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.
“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.