter who landed in hot water after covering the Chick-Fil-A gay marriage controversy, then ranting about it on his Facebook account. But even that raises questions for me. Is anyone alleging this guy’s coverage was tainted by his opinion? Would this have been a story without the Facebook post?

This post by Matthew Ingram tackles the question head on, and I think he’s totally right: Why are we pretending reporters don’t have opinions? That Pew study I linked to shows that reporters tend to be liberal, but where’s the evidence that means you can’t write a fair story? Or that consumers of news aren’t savvy enough to process the reporter’s point of view along with the content of the story? That’s where this whole bias thing falls apart for me.

This is the example that’s been rattling around in my head when thinking about this issue. Chris Faraone is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix (now just the Phoenix). The Phoenix hold no pretensions about where they stand politically. And Faraone didn’t make any attempt to hide his politics as he wrote about the Occupy movement.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from New York to Boston and other parts of the country, Faraone became the movement’s official scribe, even writing a book, “99 Nights with the 99 Percent.” He gave us the fullest picture of the movement as it exploded across the country. As others either idolized or demonized it, Faraone simply showed it for what it was.

Here’s the thing: Faraone is the most knowledgeable reporter out there on Occupy. Some other reporters have done good work on the subject, but I’d be surprised if anyone has traveled to as many sites and spent as much time in the encampments as he. While others sat in newsrooms and TV studios and guessed what the occupiers were thinking, Faraone did something crazy: he asked them. He was reporting from the front lines. So what if he clearly has an opinion? So what if he had an affection for the twenty-somethings in the tents, and a sometimes antagonistic view of the cops who moved in to clear them out? How does that make the facts he reported, and the scenes he described from the trenches, any less true? So he didn’t hide how he felt about the people he reported on. I, frankly, find that refreshing. It’s not like he made things up. And if he did, that wouldn’t be bias, it would be unethical. Two totally different things.

I know not everyone can take the perspective of an alt-weekly reporter, and as much as I love the Phoenix I’m not suggesting paper can write stories with the naked ideological honesty of Faraone’s missives from the front lines, tents and bus seats of Occupy. But I agree with Ingram, reporters would be better off dropping the whole pretense that we’re emotionless robots. I have many opinions on the subjects I cover, sometimes strong ones. But it has absolutely no bearing on my ability to write a fair story.

So how do we get past this? I’m not sure we ever will. The media can stop setting itself up for accusations of bias by stopping political endorsements, but that’s just one thing. People can also get out of the newsroom like Faraone did. It’s easier to avoid accusations of bias when you’re in the thick of what you’re reporting about, just telling people what you see. But especially when it comes to politics, where every minute thing is used as leverage against the “other side,” I’m afraid this trope of “biased media” will never go away. The only thing we as reporters can do is to push back against the echo chamber, and not let it prevent us from doing our jobs, from telling the stories that need to be told and holding people in power accountable, no matter how they vote.

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Everyone’s a critic, and a photographer, apparently

Know I’m over a week late to this, but I wanted to at least briefly weigh in on this article BU professor Dan Kennedy wrote for Nieman Lab last week about a young photographer whose photos of conservative politicians are in high demand – yet all he asks for is credit through the Creative Commons license.

The article was posted last Tuesday and almost instantly the comment section turned into a war between professional photos and the “amateur” blogger types.

The Creative Commons license website has a much better explanation than anything I can write, but basically it’s a way to share intellectual property like photos for free, as long are you are properly credited. (There are some subtleties, for instance you can choose a license that allows for commercial use or limit it to nonprofits, etc.) Flickr and Vimeo have big Creative Commons communities, and you’ll occasionally see photos on blogs, newspapers and TV station websites with Creative Commons photos.

But Creative Commons is just the mechanism, there’s a bigger issue at play when it comes to media, and that’s where to draw the line between professional journalists and contributions from citizen journalists as the industry reinvents itself.

When I was the editor of the Duxbury Clipper, and I’m sure this is the same for a lot of weekly and smaller newspapers, I depended on submitted content. When I say depended, I mean depended. I was the sole staffer for a two-section paper that ran 50-plus pages. I had a part-time sports reporter and basically one freelancer. Every week I looked at a lot of blank pages that weren’t getting filled unless I got some submissions from the community, in the form of pictures, announcements/write-ups, columns, event briefs, etc.

By “submitted content,” I mean material sent in by readers that received no compensation. At the weekly, this was things like photos from a high school award banquet, Rotary Club news, travel stories, historical articles, a little bit of everything. And there were times I felt a little guilty not being able to pay people who were doing a not-insignificant amount of work.

There’s probably always been some aspect of that at weekly, small-town papers. But now you’re seeing the user-submitted trend creep into bigger media outlets. CNN has the iReporters (that’s a great example because the cable channel is making it sound as if these folks are on the payroll.) I’ve seen reader-submitted photo galleries on sites like the Boston Globe and local TV stations. And many newspaper sites have legions of “community bloggers,” most of whom are unpaid.

I don’t think news orgs are doing anything wrong by the submitters when they use such content. That person gets something out of the deal, whether it’s clicks on personal blogs, exposure for themselves or their organization/event, etc.

The real question is it fair to the professional journalists who are getting squeezed out because management’s getting people to do their jobs for free.

Bloggers/commenters aren’t replacing reporters because it’s not really the same material. (Although there are examples where commenters and readers drive a lot of the conversation, like Boston’s Universal Hub, and the founder/site owner plays referee in addition to his original reporting.) I think as newsrooms shrink, people more people will be asked to submit their own write-ups. That’s an effect of journalists losing their jobs, not a cause.

I think the trickiest part of this is photos/video. Amateur photographers aren’t ever going to produce work to rival the quality of the top photojournalists. But with advances in camera technologies, it seems like everyone’s an aspiring photog these days. There’s a lot of passable work out there, and passable may be good enough, especially for smaller outlets.

I think media outlets have to draw a line. User submitted content works great for certain types of stories. Severe weather and breaking news are good examples, because even a relatively large staff can’t be everywhere at once. The best photojournalist in the world can’t get video from a breaking news scene the way someone in the thick of the incident can. I also like it when people do the whole, “Share your memories of …” thing, it’s good reader interaction. But there are other stories where you really need trained professionals doing the reporting, sorting through information and putting things in context. So I hope newspapers recognize that photojournalists are journalists too and their work needs to be valued and respected. But if some of those angry commenters under the Nieman Lab article are working photogs, they might have a reason to be worried.



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Long content on the Web will work – if it looks good

In my last post, I talked about how newspapers should be designing their content with social media in mind – as a distribution mechanism and a totally new way that people process information, not just a share button.

This approach begs the logical question, however, “so does that mean news outlets should only be writing short stories? Is the long read dead? Will the news of the future be a bunch of three-graph briefs?”

I hope not, and I don’t think that’s what’s happening. (Also, I realize that’s three questions). And there are places where long-form, magazine-style reporting is thriving, but there’s a key element that many newspaper websites are missing.

One of my favorite sites is Grantland, the project of ESPN columnist and former Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons. Simmons has always had a tendency to write long, and he’s gathered a bunch of like-minded writers who share his love of sports and pop culture. I also think he’s doing some really cool things with alternative story formats like oral histories. (Speaking of cool long reads, give this history of The National a read if you’ve got a few moments, a wonderful history of a newspaper’s roaring birth and untimely death.)

So where’s the Grantland for news? I’m sure there are good examples out there. There are some good sites that curate long reads from multiple sources, like the obviously titled Longreads. I follow a #longreads hashtag on Tumblr. The New Yorker’s site translates that magazine’s lengthy profiles and analysis pieces onto the Web well, I remember spending almost a full day digging through this exhaustively fact-checked piece on Scientology when it came out last year. If you have any favorites or suggestions let me know in the comments.

(EDIT: Found another cool one through Twitter, Narrative.ly, which only updates once a week but really focuses on narrative, storytelling type journalism.)

The part that’s interesting to me is what a lot of the good long read sites have in common: good design. Look at Grantland, for example. It’s relatively large text, on a clean white background. Very simple, no interstitial ads (which are TERRIBLE for design. I don’t want to read around things) and it’s easy to navigate with that “main story in the center, other features on the right” feel.

This isn’t a long read site per se, but the Nieman Lab site does some a couple of really neat things that enhance its readability. I don’t know what the technical term is for it, but their sidebar content “ghosts” out unless you hover your mouse over it. They also have “zen mode,” where you can click and get just the article, centered, in large text without any distractions. More sites should do both of these things, they’re fantastic.

A lot of newspaper sites, and even more so local TV station sites, have three-graph stories with ads and auto-play videos and polls, and 15,000 other things crammed into tiny spaces. It’s hard to find what you’re looking for, and you don’t know where to go if you’re browsing. It’s an insult to readers’ attention spans and intelligence. Then management wonders why their time-on-site numbers are so low. I think this is a highly overlooked aspect of news: Nothing turns off readers like bad design.

I think news outlets could also expand their views on what a “longread” is. Maybe it’s not a 5,000 word story, but a shorter story with an interactive chart, or a video series, or a discussion featuring the article’s author. Those would serve the same purpose, getting readers to spend a longer period of time on the site. I think that’s killing a lot of daily newspaper sites, people think of them as a place to click around for a few minutes to check the headlines, then they leave.

This is kind of a tangent, but part of it’s about audience targeting as well. When the Boston Metro came out a couple of years ago, I had conversations with family members who thought it was silly. But I thought it was brilliant: A newspaper designed to be read, cover-to-cover, on the train ride into or home from work. Newspapers should be thinking about when and how their readers are interacting with the site and design the content accordingly.

I couldn’t find anything to link to, but I was at a conference a few years ago where the presenter was talking about a study by a paper in Japan. That paper had a strategy of targeting their readers in a different medium at each time of the day. Mobile on the train or car ride into work, so shorter content. Desktop computers at work, so more substantial content. Laptops or home computers at night, so longer, more personalized stories and information. Long content on the Web can work, but it has to be targeted at people at a time where they’re not checking in on their phones.

I think newspapers are right to take a different approach to content on the Web versus what goes into print the next day. But I hope this doesn’t turn into the idea that consumers won’t read a longer story online. They will – especially if it’s backed up by good design.

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Captain Obvious reports: Fact checking is good

If you’re a media watcher, your Twitter list/RSS feed/etc. has been overloaded in the past week with endless versions of the debate over fact checking and its value to journalism.

Sometimes it takes a comedian to cut to the truth of the matter, and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has been railing against this since 2009, when he lampooned CNN’s “We’ll leave it there” way of dealing with controversial claims made on air.

Before the Republican National Convention last week, my view on the matter was simple. Why are we debating whether fact checking is good? Isn’t that the central essence of what we do as journalists? Finally reporters are shedding the fears of being seen as biased and showing some guts!

But the more I read about the debate, the more I realize it isn’t that simple, and there are some dangers to this trend in addition to the encouraging aspects.

Jay Rosen of NYU touched on the subject in a post with the awesome title of “Your’re not entitled to your own facts versus that’s your opinion kiss my ad,” when he mentioned heavily-debunked Mitt Romney ad accusing President Obama of removing work requirements from welfare. Short answer: Obama did no such thing. So what’s a journalist to do?

Really, the convention was the watershed moment for this, as events – like Paul Ryan’s claim that Obama’s economic policies caused a factory to close – thrust fact checkers into the mainstream consciousness. The New York Times did some play-by-play fact-check reporting, rounded up by their new public editor. Now that the Democrats are having their convention, I’m sure we’ll see more of the same.

Since then there’s been a bit of a tussle over whether all this fact-checking is a good thing. Washington Post media guy Erik Wemple has a good summation of of the debate, but really more’s been written in the past couple of days than I could possibly link to.

Ben Smith, formerly of Politco, now headlining at BuzzFeed next to kitty-cat gifs, pushed back on the whole fact checking craze a bit with this post bemoaning “Pants-on-Fire Politics.”

I’m not sure I agree with everything in Smith’s post. But I see where he’s coming from when he worries that genuine policy differences will be labeled “lies.”

The essential mission of journalists should be to provide information to our readers – in context. That’s where the industry as a whole has regressed in the past decade or so, where reporters are so wary of being labeled biased that they’ve fallen into the trap of false equivalency. But I think it’s that lack of context that Stewart was lamenting in the video I linked earlier, rather than a lack of people screaming “liars” at Republicans. Journalists do have a responsibility to put the arguments on both sides of an issue in context. And maybe that’s a better way of framing what’s needed in political journalism than “fact checking.”

There are some claims by politicians that can be debunked in black-and-white terms. Like Ryan’s factory claim, it seems pretty clear it wasn’t a fair jab at the president. For this kind of thing, I’d like to see more journalists “check the facts” in the main story, as the LA Times did with this Rick Santorum speech about the aforementioned welfare issue, rather than in a follow up story after the fact.

I’d also like to see the media get into other kinds of accountability reporting besides straight fact checks: the “True or False?” construction. I think PolitiFact’s “promise tracker” is wonderful, and it’s more about keeping tabs on elected officials than it is about bestowing the label of “truth” on a single statement.

However, some issues in politics are more complex, more open to interpretation, and it’s here that I’m with Smith: I’m leery of calling someone a “liar,” even if I think their statement is misleading. Journalists should be careful to draw a line between holding politicians accountable for their words and claiming to be the sole arbiters of truth.

Context should be the key, rather than simply calling statements “true” or “false.” What was the person trying to imply? Was the statement factually incorrect or just unfair? Because something can be unfair without being a lie. If the speaker was citing numbers, where did they come from? If they told an anecdote or cited a news story from the past, let’s dig that up and take a look at it. And so on.

The fact that political reporters are gaining the courage to fact-check politicians more, even if that makes coverage seem unbalanced, is a good thing. False equivalency is one of the worst diseases infecting the media landscape. I want to see more public figures challenged to explain themselves, and less of “leaving it there.” Hell, we’re calling the current state of things “post-truth politics,” for crying out loud.

But these fact-checkers need to make sure they don’t become part of the sideshow, that the process remains about providing readers/viewers/listeners with context to better understand the claims, boasts and attacks of political figures. And I’m not sure that little graphics of Pinocchio’s nose growing is the best way to do that.

(Edit: After I put up the post I saw this post about the media not using the word “lie,” and it being kind of a straw man argument against factchecking. Sorry, but when you use the term “pants-on-fire” you’re implying the word lie. It’s the first part of the freakin’ song.)

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