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September 1, 2007

Newspapers in 2020: An update

John Stoehr

Update: I thought I'd direct your attention to the series of articles inspired by MinnPost at minnpost.com.

There you'll find an analysis by the Poynter Institute. You'll also find a New York Times article that refers to two-and-a-half year old web-based newspaper in San Diego.

The Southern California publication serves as the model for MinnPost. It's called Voice of San Diego and, like MinnPost, it's structured as a membership-based nonprofit, similar to what you find at PBS and NPR.

What I like about these ventures is that they encourage the contributions of readers -- commentary, pictures, news bits and other kinds of information -- but don't rely on them.

These are not citizen journalism sites. These are pro organizations operated by trained reporters and editors who believe in a similar systems of ethics, practice and philosophy.

I agree with Dave Morgan in his prediction of newspapers in 2020 that newspapers in future will see an audience of active participants, not the passive consumers of the 20th century.

That seems only logical given how media technology is changing our national consciousness in ways similar, as I note in this post,to those of the phonograph in the last 19th century. It changed how we hear music.

However, I don't believe future newsrooms will be as collaborative as Mark Glaser describes. In his PBS blog, MediaShift, he predicts that news stories will take the shape of "a tighly controlled wiki," like entries in Wikipedia, in which anyone can offer additions, subtractions or -- inevitably -- slander, lies or worse.

Glaser's thinking is that using wikis takes full advantage of the collective knowledge of the community. It's the same thinking as that kind found in James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations."

Which is to say, it's ideal, but not realistic. While this may be sound philosophy for business, marketing and advertising, I'm agnostic about its being applied to journalism.

A middle way would be more pragmatic: harnessing the power of the community while providing the quality, professionalism and integrity that the community deserves and expects from its media. Newspapers have historically led the way, shaping and influencing local conversation. I don't see any reason for that to stop, even as technology changes how newspapers do it.

As William Powers notes in this piece for the Washington Post, quality still sells. Voice of San Diego and MinnPost seem to affirm that old-time attitude in a new age of media.

There has always been a market for thoughtful reporting and writing, and there always will be. Remember, the great newspapers of today became great during a period when they were competing with tabloids, television, and other relatively cheesey fare. There were no page views then, but quality broadsheets had quarterly income statements -- and a breathtaking profit stream -- testifying to the fact that the public craved what they were selling. Why did so many people choose to read The Washington Post and The New York Times all those years when they could have exclusively patronized the downmarket alternatives? Because they liked and believed in the work. The Web hasn't suddenly turned all of us into Britney-obsessed boobs. Yes, TMZ.com and its spawn draw a huge crowd, but the high-end newspaper websites still pull in impressive numbers. If you really want to see quality thriving, check out the BBC's traffic some time. In a way, the Web is transforming the BBC from a tv/radio operation -- what Marshall McLuhan would have called a relatively "hot" medium -- to a relatively "cool," text-driven one. It's not a private business, but it sure could be a model for one.

Posted by John Stoehr at September 1, 2007 8:34 AM