By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Conversation versus competition

One of the more interesting news-of-the-future experiments taking place right now is at the Gannett newspaper chain. As Wired reported last November, Gannett’s 90-plus papers, which include the ubiquitous but unloved USA Today, have embraced the conversational model of news, encouraging readers to become citizen journalists by contributing stories and by lending a hand in certain types of investigations.

Trouble is, Gannett, with its lust for high profit margins, is not necessarily the ideal avatar of journalistic innovation. A recent Washington Post article portrayed online mobile journalists — “mojos” — at Gannett’s News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla., as little more than cheap content providers working for an editor who gets antsy if no one has posted anything in the last 15 minutes.

Now comes Lisa Williams of Placeblogger, who reports that, in Muncie, Ind., Gannett wants to play the game but is refusing to abide by the rules.

Let me back up for a moment. Within the news media, as in many businesses, there are two ways of dealing with competition: you ignore it or you denigrate it. Thus the Herald does not recommend stories in the Globe, Channel 5 does not tell you to turn to Channel 4 for more details and WRKO Radio (AM 680) does not suggest that you switch to Paul Sullivan on WBZ (AM 1030) in order to get away from the loathsome Michael Savage.

In the news-is-a-conversation model, though, you’re supposed to link to anyone and everyone. The idea is that competition is an outmoded concept, and the more content you can bring together, the better it is for everyone: bigger audience, richer conversation and maybe, someday, more money. (Someone, after all, has to pay for all this stuff, even if finances are usually left out of the equation.)

Gannett, according to Williams, is trying to have it both ways — embracing the new conversational model while sticking with the old competition model. The citizen-journalism site of Gannett’s Star Press of Muncie does not allow linking to the Muncie Free Press, an independent Web site. The guy who runs the Free Press says he’s been told the only way his site will get a mention in the Star-Press is if he buys an ad.

Williams writes:

Refusing to link to local blogs that aren’t hosted by the paper cuts off a newspaper-based community from valuable sources of new readers — and it means that while the paper may stay the paper of record for their community, they’ll never be the website of record for their community.

One of the fundamental things to understand about the net is that it’s possible to grow the pie — linking to people doesn’t mean you have fewer readers; in the long run it may mean that you have more.

Now, I’m not going to pull a Jeff Jarvis and start ranting that the Star Press folks are a bunch of clueless slugs who don’t get it. I understand the instinct. To the Star Press, the Free Press is competition. Why help it out?

Still, I think that if Gannett is going to try the news-is-a-conversation model, it ought to go all the way. As it stands, Gannett is trying to open itself up and wall itself off at the same time. Company officials want readers to contribute content, yet they won’t allow anyone to call attention to other content. They want to take, but they won’t give back. That’s repugnant, in my view.

Granted, Gannett officials can’t lose sight of its dual missions, which are to report the news and to make money. But given that they’ve made a bet-the-company gamble on experimentation, they might as well see it through. If it’s not working, they can always adjust later on.

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Correction confusion


It depends on what “devout” means


  1. kpaul

    Thanks for the mention, Dan. They’ve also publicly stated their ‘community editor’ probably won’t have a blog or hang out in the forums (where their real – albeit wild and untamed – community lives…) I hope that Phil Beebe or someone else from TSP shows up here to talk about this publicly, but I doubt they will.The thing is (I’ve told them this even) – this move of theirs is going to come back to hurt them … in the long run. It might take a while longer, but it will happen. My traffic is starting to grow exponentially as more and more people find out about the site and tell their friends, family and neighbors.And it’s not bitterness or hatred when I point out the irony of the ‘citizen journalism.’ I really feel it’s part of my job as the local independent media to be a watchdog for ‘big business,’ which, for the most part, big media has become. They link to their TOS on their new “Get Published!” feature, but they don’t really highlight the fact Gannett wants rights to ‘exploit’ the content any way they see fit. Granted, they want non-exclusive rights, but still. I think some of the people who contribute should be compensated if they do original work (not press releases, etc.) I can’t do it (yet) and Gannett won’t do it (yet), but that will be part of the equation eventually.Someday, people will realize the two different approaches to news and information happening in “America’s Hometown” (Muncie is one of the most studied cities in America, btw…)And I think they’re going to go with someone (anyone) who isn’t Gannett.They’ve been the only game in town for a long, long while, but the inner cogs of Gannett (the mid-sized newspaper across the country) are being given competition. And that’s a good thing for the American way of life, I think.Thanks again.K. Paul Mallasch – Publisher

  2. InformedbutAmusedobserver

    Does citizen journalism include Howie Carr publicly begging not only for column ideas, but for readers to do his legwork as well?And he complains about Barnicle!!!?!?

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