How Print News Will Survive on the Internet

(Photo: Who’s scooping whom in online news?)

Rupert Murdoch and the Associated Press think there’s value in siloing the news — so much so that the AP has labeled bloggers “content thieves” merely for linking to or opining on AP stories reprinted in hundreds of newspapers around the country. Others have made the same charge about the AP, criticizing the news wire for copying content from member papers and passing it off as original work elsewhere.

In 2009, neither charge is useful. They both rely on the outdated idea that the news can still be commodified. Unfortunately, easy access to the Internet across much of the globe instantly renders leaky any silo built to guard the profitability of news content. Anyone with a laptop or a web café account now has the ability to gather, write and publish original news content. Such tasks are no longer the exclusive province of journalists representing traditional newspapers.

So if news is inherently a shared effort on the Internet, why are traditional news outlets trying to monopolize it with ham-fisted behaviors that violate the accepted norms of online community? (See John Yemma’s article in the Christian Science Monitor which raises this same question.)

In fact, for the past few years of dwindling resources and disappearing staff, newspapers have increasingly turned to the blogosphere for story leads or supporting elements — often without attribution. For example, on the morning of April 7, the online Chi-Town Daily News broke the exclusive story of the impending closure of four Chicago mental health centers due to an ongoing billing error on the part of the city.

Later that afternoon, Fran Spielman reported the story in the Chicago Sun-Times, relying on key investigative work done by the Chi-Town Daily News and appearing in its earlier exclusive that demonstrated the causal link between the city’s billing error and the health center closures — but giving no attribution whatsoever.

That turned out to be a bad move on the Sun-Times‘ part. On the Internet, attribution of the work of others is a bedrock fundamental of community standards. As soon as Spielman’s article appeared on the Sun-Times‘ website, some who had already read the Chi-Town Daily News‘ exclusive homed in on Spielman’s omission.

I immediately complained about the missing attribution on Twitter, where my updates are followed by several Chicago media outlets. That prompted the @suntimes Twitter representative to enter a heated back-channel discussion with me, claiming the paper would never seek to silence a competing news outlet.

I hardly took the @suntimes stance seriously. Numerous times I’ve been told by reporters and editors at both of Chicago’s major dailies that they make it a point not to give credit to news competitors unless absolutely necessary. I almost always hear this when I’m pitching social-justice stories that arose from the work of small, nonprofit investigative journals.

To its credit, on April 8, the Chicago Tribune attributed the uncovering of the billing errors to the Chi-Town Daily News. But the Sun-Times didn’t get off that easily. On April 10, Progress Illinois, a statewide Progressive news blog, called out Spielman and the Sun-Times for attempting to silence Chi-Town Daily News while using the fruits of its investigative work. Moral of this story, don’t steal someone else’s scoop and then report it before the same audience as your own. (Did your high-school English teacher teach you nothing, Chicago Sun-Times?)

For that matter, the entire concept of scooping a story seems out of place on the Internet, where cut-throat behaviors regarding content are considered rude at best, cause for a DMCA complaint at worst. Recently, Newspaper Death Watch reported on the fixation of Boston Globe reporters for scooping the Boston Herald. Given that both papers are dying, the Death Watch suggested a better use of both papers’ time might be to try staying relevant to readers, instead.

Simply reporting the news isn’t going to accomplish that, either in print or online, no matter how many silos Murdoch and the AP attempt to erect. Why? Because it’s not happening.

If news was going to make money in the 21st century, we’d still have newspapers. Plain and simple. No amount of handwringing or blogosphere-bashing by traditional journalists — or New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, for that matter — is going to accomplish anything other than hastening the death of the print news industry.

In a Times editorial of April 13, Rosenthal said, “Frankly, I think it is the task of bloggers to catch up to us, not the other way around.” Given the list of local online news startups reported in the Times the previous day, it seems more like the Times is the one behind the times here.

Last week, I sat down with Aaron Renn, scribe of The Urbanophile, a blog about the future of Midwestern cities, over Lou Malnati’s deep dish to talk shop about urban America. To my surprise, our conversation turned to the future of American newspapers. Renn suggested the economic viability of news outlets rests not only online, but also on the back of non-news content.

I concur. No one reads the New York Times to learn what happened in China yesterday. People read the Times to learn why what happened in China yesterday matters today. Brought down to the local level, I would be surprised if many people who still receive home delivery of the Tribune or Sun-Times do so to read a retread of issues they’ve already browsed on the Internet or watched on the morning news. Aaron and I both share the suspicion that the main purpose of those early a.m. newspapers is so that Mary Mitchell, Neil Steinberg, Mary Schmich or Eric Zorn can accompany a hurried cup of coffee before leaving for work.

With news leaking out of the silo, it’s analysis and opinion that really differentiate what remains of America’s newspapers. And in case you haven’t been paying attention (Murdoch and Rosenthal, this means you), analysis and opinion are also what drive traffic on the Internet.

Don’t believe me? Try this. Visualize your favorite online news site and your favorite blogger. Now visualize both of those sites going away. Which one made you feel a personal sense of loss? Get the point now?

Writing in Slate on March 27th, Jack Shafer noted that newspapers used to rely far more heavily on opinion pieces to differentiate themselves. From Colonial times until the middle of the last century, partisan papers were the norm, not the exception, and America did just fine. That’s because Americans used their common sense to read a variety of sources and figure out the news from the spin for themselves. That changed in the 1900s with the rise of modern investigative journalism, which proclaimed itself and the newspapers which employed professional journalists as the public’s arbiters of truth.

Ignoring the obvious technological anachronism, if this were 1909 instead of 2009, no one would be moaning that the opinion-based Internet was somehow going to destroy our only access to objective truth. Americans may have shorter attention spans today, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t lose their native intelligence in the past 100 years. (Again, the New York Times would beg to differ here, according to this March 18th Op-Ed by Nicholas D. Kristof.)

Point being, if print news is going to make the successful transition to the Internet, it’s going to have to offer a product that online readers (as in, just about any American with electricity at this point) actually want. That means leading with your big-name analysts and columnists, and rolling out more such added-value content — much more. And that’s irrespective of whether any attempt is made to charge for content, although unlike the objective news, analysis and opinion will likely attract the readership newspapers crave to demonstrate to online advertisers.

Journalists aren’t left out of this picture, but they’ll have to adapt, too. No more high-minded excuses or restrictions from your editorial overlords for not telling readers who you are, what your background is, and why you’re both qualified and interested to be working your beat and investigating and writing the news stories that you do. It doesn’t matter what you were taught in journalism school, relevance on the Internet is demonstrated by disclosing who you are, what you think, and why.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s that exact kind of relevance that former print news outlets will need to survive online, and the community expectations of hundreds of millions of Internet surfers across the planet are not going to suddenly change just to suit self-imposed, economically outdated ivory tower ideas about the supposed existence of absolutely objective news.

Instead of journalism schools telling their students that sharing their opinion is the news equivalent of kicking puppies and robbing old ladies, why not require them to scribe blogs, instead? Sharing news, opinion, and perhaps most importantly, themselves, online would help aspiring journalists build an audience platform on which to launch their careers in the coming, opinion-centric online news universe with instant relevance.

Through blogging, young journalists would also learn how to build and manage online communities and enter into a dialogue with readers via comments, forums, and social media tools (Twitter and Facebook, anyone?), another key expectation of the blogosphere. Best of all, once installed in their careers as online news gatherers, instead of building readership from scratch, they could simply take their blog audience with them.

If all of this sounds like I’m expecting the industry to turn on its head to survive online, my response is the industry is already on its head. The viable model is apparent — there simply is no analytical or opinionated blogger on the Internet without a following (myself included). It’s fundamental change wrought by the Internet: newspapers no longer have the exclusive right to define the news. That definition is already being re-shaped by the community standards and expectations of the Internet.

If print news outlets are going to survive at all, they’re going to have adapt to life as online publications, offer online readers the differential analysis and opinion content that brought those readers over to the Internet in the first place, and allow readers into a robust, ongoing community dialogue with reporters, analysts and commentators. And print news outlets are going to have to do one more thing, too.

They’re going to have to stop complaining about it.

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