Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The future of newspapers, on the cheap

At 9:52 a.m. today, these were the headlines on the Enquirer's web site:
  • Woman hurt in purse-snatching
  • Survey: People counting on Social Security
  • Accident slows I-75 commute
  • Shipping deadline to military Nov. 13
  • Ruling today on visitation
  • Part of Rialto Rd. will be closed
  • New complaint chief named
In order, that's crime news, a rewritten press release, traffic, another press release, something pulled from the Enquirer's daybook, traffic, and another press release.

This is what passes for news in the new world of Enquirer journalism. If you haven't already seen it, read this letter from the CEO of Gannett (which owns the Enquirer) (the letter is long and goes on for about four pages), this viewpoint from some guy on some web site, this article from Wired, and this blog (the Nov. 7 entry) by the article's author.

All these people seem very excited about this, but they forget that this is Gannett we're talking about. The gist is that Gannett newspapers have been instructed to put together 24-hour newsrooms, called Information Centers. The buzzword is "crowdsourcing," which Wired says "involves taking functions traditionally performed by employees and using the internet to outsource them to an undefined, generally large group of people." The Enquirer is already trying this with its Get Published/Get Local pages, through which readers submit news items. This has produced such earthshattering reader-submitted scoops as "Our Lady of Lourdes School Receives Recycling Award!" and "Appearance Plus Cleaners Wins Assistance League Corporate Star Award".

This might all work, at some newspaper that is concerned about quality journalism. That wouldn't be the Enquirer. This is what we've already seen from the Enquirer: They've eliminated columnists and critics because they need more reporters to cover local news, and they've eliminated positions in the newsroom are employees have left the paper. This hasn't produced better political coverage or more watchdog journalism. It's produced more blurbs about rummage sales and indoor cornhole tournaments and more high school sports on the front page. And notice that in everything Gannett says about this effort, there's no price tag. That's because there isn't one -- newspapers will be expected to do this with existing resources. Here's what the CEO's Q&A says about this:
Q. Will there be additional hiring done to fill the Information Center jobs?
A. The Information Center transforms, repurposes and refocuses the resources that exist now. Newspapers are training for new skills in multimedia, assessing needs for library science and archiving expertise and updating job descriptions. Many sites are assessing, updating and training to ensure everyone has the right tools and expertise to transform into Information Center employees.
If anyone thinks this is about journalism -- well, I have this beautiful bridge I'd like to show you. This isn't about protecting our communities, or keeping our politicians honest. This is about generating traffic on web sites. When traffic is higher, you can attract more advertisers and charge more for advertising. The Enquirer's push will be to update the web site as often as possible, so you keep coming back to the site throughout the day looking for news, to boost traffic for advertisers. Another thing you won't read in all the Gannett boostering for this is that reporters will be evaluated based on how often they update the web site. How many Pulitzer prizes do you think that will produce? I think the web site will look like it already does, only moreso -- crime news, traffic news, press releases. You might as well watch Channel 19.

How do you staff a 24-hour newsroom? How do you get enough people producing content all day long? The Enquirer isn't going to be hiring any more people to do this, so they'll pull from within. Greg Korte of the Enquirer is quoted in the Wired article saying this: "The newspaper of the future is going to need more programmers than copy editors, and we're going to have to figure out how to make that transition."

There's a clue right there -- fewer copy editors. My guess is the Enquirer will pull from the quality-control layer -- the copydesk, people who right now aren't actually producing content for the web site or newspaper. That means the traditional checks within the newspaper will deteriorate, and you'll notice it both in the newspaper and on the web site. And Gannett already hates reporters because they cost too much. Wait till they see how expensive and ornery good programmers are. Lastly, Gannett has a very short attention span and little of the spiritual stamina that it will take to make this work. If this effort doesn't produce enough money fast enough, Gannett will cut its losses, cut staff and cut the resources it devotes to this.

"Crowdsourcing" may be the latest cool-sounding buzzword that makes Gannett think it's on the cutting edge. Improving the news product, whether its on the web or on paper or some guy shouting headlines on Fountain Square, means being concerned about quality above profits, and that's nowhere in Gannett's genetic makeup.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What irks me is that I am one of the fools who pay $200 or whatever it is to get the Enquirer seven days a week on my driveway. Often it's too late to read and even then I don't see anything in there that was worth the wait. Today's paper, for example, talks about how Sherrod Brown "claimed" victory and how the smoke-free issue was on its way to a win. Hell, they were blowouts by 10 pm!!! I don't have time to check in on their website every 30 minutes for updates. I'd rather have one plump, artful story that tells me what I want to know in one shot, even if it's a day out, than to have to chase two-paragraph updates all day long.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you expect from the website at 8:52 am? The Pentagon papers?

This hasn't produced better political coverage or more watchdog journalism. It's produced more blurbs about rummage sales and indoor cornhole tournaments and more high school sports on the front page.

The Enquirer's readership expects all these things. Politics and "watchdog journalism" are only a piece, though the Enquirer still holds the local monopoly on these. But the press is not the fourth branch of government, and activists will ahve to live with the fact that they are not entitled to political coverage that reflects their own bias. The Enquirer is free to serve its readers as it sees best.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
As a production employee at a Gannett paper in the midwest. I would like to comment about Gannett and it's paper.

The surge toward online news is coming quickly to all papers, layoffs are now affecting my paper too.

In the many years I've been with the paper I've seen nothing but waste, waste, waste, mis-management and a sales force that really doesn't know much about how an ad will reproduce down to managers that have gone to the "Hitler school of Management". I've confronted management about quality at the paper in production levels, and you hear it echoed that "We are a daily paper" we don't have time for quality groups. The newspapers unfortunately have tapped out their resources as to ripping off the advertising media in newsprint and now are off too online rip off's. Now with Gannett's restructuring they will be dictating to the entire industry how news will be preceived. I would say that the information I read in the Gannett's papers are close to "The National Enquirer". Readers want more, more, local news about their kids in sports and local scores, boy scouts, churches, etc. How can sending work 200 miles away inprove a system that has already failed mainly due to the waste factor?

This corporation will not be in exsistance for very long because you can't keep looking at the numbers for success, and looking AWAY from employees. Gannett now has it's big "Dig" campaign going on what a joke that is.

Taking the time for quality and ideas from employess in quality groups would bring to light alot more than a big "Dig" campaign. Of course those stockholders need to see improvements for their buck. I would just say to the stockholder. Beware profits will no longer be as beefy as the past because the reading public recognizes when they're getting ripped off

3:41 PM  
Anonymous chucktrukk said...

Im 25 and never get my information from newspapers. Most of my friends are like me in that respect.

Todays is news is usually old by tomorrow morning. The 'Sunday News' is even older.

The sites we frequent are ones who can successfully filter the busy 'noise' from the 'news'. The big companies CAN (not necessarily will) take the same story from multiple folks- filter down to the news- and make a good story from it. I see reporters becoming more aggregators. (That's what reporters always were, it's just faster now). If they can provide cross-referenced links, it'll be golden.

The best reporting will combine that with being 'in the field'.

And most folks my I know dont need someone to tell them what's true or not. We're used to filtering out the junk (ok ok im an unreal optimist here).

3:43 PM  
Blogger ProWebscape said...

One good example is the Agitator. www.theagitator.com

3:45 PM  

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