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

Defining the local vision

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 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. 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. 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.

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  1. Anonymous

    This reminds me of the old saying about two railroad executives in 1910, arguing over how Congress should regulate freight shipping prices. One was supporting some regulation. The other, opposed to it, shouts, “The future of our industry is at stake!” Then he tells the other, “Here, step away from the street, one of those newfangled things is coming by. They call them ‘trucks’.” Much the same dynamic is at play here; the fundamental nature of the media business has changed. Papers like the Globe and Herald and Tribune may thrash around trying to find a workable strategy to deliver strong national and global news, but nobody wants to state the obvious: there isn’t any. You can still make lots of money in newspapers– just look at the small newspapers across the country– but being a smaller profitable paper and ‘covering the world’ are mutually exclusive thanks to the Internet.And I should add, I don’t find anything wrong with that. Thanks to the Internet, yes, my Globe sucks every day. But I also read the Daily Telegraph, listen to Radio Australia, and sometimes skim other media from around the world. I get *more* international news, and better news, at the same time my local paper is gutting its coverage. International news and local news have bifurcated, and if news execs and media types don’t get that, they can go join the railroad execs and talk through their fears until they all get run over by the future.

  2. BosPhotog

    Oh no Dan! Did you say you might want your news delivered to your phone? I know that many photojournalism lovers here, including Mrs Media Nation, will not be too thrilled about looking at a photo the size of a postage stamp. All joking aside, what is the future of the still photo? Please don’t say streaming video. Can anyone here imagine Stan Forman’s Pulitzer photo of Ted Landsmark being attacked by an “old glory” wielding thug on video? I feel a collective, Eliza Doolittle like groan coming from newspaper photo departments across the land: “What’s to be become of me?”

  3. Brian Maloney

    Is it just me or is the site particularly slow most of the time?

  4. mike_b1

    It’s true that old readers like the old specs (print) and new readers (say, anyone under 25) like the new specs (online, etc.). So one part of the equation is to deliver news in a vehicle that approximates the old, familiar specs.To that end, the first plant (that I’m aware of) that makes “electronic” ink in volume is being built this year. It’s a big steo forward. It will be expensive for the user, but no more so than the TV they will more or less need to buy once all the signals get converted in a few years.

  5. Anonymous

    The Globe missed the boat on local coverage 15 years ago when its response to “local” news was the weekly region editions that were a waste of time. Too much feature writing; too little news. I was a journalist/haus frau, trying to juggle work for a small suburban weekly and two kids. The South Shore was exploding with urban refugees and a housing boom. Our little weekly paper kicked ass with stories that easily could’ve been Globe stories–not every story, but at least a couple each month. The Globe should start with regular town meeting coverage from all the towns south of Dorchester and Quincy. Every one of those towns has at least one big issue on its town warrant. And since the towns are all cheek-by-jowl, there’s enough overflow interest.

  6. Steve Ross

    Bosphotog need not worry. LCD glasses projecting a “full page” newspaper already cost less than serving a dead-trees edition, so they’ll be “free with your paid subscription” in a year or two… and readers will be able to download digital image files for wall display by paying a small fee on line.But why isn’t the Globe the regional data provider for the Boston area, selling (and analysing) data for local governments and advertisers… for a fee… and spinning off a Web section as well?

  7. Kay

    Anonymous journalist/haus frau’s comments ring so true here in Austin, Texas, where the daily newspaper in the state’s capital is crap when it comes to local coverage. One recent example, we recently had the city and county fighting over where to build a water treatment plant. When the site was within the city’s boundaries, it got coverage. When it moved to the ‘burbs, the topic disappeared from the paper’s pages, even though both Austin-area proposals were in environmentally sensitive areas; one was even in a federal preserve created for an endangered bird species. That’s not worthy of coverage? Meanwhile, the neighborhood weekly had regular stories. Hello. We’re out here, not that far and we’re growing. Why is the paper ignoring us? The local weekly has the stories, poorly written, but at least the basic info that area residents want and need is there. Why can’t the “major” paper cover it? That lack of attention is why I no longer read the dang thing, in print or online, which is just a duplication of the print copy.

  8. Art Kane

    I subscribe to the Globe’s emailed Headline Service because — as a relative newcomer to New England and retired newsman — I feel I ought to. But it’s a hard pill to swallow. The site is about as seductive as a soggy bagel. You’d think that with a parent like the NYT with its state of the art email headline service, they’d get the idea, but their lackluster effort merely reinforces your comments about how web challenged they seem to be.

  9. Lisa

    The Globe has to win in the suburbs to survive, and they’d do that better if they could say: every single day your town will be mentioned in our paper. Sometimes it’s weeks between mentions of my town. Why should I buy it? Local’s good, but being local for Boston probably won’t bring in the advertisers with the serious bank. That’s why conglomerates and investors are dumping major metros — like the Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, Minneapolis Star Tribune.

  10. Tish Grier

    Dan…I’m really surprised at your “minimal adult suprevision” remark when we have such wonderful examples in Michael Hiltzik and Lee Siegel on how journalists *can’t* and perhaps *shouldn’t be trusted* with blogs. At least not until they learn, from bloggers, how to handle social media correctly.Journalists don’t necessarily have a lock on maturity at any level of reporting or writing either. A degree in journalism doesn’t make one a stellar writer. It gives one a foundation. It’s life, a sense of language, and many other ephemeral traits *added* to a college degree that makes one of a particular profession.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Tish: Journalists whose work can’t be posted without heavy editing are not going to be hired. I’m not making a philosophical point, I’m just stating a simple reality.

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