If you are a journalism major at a university other than Northeastern, please look the other way for a moment.
Placeblogger is looking for two interns at its office in Cambridge. Headed by Lisa Williams, the project tracks local blogs across the country and around the world. It’s cutting-edge stuff, and you’ll learn a lot about the future of journalism.
Having recently regaled us with the flawed tale of a community newspaper that refuses to publish its content online, New York Times media columnist David Carr is back — this time with a suggestion that what we need is “an iTunes for news.”
Carr’s thesis is that news organizations can no longer afford to give away their content. But, as he acknowledges in his lament about the arrested state of online advertising, they’re not giving it away — or, at least, they don’t mean to. Rather, they’re failing to sell enough advertising to pay for their journalism. That’s a problem, but it’s not the same problem.
Carr knows as well as anyone that a good deal of what you pay for when you buy a newspaper doesn’t contribute anything to the bottom line. You’re paying for paper, presses, maintenance to those presses, distribution and — yes — the salaries of some good, hard-working people who won’t be needed if and when we move into a Web-only environment.
Given that, news organizations should theoretically be able to come up with an online version that pays for itself, or even turns a profit, without charging for access. That’s what national and local television newscasts do, and the model worked even better some years ago, when those newscasts were deeper and meatier than they are today. That’s what National Public Radio and its affiliate stations do, raising money directly from listeners in the form of contributions and from corporations in the form of advertising — uh, sorry, “underwriting.”
The problem with online news today is threefold: (1) sites like Craigslist and Monster.com have taken away much of the advertising that news orgs might have been able to sell; (2) the recession has halted the growth of online (and print) advertising; and (3) newspaper companies are staggering under so much debt that they need a rate of return that would be unrealistic even in a more favorable economic environment.
I’ve learned a lot over the past few years from Lisa Williams, who founded H2otown to cover her community of Watertown and now heads up Placeblogger to track community Web sites around the world. One of the most important is this: the future belongs to the small and the swift, and journalists — especially young journalists — ought to think of their careers the way tech workers do. Today’s journalists will probably live a rather nomadic existence, moving from start-up to start-up as we all try to figure out where the news business is going and where there might actually be money to be made.
Two cases in point.
Last week Politicker.com, a promising project whose goal was to expand into a network of 50 state-based sites, more or less went out of business, cutting back to just New York and New Jersey. The Massachusetts site is gone (though still up). Its blogger-journalist, Jeremy Jacobs, has taken a job at The Hill.
Politicker’s national managing editor, James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for the Boston Globe’s Boston.com site, and who is himself a pioneering online journalist, is out of a job, although I can’t imagine he won’t get scooped up by someone very soon.
I’m not sure what happened. It could be that Politicker’s business model — getting advocacy groups (i.e., lobbyists) to buy ads in order to reach the intended audience of inside players — was not realistic. It could be that the model was brilliant but the timing was bad. In any case, the cycle of destruction and creation continues.
Because, this week, the long-anticipated GlobalPost.com makes its debut. Headed by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott, the site is aimed at covering international news at a time when most traditional news organizations are cutting back.
It’s hard to imagine a more heartening development in journalism. And, yes, David Carr would rightly point out that GlobalPost plans some subscription-based services.
In fact, there may be a place for some pay services in online journalism, although I suspect it will be rare. Carr cites the Wall Street Journal, but people will pay for the specialized financial information to which a Journal online subscription gives them access. Sorry, but the Times, good as it is, doesn’t offer that.
Likewise, some people will pay to have their favorite newspapers downloaded onto a device like the Amazon Kindle, a step up in convenience and readability in comparison to the typical laptop.
As we move rapidly into the post-newspaper era, we’re going to see all kinds of experiments — mostly free, some subscription-based, most of which will fail, a few of which will succeed and serve as models for the industry.
The one thing that won’t work — and I think Carr would acknowledge this if it were put to him directly — is the notion that newspapers as we have come to know them will somehow be able to charge for their everyday content. That horse left the barn 10 years ago, and it’s not coming back.
Students already know — or, least, they should know — that their Facebook and MySpace profiles can and will be used against them when they’re looking for a job. Now Ross Kerber reports in the Boston Globe that personal information posted to employment services such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com is ending up in the hands of marketers.
Which has me thinking about LinkedIn, a professional social-networking site that I joined about a year ago at the invitation of citizen-journalism pioneer Lisa Williams. As best as I can tell, I haven’t gotten any sales calls due to my LinkedIn profile. But I suppose it’s only a matter of time. We’re all living in the fishbowl now.
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.
One of the more interesting experiments in citizen journalism had its official unveiling this week. Placeblogger, a site put together by Watertown blogger Lisa Williams, is an attempt to link to every local blog in the world, and to make some sense of this growing phenomenon.
What’s a placeblog? It’s a term coined by Williams to describe a Web site that covers a community. A leading example would be her own site, H2otown, which is devoted to all things Watertown. (I profiled Williams and H2otown for CommonWealth Magazine a year ago.)
Placeblogger, a joint project of Dan Gillmor’s Center for Citizen Media and Jay Rosen’s PressThink, is a site that offers a directory of every placeblog Williams can find (she thinks there may be as many as 1,000), as well as her own efforts to make order out of chaos. Williams has said her goal is to establish Placeblogger as the “Romenesko of citizen journalism.”
In addition to being able to search for a placeblog near you, you can check out her top 10. New Jersey’s Baristanet, logically enough, leads the list; but anyone other than Williams would have included H2otown somewhere. The left rail is given over to “Placeblogger Journal” — currently a roundup of placeblogs in the New Orleans area — and “Placeblogger Headlines,” an automated feed of the good, the bad and the ridiculous.
The middle of the screen features a blog by Williams, which right now is fronting a commentary on Kearny on the Web, a placeblog in Kearny, N.J., that posted a video of a local teacher caught denying evolution and damning his non-Christian students to hell. The right rail has tools that let you find — or add — a placeblog.
“There are really way more of these than anyone knows,” Williams said at the Center for Citizen Media’s “unconference” at Harvard last August, where the Placeblogger project was first announced.
Are placebloggers journalists? Well, yes and no. And, of course, it depends on the blog. Williams defines a placeblog as being “about the lived experience of a place.” The blog may “commit random acts of jouranlism,” she adds, but it’s not a newspaper — not even an electronic version of a newspaper.
In November, at the unveiling of the beta site at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Williams described Placeblogger as “one-stop shopping for what citizen journalism really looks like — kiss stale arguments and useless theorizing goodbye.”
Among her more intriguing ideas is to develop a standard method of “geotagging” so that it will be easier to find placeblogs. There could be a placeblog right in your city or town, but if you don’t already know about it, you could have a hard time finding it. Geotagging, in Williams’ view, could help placebloggers sell advertising as well.
Williams’ take on placeblogs sometimes seems overly modest — she is a self-described newspaper junkie, and she’s always careful to point out that she doesn’t want to see placeblogs replace newspapers.
Yet occasionally her larger hopes shine through. Last semester she spoke to my Journalism of the Web students, and talked about placeblogging as an entrepreneurial opportunity for young journalists. Why not? When I was a recent J-school graduate, friends and I talked about several ideas for launching community papers. We didn’t do so mainly because it was too expensive.
By contrast, you can launch a placeblog virtually for free, with the hope that, eventually, you can sell enough advertising to make a living. I would think that an aggressive young journalist who knows how to write, and can post photos, video and sound, could give her chain-owned community weekly fits. And there’s no need to settle for just “random acts of journalism,” either.
Placeblogger is a fascinating project, and well worth keeping a close eye on.
Photo: Lisa Williams announces the Placeblogger project at the Center for Citizen Media “unconference” last August. Photo by Steve Garfield; reproduced under a Creative Commons license.