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August 27, 2007

Newspapers are failing us, so do it yourself: Part 2

John Stoehr

The AP reports today that a new web-based newspaper run by a non-profit organization has enlisted more than 20 veteran reporters in the Minnesota area who had taken buy-outs from one of the main dailies, The Star-Tribune. Two of the writers are Pulitzer Prize winners. The "newspaper" will launch later this year on Minnpost.com.

Once again, innovation springs forth from the American Outback. And the one thing I like most is that the publication will specialize in news and insight articles, a sign that the website is going in the direction suggested by Mitchell Stephens in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year in a piece advocating something he calls "analytic journalism."

As Stephens writes:

The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.
Here's more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals -- weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time -- stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back.

Elsewhere, Stephens writes of an American newspaper committed to deploying this strategy: The Times Herald-Record, in Middletown, N.Y.

Stephens continues:

No one is suggesting that reporters pontificate, spout, hazard a guess, or "tell" when it is indeed 'too soon to tell.' No one is suggesting that they indulge in unsupported, shoot-from-the-hip tirades.
"It's not like talk radio," explains one of the champions of analytic journalism, Mike Levine, the former executive editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. Levine died earlier this year. "But it's not traditional American journalism either."

Update: This post seems to be getting a lot of clicks thanks to being linked to Minnpost.com. So I thought I should take advantage of the attention to point out that innovations of the kind taking shape in Minnesota may be one of the trends we'll see in the coming years in newspapers.

I don't mean, however, that newspapers will go digital (I think that's inevitable, at least in part) or that they will be better run as non-profits (I think this is debatable, to be determined). What I mean is that innovation won't come from the coasts where Big Media is so big and so cumbersome and so lumbering as to be unable to adapt nimbly to change.

That means innovation will come from the Land We Love here in Flyover -- the cities and towns between the coasts, between the megalopolises of New York and Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. This is where newspapers are smaller and nimbler.

Also, the stakes are much higher, because the status quo is much more fiercely protected in small towns. The problem for Flyover newspapers is maintaining the status quo, in my view, won't keep readers. MinnPost is just one example of smart people coming together who see something is wrong in their world and who want to change it for the better.

They can't do it through traditional means, because the traditional means, in the case of MinnPost's new newsroom staff, asked some of the more than 20 veteran journalists -- including two Pulitzer winners -- to bow out gracefully. Thanks for your time, here's your gold watch and here's your buy-out from the Star Tribune and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. See ya.

There's still a lot of important work to be done and Joel Kramer, editor on MinnPost, knows it and has the acumen to persuade others of the need for tough, fair and probing journalism. That's how he raised raised more than $1 million in startup funds from four local families who clearly believe in the cause. And that's how he persuaded top talent to lend a hand.

My feeling is that this trend will continue for another reason.

That reason is brain drain.

As the industry continues to cut jobs, resources and transform into newsrooms antagonistic to creative, determined and intellegent journalists (I'm thinking of the recent comments by a Wall Street Journal reporter in reaction to Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the paper; he said he and others wouldn't stay at a WSJ-cum-Fox News), people, the best and brightest, will leave.

Where will they go? People will settle into other lives and careers no doubt. They'll head for foundations, univeresities and nonprofits. What's likely is that there will be an opportunity here for someone with resources, vision and the ability to lead, organize and motivate.

MinnPost is doing that. So is the New Haven Review of Books and the New Haven Independent, projects started by people sick of the way news and literary heritage are being covered by mainstream media. Neither claims to be a replacement for mainstream journalism, but both should be watched and learned from, because they are a sign of what's happening.

Part of what's happening is that people are simply turning away from Big Media. I don't think newspapers will go the way of the CD and suffer from the perception of being nearly without value. But people are turning away and have been turning away for about 20 years.

That's why there are so many "alternative" weeklies. Even though many are now owned by a national company (New Times), they are still a viable alternative to a city's dominant daily. And they viable, even vital, because of what they have always done: followed the course explained by Mitchell Stephens in the CJR by practicing interpretive or analytic journalism.

And let's not forget about the blogs. As Lisa Harris notes in the comment below, that's where a lot of the future is going to be, recapturing the spirit of a proud American tradition.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 27, 2007 9:13 AM

COMMENTS

When I was in journalism school, our "bible" was the textbook "Interpretative Journalism." I got out of full-time journalism when I saw the trend toward reporting gossip, rumors and "information" instead of analysis. I have recently started my own web-based community newspaper in my suburban town, because I couldn't find the kind of in-depth reporting that I wanted to read. News blogs are the modern equivalent of the one-person printing press of the American Revolution era.

Posted by: Lisa Harris at August 28, 2007 7:01 AM



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