The Internet’s killing newspapers.  Again. We’ve heard this for over a decade and a half. Prior to that doomsayers pointed to disinterested youth as the tide eroding readership and circulation. Before that? I suppose TV. Prior to TV, radio threatened. And so on.

Taking these in reverse it would seem a) TV News would scarcely exist without drawing from the well of news stories from the daily papers b) Younger people ingest the news even more so than in years past, if squeezed through a spaghetti strainer in multiple forms and times from myriad indirect sources – but the birth of that item is still often track-backed to a newspaper reporter, somewhere c) And the Internet? Come on… there is no better way to distribute and receive timely information than on the wired and wireless Web. The rub is in the revenue – or the decreased amount of it. How do we pay for it? Naturally that’s the real story.

But let’s back away from the giant black-hole argument of how news will survive in a world of passionate bloggers working under scale, entertainment trumping what sensible people would define as news, and what now seems like crazy distribution costs for information delivered on recycled trees.

Instead, maybe the focus needs to first turn from all that to what consumers actually want to know about – directed at what is meaningful and necessary to their lives. So what’s that? In my experience people have universal desires unchanged by technology, medium or trend. These are things that matter to nearly all people, or at least are of interest to them, and touch most age groups. That’s because these are things that happen closest to them: in town, down the street, next door, in the dining room. It’s what the Joneses are up to.

And what exactly IS going on with the Joneses? Yep, the focus needs to be on the news next door.

It was 1990 as the greenhorn editor at a weekly newspaper in New Jersey that I wandered into the paper’s musty morgue (where old copies of the paper are laid to rest) to find issues of the very paper I was editing from the late 1890s. And what did I read on the front page of this century-old broadsheet, among stories of festivals and a nasty summer storm? Columns and columns of peeping missives about the comings and goings of people around town: “Mrs. John Beattle called on Mrs. Jack Brown Thursday for tea and discussion of the recent disruption in the primary school,” – or something very close to that – and all I could think of, aside from nosy interest in the school ruckus 100 years before … what could it be? – was that if this progenitor of mine was devoting a third or more of Page One to this kind of reportage then I darn well ought to pay attention to why.

Shortly after that I moved on to a daily paper before having a chance to try a similar brand of micro-local reporting updated a bit for the modern audience. But in 1996 I found myself in a world of experimentation as a “founder” of Digital City, AOL’s attempt at curating and creating local content; it’s latest is called Patch. I quickly realized news was a big draw online, particularly news that happened within a close proximity to our site’s visitors. I’ll spare the details of how much effort went into persuading local and regional mainstream media that this “information superhighway” thing was good for them, and people typing comments on their reportage was also good, and instead jump to the lesson learned: People adding their thoughts about the hot local news / sports / etc. stories (now known as user-generated content) did not just add to the experience but suddenly became the story. The dirty lawyer scandal took a back seat to people’s personal stories and interactions on the street and in the neighborhood with that dirty lawyer.

This is not to draw attention to the obvious – that people like to comment on what matters to them in a public forum where the ego can blossom. Rather, it’s about a slightly subtler occurrence. People care about what happens in the geographic proximity of their lives, and particularly how the experience of people near them differs from or mirrors their own interpretations. But how to best satisfy that need? We can fast-forward through our tests of hyper-local citizen journalism platforms – here’s a category, suburb and publishing platform… go! – and jump to today where several entities are looking at the travails of the past and trying to meld together inexpensive ways to report, reflect, curate, aggregate or comment about anything that could possibly be paired with the words “news” and “local.”

It’s fair to say many efforts are focused on some mix of a combo meal of professional journalist + freelance journalists + interested volunteers = viable model to satisfy readers and participants in the local happenings of their geographic sphere (with others trying various similar tacks: ReportIt, Everyblock, Outsidein, fwix). It’s a confluence of events that makes this seem workable: lots of reporters are, sadly, out of work and technology has advanced enough to fill gaps that yesterday would have been bridged by a paid human. Fair enough. But possibly that’s all missing the larger point – the little subtlety I alluded to where people want to know what exactly is going on across the street and what do others know and think about it all. Will these new entrants into ‘nearby news’ provide ways for readers or viewers or experiencers to participate in a form of news that illuminates, with proper privacy, the headlines from behind the door at 123 Elm Street? Will we finally know what the Joneses are into before it’s too late and we’re again playing keep-up?

Arguably newspapers are positioned to use their brands to gain entrance into the home of Mrs. Jones, so to speak. But not with something that rolls off a press. The question is whether they can stomach the likely sacrifices this could call for: No local movie reviewer? No traffic reporter, or food editor? Sorry, those are commodities in this world. Will they hire neighborhood “monitors,” and can those kids who used to deliver the papers be turned into information collectors? The infrastructure is there to move this way, but is the will?

Surely those other guys charging ahead online have an answer in mind.

So we’ll see. But put this in ink: Internet Saves Newspapers (if only the news and lots of paper ;-)

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Rick Robinson

Rick Robinson

After his start in newspaper editing and reporting Rick Robinson spent 18 years innovating around online / mobile community, news and socializing at Aol, Clearwire, SonicGleek, Webs.com and other startups. Find him lurking with twits @sonicric

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