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.
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.