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A Promising Future for Newspapers

nyt-front-page-111008

Item #1: FriendFeed Widget Motivates Reporters to Use Social Media:

“This last week, I have been busy reorganizing our major financial blog, Bear&Bull, adding FriendFeed widgets in hopes of encouraging more audience interaction. The results have been surprising — although the audience has been slow to react, the changes have motivated many of my normally technophobic colleagues to start using video, pictures and live-blogging techniques.”

Item #2: Al Gore speaking at Web 2.0 Summit (thanks to Dion Hinchcliffe tweet):

“Gore says regulate the Internet as little as possible and says there is a future for journalists in curating content/new media. #web2summit”

Item #3: Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang on a “freemium” business model for analysts:

“Talking to @susanmernit about analysts sharing. I told her I give the appetizers away for free –but still charge for entres. It’s working”

Newspapers continue to suffer declining readership, hitting their bottom lines hard. Robert Scoble started a good FriendFeed/blog post around this. Two ideas I read there were:

  • A la carte funding – you only pay the specific categories of news you like
  • Crowd funded reporting – consumers pay upfront for specific stories to be created by journalists

A la carte is interesting, and is worthy of further exploration. Crowd funding won’t make it. A critical mass of people will not take the time to fund specific stories. Forget that idea – requires too much engagement by an audience that would just turn attention elsewhere.

I’d like to suggest a different possibility that builds on the existing advertising and subscription models, while leveraging journalism’s historic role in the context of modern social media. Journalists have traditionally played a role as information filters. That is, they are dedicated practitioners of finding information, evaluating what’s true, determining what’s relevant and providing it to a wide audience.

Using that definition of journalism, the items at the start of this post point toward a promising future for journalism. Think about it. Journalists are the original information junkies. They have to be. Their livelihood depends on being better informed than most of us.

This positions them well to providing a stream of content to readers outside of the normal daily articles that are the staple of newspapers. Rather than the single daily articles they deliver, here’s what a future set of content looks like for reporters:

  1. Longer, well-developed articles
  2. Quick blog posts
  3. Twitter messages
  4. Sharing content created by others

#1 above is the stuff of today’s newspapers. It doesn’t go away. Look how much power a daily has – New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles drive a lot of linking as seen in the Techmeme Leaderboard. That’s just the online effect. And unlike social media content, newspaper articles still adhere to high standards for sourcing, finding nuggets from people most of us don’t have access to, and bring a wealth of facts and voices to the stories. This type of content continues to have value.

#2 and #3 are the lighter weight stuff. This is flow information. The tidbits that a reporter gets after talking to a source. The legislative maneuver that will affect how new laws will look. The dissatisfaction expressed by a customer. The filling of a key company or government position.

#4 is a nod to the research and content that informs the worldview of the reporter. Reporters find useful information for the beat they cover, and would be great sources for Del.icio.us bookmarks and Google Reader shares.

The Bear & Bull blog is part of the Mediafin publishing company in Belgium. The FriendFeed widget is a great example of #2 – #4 above. Sounds like reporters are intrigued with it.

Combining Flow with Subscription-Based Revenues

Two revenue models are available:

  • Lightweight flow = advertising
  • Articles = advertising, subscriptions

I can see a newspaper’s website filled during the course of a day with content generated by reporters. A lot of that content will be great standalone stuff. It should make readers want to come back to the site to see what’s new. Tweets, blog posts and shared items all displaying on the newspaper’s web page.

The Jeremiah Owyang tweet above points to another element of the future newspaper. He describes providing appetizers to potential customers. Enough to give them some information. But if they want to know the full story, they need to pay Forrester. This idea applies to newspapers as well. Reporters will reveal just enough to give a sense of a story. But not so much to fill really know it. Readers will need to read the newspaper article to know the story. Note that article need not wait until the next morning. It goes live when it’s ready.

One area that benefits from this approach is the important, but less popular beats. These may not get as much attention, but newspapers can retain reporters to continue an important role in recording society’s history. A lot of the less popular beats may “just” get coverage via blog posts and tweets. But that continues to provide visibility to them.

Curated Sources of Information

As Al Gore opined, the future of journalism has a vibrant role in curating the chaotic mass of data out there. This view appears to be shared by watchers of the newspaper space. On the Printed Matters blog, here’s a quote from Journalism is important:

In a world where anyone can post, use and re-use the news, what is the role of the professional?

Professional journalists are more important than ever in a world of oversupply. We need credible people, people we can trust, to sort the wheat from the chaff, to make sense of the barrage, to order things.

That statement appears to rally around traditional newspaper articles, but I think it applies to an expansion of journalism’s mission. Newspapers are a huge attention platform. Entrepreneurs try to get the attention of TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable and Robert Scoble. Why? Because they command a huge audience. Well so do newspapers. People and organizations from all parts of society – business, governement, fashion, etc. – will continue to be interested in getting coverage by newspapers. Of course there’s a need for the continuing role of sorting “the wheat from the chaff”.

And lest we forget, mainstream consumers don’t hang on every utterance of Steve Jobs or what Google is releasing today. I like the way Rob Diana put it on his Regular Geek blog:

People have been calling for the death of newspapers for quite some time. In their current printed form, they may be dying. However, we are already starting to see the evolution from a printed newspaper to the online version. Who is going to be leading the charge of RSS content for the mainstream user? Newspapers. Why? They understand what the mainstream user wants. I think we, the techies, have forgotten that.

His post focused on adoption of RSS, but I think he’s hit on an important piece of the puzzle. Newspapers are way ahead of everyone else in understanding what interests the mainstream. As the public moves to the web for news, sure they’ll go on Facebook and Twitter. But their core interests haven’t changed.

If newspapers can adapt social media tools to their (1) historic information filtering role; and (2) understanding of the interests of the mainstream, I’m betting on a bright future.

*****

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