JP: Well, I think it’s a mistake for news orgs to assume that the primary goal of their Web sites should be to report and spread the news. Online readers, I think, don’t particularly care where their news comes from. They don’t care if they get it from the Boston Globe’s Web site or from the Times’s Web site. The news is fungible. Content alone won’t give you a successful site. (In general, I mean. I’m talking about newspaper-style news.)

MG: Well, can I add one caveat to that, though? When you say “newspaper-style news,” you mean news that is, generally, nonpartisan, straightforward, non-niche, etc., right? But we shouldn’t forget the extent to which many people don’t see those sources as nonpartisan or straightforward at all—which is to say, the extent to which they don’t ultimately trust those sources. ‘The NYT is nothing but a liberal mouthpiece,’ ‘The Journal is a lackey of corporate interests,’ etc., etc. And even people who don’t have as vociferous or specifically articulated a distrust of the MSM have been conditioned, over the years, to mistrust and otherwise question even the most straightforward of its messages. The counterpoint to branding, I guess.

JP: Yeah, good point. Even so, I think you could argue that most people aren’t like that. That when you open up Google News, one headline is as good as another.

MG: Okay, sure. In terms of aggregations, that’s right. And, actually, I think it’s more true among younger people—who are conditioned, via the realities of the digital world, to assume a kind of wisdom-of-crowds sensibility when it comes to online content. ‘If it’s on Google News, it has been collectively sanctioned.’ Etc.

So, yes: agreed. In that case, though: what else can news orgs provide?

JP: That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t rightly know. But there’s got to be something. A sense of community? Of interpersonal connection? Imagine a New York Times Online that doesn’t define itself by creating and posting articles of news.

MG: I’m having trouble doing that, though. What would it contain—and what would it define itself by?

JP: Maybe the community creates content. Maybe it’s not a newspaper so much as a convener. Maybe it’s just a space where people can come to yell. I don’t know. I don’t even necessarily think this is a good idea. But I think some interesting experimentation could be done in that space.

The thing is, you shouldn’t be making your plans for the future solely based on what you’ve got right now. Because then you’ll never get anywhere. This is a paradigmatic change here. Robert Altman, the director, once said something like “Nobody has ever made a good movie. Someday, somebody might make half of one.” And I think that’s apt to the subject at hand. Nobody has really made a great newspaper Web site yet.

MG: And that’s largely because we don’t yet know what makes a Web site great.

JP: Well, it’s because we haven’t been trying to make a great Web site. We’ve been trying to make a Web site that looks like print, that fits the existing ethos. I think a great Web site will be wholly invested in its medium.

MG: Okay. How does that translate, though?

JP: I would like to see a regional newspaper do something like this. I would like to hear them say “Look. For the past 100 years, we have tried to serve our community. We have tried to serve our neighbors by bringing them news. Local news, news of the wider world, and so on. We have done this, and we have prospered, because we were the only ones bringing this news. And the community has prospered, too—they have been better informed and more empathetic because of our efforts.”

“But we are no longer unique in this regard. The community no longer relies upon us as their sole source for information. And we are gradually losing our mandate. We are losing sight of our very reason for existence. We have always connected the community by spreading its news. But now this news gets around regardless of our presence. And it might not be as good as the way we do it, but nobody else seems to mind the slight degradation of quality that ensues. We need to re-imagine our role in this community.

Megan Garber and Justin Peters are the writers of CJR's series on news innovation, entitled Press Forward: Dialogues on the Future of News.