“We’ve got a Web site, but nobody visits it. Because, after all, our Web site is much the same as any other Web site. And, while the community still knows our name, there are other names that it now knows, also. So, the question becomes: How do we continue to serve our community? And how can we best utilize the Internet to do so? Because, after all, that’s the main point. The news articles have never been ends in themselves. They have just been the most efficient means of informing and serving the community in which we live.
“Today, in the year 2009…” [drumroll please] “What is the best way of serving this community? Of connecting them to each other and to the world? Of advancing democratic ideals?”
And if the answer to that is “keep on reporting the news,” then OK. If it’s something else, OK. Maybe it’s providing some sort of umbrella organization for 1000 individual bloggers in the paper’s area. Maybe it’s building the site into a robust town-hall style discussion center. Whatever it is, OK.
But news outlets had better be asking themselves those questions. And not just doing things the same way as always because “that’s what we do. We’re a newspaper.” It’s not necessarily about the news. It’s about the people you’re trying to reach.
Now, I’m not sure that I believe all of that, to be sure. But I’d like to see some places just think clearly and systematically about where they’re at, where they’re going, why they’re going there, and what’s the best route.
MG: I agree wholeheartedly with all of that. Here’s what I’m wondering, though: what happens to reporting?
JP: Look, I’m not suggesting that newspapers should rush to abandon reporting. And I definitely don’t think that news outlets should wholly conform to the ethos of the Web. I just think that every news outlet needs to stop and think. And that sounds glib. Of course they’re thinking.
MG: I know what you mean, though: it’s not just thinking, it’s getting out of old mindsets. Kind of—sorry, to mention Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman for just a sec—to try to shed the metaphors of the past.
JP: Yeah. Because we’re building a whole new vocabulary. Not just thinking about the best way to translate what we’re doing onto the Web, but thinking about their role in their communities. Whatever size those communities might be. And acknowledging the fact that the way that communities connect, cohere, and communicate is different now than ever before.
MG: Right. Definitely.
But let’s move on for a sec—because I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re thinking about when you talk about “new strategies.” Though I know you’re proposing a change in mindset, rather than a specific strategy—still just want to make sure I’m clear on it.
JP: You asked before if I thought that newspapers and such should start thinking of themselves as online innovators. And I know there are staffing and financial constraints at work here. But if The New York Times had invented something like Twitter, we wouldn’t be talking about that paper’s financial crisis. People would be fighting to invest in the Times.
So maybe, in the future, papers with the means to do so should start thinking of themselves as communications innovators. Should have teams that are building and testing new applications and such. Why shouldn’t news outlets be the ones coming up with these ideas? I can’t think of many better ways for them to remain relevant in affecting the ways that communities connect and communicate with each other.
So I guess that’s my larger point. I don’t want news outlets just to come up with better ways to use existing technologies. That’s important, sure. But maybe it’d be better for them to be the ones coming up with this stuff in the first place. However logistically unfeasible that might be.
MG: I think that’s right—in theory. And quite possibly (hey, quite probably) it’s right in practice, too. But journalism’s problem in so much of its painful transition to the digital age has been that it hasn’t been practical. It’s stuck to assumptions and ideals and conventional wisdom—often at the expense of pragmatism. I worry that, if news orgs spread themselves too thin, resource-wise, in their bid to engage readers, they could end up alienating them. If they’re not providing news, what are they good for?