Why newspapers need blog networks

In the last week my wife and I made, what is for us (a couple of voracious readers) a monumental decision: we’re not renewing the New York Times Sunday edition nor The Wall Street Journal after getting both for 15-20 years.

We’ll keep the daily Minneapolis StarTribune if only to stay appraised of local issues, but I know our tiny decision will affect the livelihood of workers for those papers as evidenced by yesterday’s announcement the New York Times is laying off 100 people in their newsroom.

We’re not alone in finding less value in ink on dead trees than we do from our newsreaders and the web sites we frequent. This is happening all over the US as you can see from the New York Times chart from this article, “More Readers Trading Newspapers for Web Sites.”

The circulation declines of American newspapers continued over the spring and summer, as sales across the industry fell almost 3 percent compared with the year before, according to figures released yesterday.

The drop, reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, reflects the growing shift of readers to the Internet, where newspaper readership has climbed, and also a strategy by many major papers to shed unprofitable or marginally profitable print circulation.

It’s not just readers that are defecting…it’s classified ad submitters who began to flee long ago. Dubbed the “newspaper killer” because of the ads historically placed in newspapers and now done free or for extremely low cost, Craigslist is the first place most under 40 people I know turn first.

When I asked my 19 year old daughter why she didn’t use the newspaper to look at the ads she explained, “You can’t search the paper and the information is old. Dad…it’s the same reason you use Yahoo Finance or Schwab online to look up stock stuff instead of gazing at all those tiny numbers in the paper THE NEXT DAY.”

You had me at “search” honey.

But many people, including me, see a solution to the downtrending of newspapers.  I just discovered another thought leader, Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0, discussed this same thing last summer (Should Newspapers Become Local Blog Networks?).

Newspapers are fabulous and I can’t think of any cheaper and more dense “container” for news and information than this form. That said, 90% of the time I’ve exhausted an issue, a news story, or have — at my fingertips on my computer or iPhone — most of the data I used to get from the newspaper and increasingly find reading one a moot point.

With Google Reader, the blogosphere conversation trackers (e.g., Blogrunner, Wikio, Techmeme) and online news sites snagging most of my wife and my attention for consumable and perishable information, why do we need to invest sums of time in a paper with yesterday’s news?

When I helped my daughter go hunting for a new apartment, I went to Craigslist first, Rent.com second, and even drove the neighborhoods looking for phone numbers off signs (the latter being THE biggest waste of time…but I digress). Why? Like my daughter said, “You can’t search the paper and the information is old.

So what if a major metropolitan newspaper created and delivered a vibrant, dynamic blog network comprised of dozens or hundreds of contributors?

Call it something else other than a “blog” network, but let’s look at how it might be created and delivered and what benefits such a network could accrue (and what I’m proposing is not about slapping up a link called “blogs” on a newspaper home page listing the columnists writing posts, like today’s papers seem to be doing more frequently, as this is a weak solution).

1) In my vision there’d be a newspaper editor with citizen editors (vetted, trained and with economic incentives to build the local blog/’paper’) who, in turn, would recruit, vet, train and PERHAPS provide economic incentives to lead contributors and accolades to citizen contributors.

Imagine the content the newspaper editor could harvest from a metro area with dozens of these sorts of blogs and hundreds of contributors supplying breaking news, in-depth pieces of a story, and so forth?

Applying standard journalistic measures (sourcing and fact-checking, ethics, etc.) breaking stories could easily be delivered and major ones reported on from every corner of the metro area — especially stories that some local area was atypically interested in and would be one that a major daily could not, would not or even be interested in reporting.

2) I could see beats with a matrixed approach across multi-city blogs. Let’s say that you are in City A and love reporting stories that have to do with high school sports. You connect with others in Cities B, C, D, E, F and take them through the process of learning that would result in them being trusted to file stories (or parts of stories that you, as the “Topic Editor” would own and put together and publish). Photos from events, video, audio interviews, and local spin on EVERY high school athletic event would eventually be possible.

Gee….do you think people might stop on by and view it, especially if a loved one was participating?

What about a team of restaurant reviewers? People who care about all the parks in the metro area and rate them? Running clubs that write about the best places in the metro area to run?

3) This network could GROW with multiple media additions. Many major blogs are now adding pages of resources and links, categorized media (e.g., video, podcasts) and even forums, and are morphing into more of a web asset/site than what we’ve traditionally known as a blog. How tough would it be to create a Craigslist-like back-end system for ad submission that would be searchable and deliverable in EVERY local blog?

How about live, streaming video? Widgets delivered with functionality that add value across this entire network of blogs?

4) All the technologies that could collide — and be leveraged within the network — with the blog ‘containers’ in the network is profound. From Twitter to RSS, streaming video to podcasts, the ability to slice-n-dice, mold-n-shape the content, the reporting and the reasons people would be compelled to embrace this network are huge.

With simple-to-deploy user generated content and submission capabilities, a blog network would be a potentially far-reaching repository of information for the community at large to enjoy.

Blog network software is either free (WordPressMU) or low cost (Movable Type Community) and a network could be built out quickly (and I personally know of at least a dozen people who’d be interested in participating both as a local City editor or contributor).

5) Making money would be good and the opportunity to do so would come easily when a critical mass of readers began to use their local blog/site as the entry point for news, information and lifestyle across their local area.

I could only imagine the analytics that would be at-the-fingertips of the daily newspaper publisher and managerial staff allowing highly targeted advertising. While advertising could be easily targeted based on zip code and other demographic data, it could get more granular as contributors and participants were encouraged to submit pieces of identifying data (within the confines of solid privacy practices).

Like any successful blog network, some portion of the functionality (e.g., the right column and top banner ad) is reserved for the network provider while the left column and posts are for the use of each separate blog (used for e.g., local announcements, breaking news, etc.).

These are just a few of the thoughts I’ve had when I think about newspapers. I’m getting weary of reading all the negative stories about layoffs, reporters out of work or even those denigrating bloggers, and it feels like a bunch of railroad magnates lamenting those damn airplanes and trucks and how it was killing their business. As Ted Levitt said in “Marketing Myopia” back in 1960 (Harvard Business Review), “The railroads collapsed because they thought they were in the railroad business, when really they were in the transportation business.

Newspaper folks…what business are you in?

Don’t fight the trends or think you can just harness the technology (e.g., blog software) and keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing all along — creating and delivering your own content and thinking only you can report on the stuff people care about or have the priestly knowledge about journalism in your heads — since it’s NOT working, your business is downtrending QUICKLY, and those of us with any savvy and Internet-centric attention are FAR BEYOND what you offer or could with anything close to your present model.

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  1. PXLated on February 16, 2008 at 5:14 am

    I don’t follow it closely but as I recall, the newspaper in Greensboro, NC, and it’s editor, has been mentioned many times as experimenting with all this.

  2. John smith on May 3, 2008 at 6:55 am

    Nice post, I agree that these new technology distribution mediums are raised the news publisher’s revenue. Online publishing is in boom now and survey’s also predicting that online readership rate is increasing rapidly from the past few years. Companies like http://www.pressmart.net helping the print publishers to distribute over the new technology mediums. I think these kinds of services will really increase the revenues.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.