A good example of altered process has sprung up in the Post’s back yard: Homicide Watch. The website covers every murder in DC. (Contrast the Post’s embarrassingly selective coverage.) The front page lists breaking news on homicides and updates on existing cases; there is a page for every victim as well (and one for every named assailant). Every update tied to a particular murder is posted on the victim’s page, providing a chronology of the investigation and any subsequent trial. The comments on the victim pages, heartbreaking and vital, serve as a rolling eulogy for one of most murder-prone cities in the country.
Because the content is so intertwined (the pages of multiple victims in the same assault are linked, as are the pages of the victim and the accused), Homicide Watch is more like a database than a news wire; each additional detail posted raises the value of the whole collection, a pattern that copies more from Wikipedia than from the traditional newspaper coverage.
Homicide Watch provides far broader crime coverage than the Post, coverage of clear value to the community, and does so in a way that makes that value cumulative, rather than just spinning out updates on the hamster wheel. In comparison with the Post, though, the most important thing about Homicide Watch is that they do all this with two employees: Laura Amico as the editorial voice, and her husband, Chris, who developed the platform and works part time.
When a two-person outfit can cover such a critical issue better than the reigning local paper, with much less overhead, it’s evidence that doing more with less is possible, but it’s also evidence that this requires far more than reducing expenses. Homicide Watch isn’t just a tight operation (though it is that); it’s a brilliant re-imagining of what it means to be a news outlet.
Once you accept that all that free money from the middle of last decade is never coming back, you are left with two visions of newspapers’ future: diminution or re-invention. In the Post’s case, if you believe it can only be as good as it used to be by becoming as rich as it used to be, then you believe it will remain diminished, forever stuck doing less with less.
If, on the other hand, you imagine a Post that returns to, or even improves on, its best work, then by definition you are imagining it can somehow do more with less. This problem is not financial—it is foundational. It requires asking anew what good journalism looks like, in a world where the Internet exists.
What ails the Post isn’t just a loss of income, but a loss of imagination. To adapt, they will need to start treating stories as part of a larger stream (like Homicide Watch), or how to turn to the public for raw material (like PoliceMisconduct.net). They will need to try new things: better ways for their readers to talk about news (as The Huffington Post provides), or automating the writing of formulaic stories (as Narrative Science does). They could become more collaborative, partnering more to get access to expertise not on staff (as papers have done with organizations ranging from NPR to ProPublica to Wikileaks.)
Changing the way the Post works will be painful, of course, and there’s no guarantee that any re-invention of its structure and processes would work. There is a guarantee, however, that, left in its current configuration, merely stanching the bleeding, without an accompanying transformation, will merely move them out of emergency room and into the hospice.