Following news earlier this week that the Boston Globe is closing its remaining foreign bureaus, I received a challenge from inside the Globe newsroom: to define a positive future for major regional papers like the Globe beyond the mostly local/mostly online formula that I and many other media observers have been espousing.
In a sense, of course, it’s an impossible challenge. Figuring out that future is something those of us who care about the news will be doing for the rest of our careers. There’s obviously no easy answer. And the first priority, of necessity, is fairly uninspiring. The Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald and others in their weight class must shrink their way to financial viability without damaging the local coverage that is their principal appeal.
Beyond that? The Los Angeles Times, amid turmoil that may end in its being sold to local investors, has announced an initiative to transform itself into a 24-hour-a-day news operation, with latimes.com as its main vehicle and the print edition as a secondary outlet. (Romenesko wraps up the coverage here.)
That’s exactly what the Wall Street Journal is doing with its recently shrunk print edition, too. WSJ.com will be the primary news outlet, and the print edition will feature a lot of analysis.
The Globe is doing more than some readers might realize. It’s got a ton of staff blogs, allowing people to go deep in certain areas that they really care about. It’s done some innovative Web journalism, such as this mashup combining campaign-contribution data from the gubernatorial race with a Google map. Its multimedia specials are a model for innovative online journalism.
But the reason I say the Globe is doing more than some might realize is that the ethos coming out of Morrissey Boulevard continues to be print first, online second. Even if that’s not the way editor Marty Baron and company are thinking, that’s the message we’re getting.
Then, too, the Globe’s Web site(s) is/are still too hard to navigate. Boston.com may no longer be separate from the Globe Online, but they feel separate. Papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have done a better job of presenting an integrated face.
Now here’s the hard part. The key to a successful local strategy is not to use reduced national and international ambitions as nothing more than an excuse to save money. Ultimately the Globe and papers like it are going to have to reinvest in local coverage and do more than they are now. Cost-cutting may be necessary, but at some point they’ve got to start growing again.
Innovations in citizen journalism such as reader blogs and pro-am collaborations are well worth trying. But nothing brings more value to news consumers than skilled reporters — reporters who can write stories, shoot photos and video, record sound, blog, and get it all up onto the Web with minimal adult supervision. And that’s not going to happen until someone gets the economic model right.
Let’s not forget, too, how much better technology is going to get. One of the problems with the shift to online is that computers are still not a particularly satisfying way to read. That will change. I don’t want news on my cell phone, thank you very much, but I might very well want it on an Apple iPhone, with its ultra-high-resolution (so they say) screen and always-there wireless connection.
What so much of the current news meltdown is all about is that the old model is collapsing at a time when we can barely glimpse the new model. That will change, but it’s not going to happen quickly.