How to fix newspapers IV: Go beyond the wires, join the Web party

(Also see Prelude and Parts I, II, and III)

Scott Karp has written a post defining his vision for a new kind of Web journalism: one in which linking to the vast sea of information beyond a newspaper’s walls becomes a key part of bringing news to readers. He writes:

“Do what you do best, and link to the rest” is Jeff Jarvis’ motto for newsrooms — the imperative is to reorient newsrooms from a resource-rich, monopoly distribution approach to reporting, where a newsroom could reasonably aim to do it all themselves, to a resource-constrained, networked media reality, where newsrooms must focus on original reporting that matters most — SUPPLEMENTED by links to other original reporting done by other newsrooms — and by individuals.

The idea is that journalists, editors, and newsrooms need to LEVERAGE the web, leverage the network to help them do more — in so many cases now, with less.

But I would take Jeff’s web-savvy advice a step further: “Make linking to the rest an essential part of what you do best.”

It’s a compelling vision, and the examples of forward-thinking papers already using Scott’s Publish2 network show it can be done. [After-the-fact disclosure: I now work for Scott at Publish2.] But as I’ve discussed with Scott, while this may be a great idea for newspaper Web sites, there are no hyperlinks in print. How can we marry this vision of newspaper-as-linker to the print product?

Return for a moment to the question of why newspapers are boring. I’ve suggested two answers: that the kinds of stories papers typically run aren’t interesting or relevant to average readers, and that non-local stories send the strongest signal that papers are boring. I described some institutional reasons papers run those kinds of stories, but I left out a main one: Those stories are a majority of what the wires provide.

Most newspapers rely for their non-local news and opinion on some combination of the AP and the Washington Post/LA Times, New York Times, and McClatchy-Tribune wires. These wire services are important and necessary for putting out a paper. But they deprive readers of so much more. “Horrible as it may sound, on many days the newsprint front page tastes of already chewed gum,” Jack Shafer writes in Slate. He’s right — because newspapers’ narrow pool of sources has been outpaced by the Internet.

All the great content that makes the Web so addictive/magical — all the stuff that Scott Karp wants papers to link to from their Web sites — is missing from print newspapers. Terrific magazine articles. Stories in smaller papers that don’t make it over the wires. Web sites. The blogosphere. Newspaper readers typically see little of this enormous conversation going on around them. No wonder papers read like a hermetically sealed relic of the pre-Internet age. They’ve basically walled themselves off from the greatest information explosion in decades.

Part of this is simply a matter of logistics and legality: The wires don’t include any of this stuff, so how can newspapers run it? I took Bill Walsh to task for saying “we go to press with the staff we have, not the staff we wish we had,” but it would certainly be accurate to say “we go to press with the wires we have.” And if editors do find something online, chances are they don’t have the rights to use it in full.

But I think papers’ self-segregation also stems from a combination of technological ignorance and an outdated view of the Web. How many editors routinely read blogs and other non-mainstream-media news and commentary? How many know what RSS is, let alone have their own reader set up? How many know how to make a tinyurl link? If you don’t know what’s out there, you can’t bring it to your readers. I’m guessing that the old view of “You can’t trust what you find on the Internet” is still recited too often as an incantation to avoid grappling with the implications of the Web.

The truth is, most prominent blogs are connected to established media outlets or are written by journalists (Andrew Sullivan and James Fallows blog at the Atlantic; Talking Points Memo just won a George Polk award); or they’re written by academics and experts (Balkinization on law); or they’re just fun pop culture blogs or aggregators where the trust is transparent: in the quality of their riffs and links (Best Week Ever, Kottke.org). Newspaper editors and reporters need to dive in to the not-so-wild Web, if they haven’t already, so we can start figuring out how to bring all of these great voices into newspapers.

For the long term, that means coming up with a new rights system or a new version of the wires so print papers can use material from the Web. But in the meantime, there are ways to bring the Web into the paper. In today’s tbt*, for example, I took a quote from this amazing video report on Dean Kamen’s new bionic arm and turned it into a little item on our News Talk pages. I also included a tinyurl link to a story from a local New Hampshire paper about the man who is testing out the new arm. Tinyurls in print are nowhere near as efficient as a Web link. Most readers probably won’t follow them. But some will — and they’ll find something that was more interesting than anything else in the paper today.

Newspapers are ultimately boring because you always know what you’re going to see — politics, war, city council meetings, basketball scores — and you can expect they’ll be heavy on simplistic conventional wisdom. Great blogs are interesting because you never know what they’ll link to next, or what insightful commentary they’ll come up with. If newspapers had more of that surprise, more of those interesting voices, then readers wouldn’t know what they’re going to see when they pick up the paper in the morning. And that’s the surest way of getting them to keep picking it up.

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7 responses to “How to fix newspapers IV: Go beyond the wires, join the Web party

  1. Pingback: How to fix newspapers I: What is news? « Korr Values

  2. Has anyone considered that internet articles, with their propensity to go on and on and on, complete with a million distracting links related to every other word –– are boring. Come on, it’s the perfect opportunity for all those writers who love the sound of their own voices to postulate in print. In this day and age who has that much time. Get to the point already
    Sometimes no matter how sophisticated our readers are, sometimes they, we, want to be given a package of information that is interesting but also short, sweet and relevant. If we go too far, we’ll end up with a dog’s breakfast that will be the equivalent of replacing CNN with Entertainment Tonight.

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