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TO: John Robinson, Ann Morris, Mark Sutter FROM: Lex Alexander DATE: Dec. 23, 2004 RE: News-Record.com as public square A week ago, you asked me to prepare recommendations for making our flagship Web site more of an online town square or public square. This report includes that list, loosely organized by type of recommendation. Where appropriate, I've added a source or example for additional information. You did not ask me to address technical issues related to these recommended additions and changes to content, nor did you ask me to examine financing or business models. However, in researching content changes, I came across some ideas and received unsolicited suggestions from readers and from sources. I include that material here for your information and as a possible starting point for additional research. For the benefit of others who may read this report without the background the three of you bring to the subject, I've also included a bit of context regarding the basis of this request and where my recommendations fit into larger trends in the media and in our community. BACKGROUND Dan Suwyn of SavannahNow.com is a scary man. At least, he says scary things, such as: "We haven't had an industry-wide circulation increase since 1987. The majority of our readership is over 55, with a life expectancy of 80. But even among those 55 and older, we are losing circulation each year. So in 25 years we will have nearly exhausted our readership, with even more significant fall off occurring in 10-15 years." As an industry, we're bleeding, if not hemorrhaging, readers. Absent change, our business's remaining life can be measured within the remaining careers of most current employees. Where is our audience going? To TV? No; the major broadcast networks' ratings continue to fall. Cable? To some extent, for national and world news, but the highest-rated cable news show still commands a tiny fraction of the audience of one of the Big 3 network news shows. No, our audience is going to the Internet. Internet-service penetration has now topped 75% of American households (it was 2% in this market when we got into the business in 1994), and twothirds of those households have some sort of high-speed connection ("broadband"). The Media Audit, a syndicated report examining media use in 85 large and medium-sized American markets, reported in January (http://www.themediaaudit.com/InternetExceedsAllOtherMedia.pdf) that the percentage of adults who spend an hour or more a day on the Internet – so-called "heavy users" -- is significantly greater than the percentage who spend an hour or more a day with the newspaper. It also reported that the gap is growing because the (modest) growth in the number of adults spending an hour or more a day with the newspaper isn't keeping pace with growth in the adult population. Moreover, even though the number and percentage of heavy Internet users among adults is growing, that group so far is showing no signs of tailing off in income and education, as typically happens with growth in heavy users of other media. The following chart compares the income and educational levels of heavy users of different media ("heavy user" of direct mail is defined as someone who uses at least ¾ of all direct mail received): Medium Internet Radio Newspapers Television Direct mail % of h'holds w/income > $50K 60.00% 45.00% 45.00% 32.40% 37.50% % of h'holds with 1+ colleg 50.40% 28.40% 38.90% 20.80% 26.20% SOURCE: The Media Audit, Jan. 13, 2004 In addition, during the 2003-04 election cycle, Web logs effectively challenged traditional media on many fronts. The fact that most bloggers aren't journalists, and most blogs aren't journalism, is immaterial. You don't need to be a journalist to point out flaws in the work of those who are, or to keep flogging a story until traditional national media can ignore it no longer. A few examples: • Sen. Trent Lott's remarks upon Strom Thurmond's retirement from the Senate, suggesting that if a (then-segregationist) Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948, the country would be better off today, were initially overlooked by traditional media types. But a few liberal bloggers quoted Lott and linked to C-SPAN.org video of the event. Result? Lott was forced out of his position as Senate Majority Leader. • The risks of paperless electronic touch-screen voting machines weren't on most Americans' radar screens before the 2002 elections. But by the 2004 elections, blogs had spread the word so far that traditional media at both the national and local levels had begun raising questions and reporting upon the issue. (Full disclosure: With JR's permission, I edited Bev Harris and David Allen's book Black Box Voting: Ballot tampering in the 21st Century on a freelance basis, and my personal blog was one of those doing the flogging.) • When the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged with its charges about Sen. John Kerry's military service record, conservative bloggers kept the story alive for weeks before mainstream media outlets began reporting it. Moreover, liberal bloggers led the way in disclosing the group's ties to the Bush/Cheney campaign and the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in its accounts weeks before the mainstream media reported them. • Throughout 2004, liberal bloggers kept up a steady drumbeat of reports on how what they called "the so-called liberal media" were missing or blowing stories, and misrepresenting facts, in ways that benefited President Bush – for example, continuing to characterize Bush as "popular" when his poll numbers were among the lowest ever achieved by an incumbent seeking re-election. • Most famously, bloggers took down CBS News anchor Dan Rather, whose report on George W. Bush's National Guard service came to naught because bloggers raised the issue of whether documents on which he had based his report were fake. Although neither pro- nor anti-Bush bloggers were able to prove conclusively whether or not the documents were genuine, the proBush bloggers raised enough serious questions to force a previously imperious Rather and CBS News to go back and review the documents and how CBS had obtained them.That review led Rather to conclude that he could no longer be certain the documents were authentic. In turn, that conclusion led to Rather's nationally televised mea culpa and an earlier-than-expected announcement that he would retire as anchor of the CBS Evening News. • Regionally, UNC law professor Eric Muller, a blogger who has written extensively on legal issues related to internment of citizens in time of war, completely discredited conservative syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin's new book defending the internment of JapaneseAmerican citizens during World War II – before the book was published. The Dan Rather episode got all the publicity, but what Muller did, working by himself and in roughly the same amount of time, was orders of magnitude more difficult and impressive. • Locally, Ed Cone was blogging about the possibility of Dell Computers' coming to the Triad long before the N&R was paying sustained attention. Collectively, these events and many others like them have eroded, if not bitten great bloody chunks out of, the public's already-faltering faith in traditional media's integrity and competence. I will not be surprised if we look back soon to learn that our overall readership drop, and network TV's overall viewership drop, accelerated markedly in 2004. And as you would expect, advertising dollars are following the readers. PricewaterhouseCooper reports that Internet advertising is increasing dramatically (with search being the most used format, followed by display and classified) in nominal terms and as a share of all advertising expenditures. Even with that growth, Internet advertising is still only about 4% of all advertising expenditure, compared with newspapers' roughly 24%, but all that means is that it has a lot of room to grow – at our expense. Some of the nation's largest advertisers, such as automaker Mercury, now devote as much as 25% of their entire advertising budget to online. *** So: Our audience is moving from print to online, and some of the wealthier and better-educated people among our audience are leading the charge and taking ad revenue with them. If we are to survive as a business dedicated to producing quality local news, information and dialogue, we need to move, too – with people and resources. But that means more than just re-creating the print product online. It means understanding the culture of the Internet, and of blogging in particular, and understanding how we can work on and with the Internet (i.e., with users of that medium) to expand the quantity and quality of the local news, information and dialogue we provide. It also means understanding that the very definition of news, or journalism, is changing. Particularly with the growing popularity of blogs, online audiences expect to have a say – not total control, but a say -- in what we cover, and how, and why. There will still be a place for the serendipitous story and the involved investigative report. But we need to reflect on the year just past to see where we need to head. At least two lessons from what bloggers accomplished in 2004 are relevant here. First, even a single blogger, by dint of careful reporting and a lot of lobbying of other bloggers, can change a news organization's agenda by dragging a story before the media that otherwise might have been overlooked or ignored; to be informed, we must check in on local blogs just as we check with sources in more traditional ways. Second, and even more relevant: The "blogosphere" – bloggers collectively – are much smarter than any blogger or reporter individually. Put another way, as it frequently is stated on blogs, none of us is as smart as all of us. That's the paradigm for the new community journalism on which we are embarking. To use the metaphor most frequently applied, journalism, as traditionally practiced, has been a lecture, almost completely one-way, from journalists to readers. But it's changing now to a conversation between and among journalists and readers, one that breaks down artificial barriers between us and readers and involves unprecedented levels of transparency in how we do our work. Our online form and content, and our internal culture as a news-gathering and disseminating operation, must reflect, facilitate, even lead that change. That's scary to a lot of people in the business. For one thing, it means giving up a privileged role we cherish: mediator of the news. More significantly, it means giving up a significant amount of control over our own product, which runs right up against our industry's (rightly) cherished tradition of independence. But, I would argue, we have very little choice. For one thing, not to move, in this direction or any other, is to exhaust our current readership, thus killing us, within a generation. For another, moving in this direction is what our audience wants us to do. And, finally, if we want our journalism to be better – more factually and contextually accurate, more reflective of the lives people in our community actually live -- this is the most promising direction toward that goal. Because , believe it or not, as JR has observed, we and our audience basically want the same thing, which is to tell others what we know. I believe we can make these changes, quickly, in ways that reflect our commitment to traditional principles and ethics of journalism. Consequently, moving in this direction with the support of our audience appears likely to pay dividends in increased reader trust and confidence in our competence and integrity – areas in which, recent surveys make clear, we need help badly. And the more our readers trust and have confidence in us in general, the more likely they are to support, and even help, our efforts to report the kinds of watchdog or public-service stories that, while essential, can be unpopular. Accordingly, while some of the following proposed additions and changes to our Web site, and our business and culture in general, might seem modest, others will represent huge changes. But in almost every case, these changes were suggested by current readers who, by and large, seem to want us to succeed, who really think we're onto something but are also waiting and watching to see if we walk what we talk. Many of us in this industry over the years have been fond of likening newspapers to a public trust. To truly become one, though, we have to start by trusting the public ... and giving the public reason to trust us. Here's how we do that. RECOMMENDATIONS I have arbitrarily, and somewhat loosely, grouped the suggestions I and others have come up with into five categories: COMMUNITY: Improving community-oriented journalism online. Adding to or enhancing the site in ways that encourage community among N&R staff and readers. SITE ADDITIONS/ALTERATIONS: Necessary/desirable site changes that don't fit directly into our overall goal. TRANSPARENCY: Specific changes to our newsroom culture to make it more open to the community. REVENUE: Ideas/information on possible business models. INTERACTIVITY: *** COMMUNITY • Assign local bloggers to cover in depth some things that we don't – e.g., community sports by team, business specialties, etc. • Recruit a blogger for each neighborhood from among its residents, a la Waterville, NY, paper. • Staff consumer-affairs reporter/blogger from existing complement. INTERACTIVITY • "Get Me Rewrite!" -- readers re-write stories to emphasize what they believe are the salient points, or to highlight what they think was missing in the published story. Reporters and their editors review those comments to learn. • "Help me!" A way for readers who have tried and failed to obtain info from, say, local government on a particular subject to alert the newspaper that its help is needed. • Add a "Add a N&R news/sports feed to your site" capability to our front page. (Cf. CNN.com, FoxNews.com) • Allow comments on all staff and community stories; require writers to read them and, where appropriate, respond. • Build wiki(s) (cf. en.wikipedia.com) on subjects, e.g., histories of Greensboro's neighborhoods. • Forums unconnected to any particular story. • Interactive assignment editor: Readers suggest stories and a dedicated (e.g., this is a full-time beat) reporter does them, explaining how he did them, why he made certain decisions, etc. • Maintain "Discover the Triad" online; make it a wiki so community can contribute, then download each year to produce the print product. • Mandatory links out from stories to people/sites/sources of factual assertions. • One or more "moblogs" – blogs to which people can submit text and/or images via e-mail or wireless (“mobile”) phone (cf. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/ ) • Periodic columns in the paper of the best posts from area bloggers (republished with permission). • RSS feeds on all regularly updated pages (section fronts, blogs, etc.) • Structure Letters to the Editor as a blog, with each letter having its own permalink and comments. • Structure obituaries as a searchable blog, ordered by page, with comments (call it "guest book") capability for each. • OR: Partner with legacy.com, as Charlotte has, to create obit guest-book capability. • Create subject-specific blogs to which readers can contribute. (Drug pricing? Some more local topics?) • To the extent that a blogger/reader knows more about a subject than a reporter does, make the relationship more of a partnership and find a way to represent that partnership visually, in print and online. • To the extent that comments/forums lead to any conclusions/results/new developments on stories, feed that info back into the newspaper. • Aggregate voluntarily participating community blogs – anyone who wants can be included. SITE ADDITIONS/ALTERATIONS • Add capability to distribute reader-desired content by mobile/wireless/podcast • Eliminate or update outdated content across the site (preferably the latter). • Digitize our archives and make them available online, free. • Link to other local blog aggregators. • Link to other local media, even competitors. • Make 1+ reporter(s) "online-only" to provide content not available in print edition. • More multimedia: audio, video, Shockwave Flash animation. • Newspaper as "daily digital download"? *.pdf? *.html? • Photo galleries/slide shows: more of them, more often, keep them up permanently. • Publish the longer versions of letters we receive online and letters that don't make it into the paper for reasons of space. • Where design is concerned, "simplify, simplify, simplify," one reader says. Several say our pages are too cluttered and our type too small. • Create classification structure for blog subjects, several layers/groups deep, and keep content on each focused strictly on its assigned subject. More info at http://civilities.net/CivStructure • Keep a list on the front of 12 (or 5 or whatever) most "important, vital, involving and humanly real" stories in the community. Remove them as they are resolved; leave 'em up as long as they're not. • Replace forum/comment-board software; readers think it sucks. Suggested: www.vbulletin.com, which you can see in use at www.civfanatics.com, among other places. TRANSPARENCY • Invite area bloggers in to blog budget meetings. • Invite area bloggers in to blog editorial-board meetings. • Post, and invite comment upon, our mission, vision and coverage priorities for the year. In future years, seek advance input into coming year's coverage goals. • Regularly staff-blog budget meetings. • Regularly staff-blog editorial-board meetings. • Post page for each full-time reporter and editor, with photo, contact info, background, political & religious affiliation. (Make this their blog page, also?) REVENUE • Figure out, perhaps with Blogads.com, some way of creating the "long tail" to encourage blogger participation: an ad network with the N&R as the head but every participating blogger as part of the tail. • Virtual mall. • Local auction site? • Reformat online classifieds. Some readers think they're hard to use and hard to search. • Directories, web sites and ads for small businesses, hosted on the paper's Web site, searchable and browsable by topic and area. (See SFGate's Personal Shopper for some ideas: http://personalshopper.sfgate.com/RopCategory.aspx) • Ditto classifieds: A Craigslist-like site, integrated into sections of the site, or something along the lines of what tribe.net is doing with Knight Ridder, which is aimed at getting people pointed to classifieds they would be interested in by other people they know and trust. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I got dozens of tips and suggestions, but a few people and sites were particularly helpful to me as I prepared this report. Besides those already mentioned in the report, they include, in no special order: Ed Cone, GSO David Hoggard, GSO Jay Rosen of NYU's journalism school Andrew Cline of Southwest Missouri State. Paul Grabowicz at Berkeley Ken Sands at the Spokesman-Review SpokesmanReview.com/blogs Billy the Blogging Poet, GSO Civilities.net The Northwest Voice, www.northwestvoice.com Lawrence.com Syracuse.com/weblogs Wikipedia.com OhMyNews.com Indymedia.com DallasNews.com SavannahNow.com DelawareOnline.com Cyberjournalist.net John Dvorak, dvorak.org Steve Outing, Poynter.org Mark Glaser, Online Journalism Review http://www.iseek.org/sv/108.jsp http://www.pwc.com/extweb/ncpressrelease.nsf/DocID/920DF62881EEEE7F85256F3B00650B 8A Jim Wilson, e-mail correspondent, who suggested the “interactive assignment editor” idea. (He is not, so far as I know, the ex-N&R staffer of the same name). -- 30 --.
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