The battle between the Boston Globe and GateHouse Media over the Globe’s hyperlocal Newton site isn’t really about the possibility that the Globe will grab more content from the Newton Tab than fair use — or fair play — should allow.
Rather, it’s over a more fundamental issue that will likely be a key to survival as struggling news organizations seek to reinvent themselves: Who will control the virtual front door to Newton, as well as to other cities and towns?
At first glance, Boston.com Newton strikes me as attractive, well-organized and generous. By generous, I mean the blog-like feature that fills the center well is a nice mix of content from the Globe, the Tab and local blogs. Just as important, the items give you just a bare taste of the story — if you have any interest at all, you’ll click through. So it seems likely that Boston.com will drive some traffic to the Tab, not to mention the blogs.
By combining content from different sources so seamlessly, Boston.com, at least for the moment, has leapfrogged ahead of the Tab’s Wicked Local Newton site. GateHouse’s Wicked Local sites, which debuted in Plymouth a few years ago, before there even was a GateHouse, were supposed to combine content from the local GateHouse paper with blogs and citizen journalism in order to be a one-stop community guide. That never quite panned out, although Wicked Local is stronger in some towns than in others.
Probably the least generous item on Boston.com Newton right now involves my friends at the Boston Phoenix. There’s a big photo of a plate of food, along with a headline that says, “Foodies: Phoenix reviews Hotel Indigo.” Follow the link, though, and you find a Globe blog item that summarizes the Phoenix review. You have to click again to get to the actual Phoenix review.
There’s a lot more to Boston.com Newton than the news blog. Readers can contribute to a wiki, discuss issues and send in photos. There’s a calendar of events, real-estate listings and local school data.
At the moment, at least, there is no RSS feed. That may change, though the site strikes me as ill-suited to reading via RSS, as it consists of many little items that require you to go off-site if you want to learn more. (Boston.com’s director of community publishing, Teresa Hanafin, makes exactly that point in a comment to the Garden City blog. And don’t miss GateHouse editor Greg Reibman’s hilarious retort.)
The Globe and GateHouse face different challenges.
The Globe, like all big regional papers, is caught in a squeeze. People who are interested mainly in national and international news are now getting it elsewhere, online. And though it’s often said that local is the future, it’s difficult for a big paper that covers all of Eastern Massachusetts to become local enough. Boston.com Newton, which is clearly intended as a prototype (note the “yourtown” in the URL), is an interesting way of overcoming the disadvantage of being a regional paper — and of attracting local advertisers who could never afford to buy space in the paper.
GateHouse, which publishes about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, is all about local, so it doesn’t have to reorient its mission. But its natural advantage in print doesn’t necessarily hold up online, because players as large as the Globe and as small as a few passionate activists can play on the same turf.
What’s going on in Newton will tell us a lot about the future of the newspaper business over the next few years. I hope both sides find a way to win.