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52. Newspapers and Community Influence (Nov 2008)

52. Newspapers and Community Influence (Nov 2008)

“A newspaper is lumber made malleable. It is ink made into words and pictures. It is conceived, born, grows up and dies of old age in a day.” –Jim Bishop

We once again arrive in the present (or at least the recent past) to an article in the American Journalism Review on, what else, how newspapers can survive the sea of changes they are swimming in. In it, writer Philip Meyer states,

“I still believe that a newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.”

Which is true. Newspapers are not only the most “trusted” sources for local news, they are typically the only source of local news, especially news that covers public affairs. National papers and wire services have little reason to cover local politics, which is why, as we saw earlier, that type of reporting would be most vulnerable to the loss of the print paper.

I don’t agree with his take on attractiveness to advertisers. Advertisers go where the eyeballs are. Right now, those eyeballs are online. Even for classifieds, which used to be a safe source of income for newspapers, sites like Craiglists are making it much more convenient to go online. I think there should be a premium on advertising placed in print, but the case that needs to be made will be based on conversions rather than trust. This will only become more true as people grow more comfortable with their online options.

The article goes onto state,

By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating.

What he brings up is the dual-edged sword that newspapers wield. On one hand, he’s right, newspapers are capable of providing deeper, more in-depth coverage of events than most bloggers can. When you separate out the regurgitated fluff pieces, what you are left with are the type of investigative stories that online media has a difficult time matching. However, all of this good reporting takes time, time that usually means that a newspaper story is old by the time it hits the stands. This latency, the very thing that allows newspapers to provide quality content, is what is driving many people to get their news online.

Newspapers can and should commoditize their content, but maybe the newspaper itself is not the place to do it.

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