There’s no reason to think that a Nextdoor-like service would have saved local news

Every so often, media observers berate the newspaper business for letting upstarts encroach on their turf rather than innovating themselves.

Weirdly enough, I’ve heard a number of people over the years assert that newspapers should have unveiled a free classified-ad service in order to forestall the rise of Craigslist — as if giving away classified ads was going to help pay for journalism. As of 2019, Craigslist employed a reported 50 full-time people worldwide. The Boston Globe and its related media properties, Stat News and Boston.com employ about 300 full-time journalists. As they say, do the math.

Sometimes you hear the same thing about Facebook, which is different enough from journalism that you might as well say that newspapers should have moved into the food-services industry. Don Graham’s legendary decision to let Mark Zuckerberg walk away from an agreed-upon investment in Facebook changed the course of newspaper history — the Graham family could have kept The Washington Post rather than having to sell to Jeff Bezos. As a bonus, someone with a conscience would have sat on Facebook’s board, although it’s hard to know whether that would have mattered. But journalism and social media are fundamentally different businesses, so it’s not as though there was any sort of natural fit.

More recently, I’ve heard the same thing about Nextdoor, a community-oriented social network that has emerged as the news source of record for reporting lost cats and suspicious-looking people in your neighborhood. I like our Nextdoor and visit it regularly. But when it comes to discussion of local news, I find it less useful than a few of our Facebook groups. Still, you hear critics complain that newspapers should have been there first.

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Well, maybe they should have. But how good a business is it, really? Like Craigslist, social media thrives by having as few employees as possible. Journalism is labor-intensive. Over the years I’ve watched the original vision for Wicked Local — unveiled, if I’m remembering correctly, by the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth — shrink from a genuinely interesting collection of local blogs and other community content into a collection of crappy websites for GateHouse Media’s and now Gannett’s newspapers.

The original Boston.com was a vibrant experiment as well, with community blogs and all sorts of interesting content that you wouldn’t find in the Globe. But after the Globe moved to its own paywalled website, Boston.com’s appeal was pretty much shot, although it continues to limp along. For someone who wants a free regional news source, it’s actually not that bad. But the message, as with Wicked Local, is that maybe community content just doesn’t produce enough revenue to support the journalists we need to produce actual news coverage.

Recently Will Oremus of a Medium-backed website called OneZero wrote a lengthy piece about the rise of Nextdoor, which has done especially well in the pandemic. Oremus’ take was admirably balanced — though Nextdoor can be a valuable resource, especially in communities lacking real news coverage, he wrote, it is also opaque in its operations and tilted toward the interests of its presumably affluent users. According to Oremus, Nextdoor sites are available in about 268,000 neighborhoods across the world, and its owners have considered taking the company public.

There’s no question that Nextdoor is taking on the role once played by local newspapers. But is that because people are moving to Nextdoor or because local newspapers are withering away? As Oremus writes, quoting Emily Bell:

In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.

“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”

Look, I’m glad that Nextdoor is around. I’m glad that Patch is around, and in fact our local Patch occasionally publishes some original reporting. But there is no substitute for actual journalism — the hard work of sitting through local meetings, keeping an eye on the police and telling the story of the community. As inadequate as our local Gannett weekly is, there’s more local news in it than in any other source we have.

If local newspapers had developed Nextdoor and offered it as part of their journalism, would it have made a different to the bottom line? It seems unlikely — although it no doubt would have brought in somewhat more revenues than giving away free classifieds.

Nextdoor, like Facebook, makes money by offering low-cost ads and employing as few people as possible. It may add up to a lot of cash in the aggregate. At the local level, though, I suspect it adds up to very little — and, if pursued by newspapers, would distract from the hard work of coming up with genuinely sustainable business models.

How paywalls have revived the idea of the newspaper bundle

Jeff Bezos was right. Photo by Grant Miller for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

As newspapers have moved away from making their content freely available online, a lot of thinking that seemed forward-looking a few years ago needs to be re-examined. Near the top of the list is the future of the newspaper bundle — that combination of local, national and international news, sports, comics, the crossword puzzle, the school lunch menu and myriad other features that traditionally comprised a daily newspaper.

In the early years of online news, when it seemed reasonable to imagine that digital advertising could subsidize free journalism, the bundle was often described as a relic of the industrial age. Disparate content was brought together, according to this line of reasoning, not because it belonged in one place but because printing was a high-cost manufacturing enterprise. It was logical for the local newspaper to be a one-stop destination for all kinds of material. But with print receding into the past, readers could skip from a hyperlocal website for community news, to a dedicated sports site, to yet another site for comics and puzzles,

“The web wrecks horizontal integration,” wrote C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky in their influential 2012 report “Post-Industrial Journalism.” “Prior to the web, having a dozen good-but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication.”

But at a time when readers are once again being asked to pay for newspaper journalism, some sort of bundling is necessary. The days of regularly surfing among multiple free websites are drawing to a close. For any one newspaper to stand out as something to which readers will be willing to buy a subscription, it almost certainly has to offer a wide variety of content.

From the newspaper business’ point of view, the ideal reader would buy digital subscriptions to national, regional and local newspapers. But that’s asking a lot. The reality is that most people aren’t going to subscribe to any newspaper, and those who do are likely to choose one, maybe two. Which means that the newspaper needs to be all things to most people in a way that we thought was obsolete just a few years ago.

In early 2016 I interviewed Bill Marimow, the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, days after its billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, had donated the Inquirer and its related media properties to a nonprofit organization. (The Philadelphia story comprises a section in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”) The Inquirer was just getting ready to start charging for digital subscriptions. And I was struck by what Marimow told me he thought needed to be part of the daily mix.

“If you look at today’s paper,” he said, “you’ll see stories that represent the best of city news, Philadelphia suburbs, South Jersey, national and foreign.” I expressed some surprise at Marimow’s insistence on national and international news since the Inquirer relied almost exclusively on wire services for anything outside the Philadelphia area. His answer was that 90% of his readers did not read a national paper and thus relied on the Inquirer.

You see this at The Boston Globe, too. Before the internet began to take a toll on the newspaper business in the 1990s, the Globe — and many other large regional newspapers, including the Inquirer — had a number of U.S. and international bureaus. With the exception of a Washington bureau, those are all gone now. But the Globe continues to publish quite a bit of national and international news from wire services, both in print and online.

Ten years ago, that would have been described as old-media thinking. Now, with the Globe charging $30 a month for digital subscriptions, it makes a great deal of sense to position the paper as a single stop for most of its customers. After all, if the Globe forced its best readers to subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in order to get news from beyond the Boston area, there’s a real danger that they would decide to drop the Globe.

When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, he announced that he wanted to reinvigorate the traditional newspaper bundle. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said. “They will not pay for a story.” Bezos’ attitude seemed archaic for someone who had made his reputation as a tech visionary. One of the Post’s younger journalists, Timothy B. Lee, went so far as to disagree with his new boss in a piece headlined “Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back.”

“Trying to recreate the ‘bundle’ experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today,” Lee wrote. “In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.”

It turned out that Bezos was right and Lee was wrong — not because Lee was mistaken about how the web had changed news habits, but because paywalls were going up everywhere, thus forcing a change in those habits whether readers liked it or not. Under Bezos’ ownership, the Post’s digital bundle has led to profits and growth, re-establishing the paper as a serious competitor to the Times.

With Google and Facebook capturing the vast majority of digital advertising in recent years, paid content has become the last stand. It may not work for more than a handful of mostly national titles. But, if nothing else, paywalls have given new life to the idea of the bundle that has traditionally defined the general-interest newspaper.

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Emily Bell challenges Facebook’s New Media Order

Emily-Bell-R
Emily Bell

Journalism has lost control of its platforms and means of distribution. In many ways, that’s good, because it has brought to an end the monopoly journalists once held on the news and information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. We should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.

But the age of information gatekeepers did not end with the rise of the Internet. In fact, the lowering of the moat was only a temporary blip. Now we’re living in a new age of gatekeeping. Our masters are social media — and Facebook in particular, both because of its dominance and the way it manipulates what we see.

Last week Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, delivered an important speech at Oxford about the journalistic implications of social mediation. It is worth reading in full. Also worth reading is Mathew Ingram’s analysis. Just as earlier generations fretted over what made it (or didn’t make it) onto the nightly network newscasts, today we should be deeply concerned about the mysterious process that determines what we see or don’t see in our Facebook newsfeeds.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

The Daily was on the Internet — but not of the Internet

dailyRupert Murdoch this week killed off The Daily, the tablet-centric electronic newspaper that he unveiled nearly two years ago to great fanfare and even greater skepticism.

It’s no exaggeration to say this was one experiment that was dead on arrival. Very few observers believed there was a market for a middlebrow paid digital news product aimed at a general audience. And those few were proved wrong.

It so happens that The Daily died just as I was reading “Post-Industrial Journalism,” a new report by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The authors, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, argue that digital technology has ended the industrial model of journalism — an approach to news built around the industrial processes (printing plants, fleets of trucks and the like) needed to produce and distribute it. They credit the phrase “post-industrial journalism” to the redoubtable Doc Searls, who in 2001 defined it as “journalism no longer organized around the norms of proximity to the machinery of production.”

The problem with The Daily — or, at least, one of the problems — was that Murdoch followed the industrial model of news despite his reliance on post-industrial technology. The Daily was a centralized operation built around a daily cycle when it should have taken advantage of not being tied down to a print edition. It was essentially an electronic version of a print newspaper that offered none of the advantages of either format.

The Daily was not part of the broader Web. Social sharing was difficult if not impossible. The Daily was, well, a daily — it came out once a day, you downloaded it and that was that. No updating until the next day’s edition. At first, you could only read it on an iPad, although it eventually migrated to other tablets and to the iPhone.

With print, people are willing to put up with some of these shortcomings because of the convenience and aesthetics of ink on paper, which still haven’t lost their appeal. An online news source simply has to offer more. The Daily was on the Internet, but it wasn’t of the Internet. Its demise was inevitable.