Salvation Through Simplicity

Okay, I keep on obsessing over the subject of “saving” the US newspaper industry. Can anybody really blame me? As an aspiring journalist, hip-deep in the runnings of his school’s paper (and rising – they made a whole new tech section for me to play with, and boy is that giving me nervous fits) , the survival of the industry in some form or shape is of paramount personal importance. While I’m not unwilling to go as far as transferring citizenship to another predominately English-speaking nation for my career (my Chinese has long since rusted to fine, red grains of sand), it is far from my first fallback. I am comfortable and well-adapted to the murky waters of American politics and culture, and especially American geek culture – moving elsewhere will find me floundering for a few years before I find the right currents to sail upon.

So when I say that the current newspaper distribution model isn’t just dying, but must die, I’m not saying as somebody who has a vested interest in the death of the journalism industry – just the exactly opposite, in fact. I’d like to be able to utilize my one actual talent – writing well – in means other than novel-writing and technical work, mainly because I’d have better chances with the lottery than making a decent living as a novelist, and I can’t stand technical writing. Well, not only mainly – I fully subscribe to the theory that a strong journalism industry is vital for the health and functioning of a culture, and while I often find myself ashamed by the bad quirks and habits of my fellow Americans, I find that to be more of a reason to be a journalist than less. Only via the utilization of the power of communications technology and media can positive social change occur, and be made permanent. Progress and social movement doesn’t spontaneously happen: it takes the media-savvy to fan the flames – or douse them.

Naturally, I’ll need to clarify. This isn’t a matter of burning down the village to save itself. Rather, this is a matter of hauling off rotting old growth to allow newer and stronger trees to flourish. There is no arguing that the invention of the Internet has laid a drastic and crippling blow across the foundation of newspaper journalism as it currently stands. What most of the industry analysts and pundits have failed to conceptualize is that the demand for news has never changed – people have always wanted as much information as possible in as little time as possible with as little effort as possible to attain it. As “effort” is context heavy, you thus see why radio, television and paper news continues to coexist – the latter two are impossible while driving, TV’s info-rich, but limited by time slots, and paper, though the crudest of the three, is much more easily portable, reliant on only solar power for illumination, and can be accessed at your own convenience.

What the Internet did was take out two of the major components of why print journalism continued to be a viable media, despite using the same basic technology for centuries: accessibility and convenience. The fact that online news is free is, honestly, just a side effect: the important thing is that, as long as there’s a nearby computer terminal or cell phone, you have not only just as much data access as you do with a standard newspaper, but more so, magnitudes over. A single iPhone is equivalent to carrying the entire English-speaking world’s newspapers, as well as access to podcasts, videos, listservs and forums… while carrying not a tenth of the metaphoric weight. The only reason why radio and televised news isn’t similarly threatened is solely because of convenience: podcasts and online video are less convenient and immediate than simply turning on the radio or TV, as finding a stable and cheap wifi access point while driving’s a near-impossibility unto itself, and TV has the advantage of not having to wait for a download to finish before you can watch. Not to mention that waiting for somebody to upload a live telecast is inherently inconvenient.

Is there a way to reconcile this inherent problem with print journalism with, say, my own desires to make a living off pursuing the truth? Adamantly… fucking yes. As my colleagues have noted over and over, online journalism cannot replace the need for hyperlocal, or even regional, news – and you don’t actually see local community papers get hit quite as hard as the major players (there are benefits, as it were, for staying a big fish in a small pond). It is also adamantly bullshit that online and print news are somehow inherently at cross-purposes. Just because a news corporation refuses to drastically re-engineer how they present their product doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with online news- or even offline. The problem is that, for whatever reason, nobody has yet managed to balance out the strengths and weaknesses of either format.

Here’s my (current) take on it, developed after two pints of beer and prolonged exposure to the spring sun of Santa Cruz: grab the alt weekly model and hightail it. Quite frankly, in an effort to cut down production costs, the MercNews is going perilously close to this model anyhow. Stuff it full of local ads. Set whole piles by bus stops, shopping centers, etc. Make it easy to find, easy to grab, and remove any and all price restrictions for people, from businessmen to beggars, to grab a handful. Local news, local reviews, local events – hyperlocalize it to make the physical paper as innately involved in the local community as possible.

Then, every few pages, snippets of national news. Still frames of videos. Quotes from podcasts. Link, link, link like a motherfucker. Get that website up and running, easy to access, easy to search through, and ads from all the major regional and national companies. Make damned sure it’s secure as well, as the worst thing that can happen is to lose your audience to a bunch of fucking blackhat hackers. Hire comment moderators. Hire forum moderators.

And, for gods sake, use a piece of ‘net technology that’s at least fifteen or so years old now: take advantage of IRC. Get your journalists to remember the pleasures of good old chatrooms. Get the community involved. Moderate the main channels, but go ahead and let people spawn side-chats as much as your servers can handle. Let your journalists communicate directly with the people. Let them get a nice, tight grip on the ebbs and flows of thoughts, trends, fads and movements online and off. It pisses me off that nobody at all is trying to utilize this potent tool – how can any professed media expert allow themselves to overlook the sheer, raw power you can bring to bear by mastering real-time communication with your target audience?!

All the steps I’ve listed are so fucking simple to implement. All of it is based not on anything radical or new, but solely on methods, techniques and technologies that’ve stood the test of time and market forces to one extent or another. All it requires is somebody with a big enough wallet to implement it at the local level – and expand, swiftly, from there. There is no reason for American journalism to be falling flat on its face – and reason enough for it to not just thrive monetarily, but culturally too. Why not make newspapers intimately relevant to people? Why not channel the full power of a media gatekeeper towards the benefit of the local communities?

Indeed, while we’re busy raking in the money, why not do some goddamn journalism?

Out with the old, in with the bizarre.

Out with the old, in with the bizarre.


~ by Gonzo Mehum on April 7, 2009.

3 Responses to “Salvation Through Simplicity”

  1. How profitable will your local focus be? The people with the wallets are, perhaps moreso now than ever, going to want to see a profitable return on their investment in getting the local focus of the news together. Can they run local business with the profit margins they want, or are you going to have to shop around until you can find investors that are willing to be okay with small but steady profit?

    I like the way you’re going with this, and I think it’s a viable model. Convince the investor that they want this model, too, and you’ll be solid.

  2. Alt weeklies are still alive and kicking. In fact, while I can’t be absolutely sure about this (I’m not a business major), I’d say that because of the sheer fact you’re a massive, widespread local-level info-dissemination outlet, advertisers work more on your terms than the other way around. So… profitable, yes.

    Not in terms that News Corps or Knight Ridder would like, mind you. While I don’t think it’ll be a small profit, it won’t be a multibillion dollar model – at least, not at the local level, though a loose franchise system might see a very healthy aggregate. Frankly, I hate the models endorsed by Murdoch and co., anyhow, and not even because of my built-in disdain for the Murdoch clan. We clearly see now that their model of business simply isn’t sustainable past a few decades, and journalism necessarily needs to be a long-term institute. A good reputation is as much of a journalistic weapon as is a wad of cash and a tape recorder.

  3. Fair enough. There’s just the need there to make sure that the company doesn’t operate itself out of cash while providing that excellent news and information. I’m guessing the paper itself will still be driven mostly by advertising dollars. Would be interesting to see a paper that could generate enough revenue to stay afloat just by subscriptions.

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