Replacing the Newspaper

September 3rd, 2009

Newspapers, both the medium and the organizations, are sliding toward failure. This is for a number of reasons, but mostly because they are chained to the large staffs, factories, delivery vans and requisite workers that twentieth century economic realities made necessary.

The scaling down, if not collapse, of newspaper organizations poses a serious problem. Newspapers currently provide a large portion of the world’s journalism. They do large-scale investigations, they send journalists into war zones most sane people are trying to get out of rather than in to, and write slower, more considerate news pieces than cable news and online news.

The New York Times’ editor-in-chief, Bill Keller, tartly summarizes:

Last time I was in Baghdad I didn’t see a Huffington Post bureau or a Google bureau or a Drudge Report bureau.

On first blush this seems like less of an issue — can’t amateur journalists, or people on the scene, provide reports? Doesn’t this make sending reporters across the world archaic and unnecessary?

Although amateur journalists are increasingly providing the source material for news pieces, they aren’t enough — they tend only to report on breaking and immediately exciting stories. They also rarely contribute more than a snapshot — most don’t have the time, connections or motivation to fully investigate a story. Professionals are needed to cover what others don’t want to, and what they simply can’t cover: the pieces of stories which take hard work, skill and connections to pull together.

There’s also a second, concurrent problem: We simply have too much news. News is constantly washing over us. Twitter, TV, weblogs, news web sites. There’s so much being reported and being discussed that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on, and why. We read a lot about specific events — The Taliban attacked and killed seven soldiers, the Progressive Caucus said they will not support a bill without a public option — and on and on. But the result is that, because we read so much about specific events, it’s difficult to maintain that overarching perspective of an issue. Knowing the minutia of each event is important, but it’s completely useless without a context to place it into.

The constant and torrential flow of news encourages consuming of news rather than thinking about news.

So how do we solve these two problems? Well, we create new news organizations. Not only does it solve both issues, but the second will become an advantage.

In April, I addressed what kind of organization could do this, but I focused on how it would monetize itself, only briefly sketching its structure and the content it would produce.

That’s what I want to consider now.

It will not be one single new organization which replaces them. There will be three archetypical kinds, with mixes therein: content creators, collectors and reporters-for-hire.

Content Creators

They are small groups focused on very narrowly-defined subject matters, composed almost entirely of content creators. “Management” will be just one role rather than a full-time job, served by the creators. They will distribute their content entirely over the Internet, meaning that, crucially, their distribution costs will be very low.

They will be founded and run by journalists and experts in their field — individuals who have the knowledge and connections to write intelligently about their subject.

Eliminating physical distribution means that operating costs will decrease dramatically. As much as half of the New York Times’ operating costs are due to their printing and distribution system. Because this new organization will not be burdened with these costs, nor the salaries for unnecessary marketing, sales and advertising staff, almost all of their revenue will go directly toward paying for content.

When that much cost is eliminated, it means there is much more flexibility. Using advertising, but a much more powerful version where ads are specifically targeted and useful to the reader, will become a viable means of revenue (if not the only one).

They won’t write news stories in the traditional sense — stories with details on very specific events. Instead, they will solve the dilemma of having too much news: they will write articles about issues, providing context and meaning. An article (or series of articles) on health care reform, for example, would explain what the current system is, what’s wrong with it, what the proposed solutions are, and what their potential consequences are. The goal is understanding, not just detail.

These articles will connect many events into a cohesive whole that can be understood. There won’t be a story on a rise in deaths in Afghanistan, but on the difficulties we face in Afghanistan, and how to overcome them.

They may dive into the details on a certain very specific topic which illuminates the greater issue. One on the history of Pashtun tribes on the Afghan-Pakistan border, and how the Taliban use tribal loyalties to protect themselves, for example.

These won’t be fluffy opinion pieces, devoid of reasoning and filled with enflaming rhetoric. Their goal will be to present issues accurately, not in a manner which fits a predetermined world view.

They could be truly open organizations, too. When researching or investigating an issue, they could publish what they find as they find it, along with explanations as to its importance. Readers could then use this in their own work or do further research from it, contributing it back to the organization, and in the process make the organization’s work stronger. Perhaps even readers would, based upon the research, write even better pieces than the employed writers, which could be published there, too.1


Rather than write almost every news piece in-house, as most large online news organizations do now, the collectors would do just that — collect pieces. They would act much more like a weblog, linking and curating news pieces from across the web.

Their goal, though, would be different than most current news organizations. Rather than report on everything, they would only report what matters. Their goal is to eliminate the need to sift through RSS feeds and read a hundred articles a day to understand what is happening. They will do that for you, link to what matters, and crucially, explain why it matters.

Just as John Gruber looks for a certain gestalt in his linked list, these organizations will try to create a greater meaning in their collection of links — understanding of the day’s news in a sense different than just knowing what happened. It is knowing what happened that mattered, and what that means.

Many will still create their own content, but it will not compose a large portion of the overall content they provide.

Reporters for Hire

But this still doesn’t seem to solve the problem Bill Keller is worried about. Actually, though, it does, along with a third kind of organization I think will pop up as more newspapers fail: reporters-for-hire.

But first, let’s remember that not all news organizations will collapse. Cable news, as bad as it has become, will still exist, and many newspapers will, too. These new organizations will not have to fill in that large of a gap.

Nonetheless, though, there will be a gap which needs filled. Content-creators will write about issues that primarily concern them, and that they are knowledgeable about. Some will be professional journalists, and some will just be people educated on those topics. Either way, most will be more than qualified to write about the issues they cover. This mostly solves topic-based coverage and reporting in local areas.

The biggest issue, I think, is war-reporting. It requires people very different than the average person: they are willing to put their lives at risk to report on events.

As more newspapers collapse, and others reduce staff size, more reporters will be without a job. What I see happening is these journalists form their own group, which will provide reporting for other news organizations. They will go into the war zones, the unstable countries, and write stories for them.

The goal of news in the 18th and 19th centuries, and much of the 20th century, was simply to get news to the people who wanted it. The difficult part was delivery. The concept of too much news would very much be a foreign concept to people in the 18th and 19th centuries.

With the newspaper, you read news once a day, and that was it; the rest of the day could be spent doing other things and, inevitably, processing what the news means. A limit on how much news there is and when it can be consumed necessarily means more time to process it.

Cable news and especially the Internet changed that. We are bombarded with news so much throughout the day, in such large quantity and from so many different sources that there really is no time to think about what it means. It is much easier to read another story than think about what the ones you have already read mean.

The goal of the new news organization must be to change that. The content creators will put events in context, writing cohesive explanations of issues. Collectors will link to pieces from around the web which, when combined, give understanding to the day’s (or week’s) events.

More information is not the goal; less information, arranged in a manner which makes sense of the greater whole, is.

  1. This sounds like a good place for Google Wave to be used. []