Most-read, or most-reviled?

William Lobdell, who previously wrote a trenchant and sadly accurate critique of the state of papers in general and the LA Times in particular, has looked at the “Most popular” feature at local web sites and decided the list of stories indicates that there’s no future for news online.

I think he needs to take a deep breath and consider what’s really bugging him. Is it that people don’t care about news? Or is it that they don’t care about what he thinks is the right news?

For 12 years I studied the logs of what people were reading locally (at baltimoresun.com), and for the most part, the results are heartening.

People want exactly what local news organizations are set up to best provide for them: local news and sports. There will be the occasional outlier about Britney or Clay or some heinous and gruesome murder in another state, but most of what rises to the top of daily, monthly and yearly readership patterns is the bread-and-butter journalism that most newspeople say they care most about.

So why’s William upset

The top-viewed stories don’t reflect the work of 600-plus journalists busting their asses around the world.

He’s right. A dispatch from South Africa or Tibet in the local paper’s web site isn’t exactly going to drive big numbers. But report on a local crime spree or a controversial piece of local legislation and you can almost hear the page-view counters clicking loudly.

This is a good thing. Local readers want local news primarily. They certainly expect their local news web site to have all the national and world news, in case they need it, but that’s not why readers go to latimes.com or baltimoresun.com. They’re there for the news that matters most to them locally. CNN.com and wsj.com are just a click away and do it better anyway. But the one thing they can’t do well – the one thing local newspapers still have, for now – is local news.

It’s not that the readers don’t appreciate the efforts of the newsroom. It’s just that they appreciate the efforts a whole lot more when what makes it into print is locally relevant, unique and useful.

Did news media fail us at a critical moment?

Two clear thinkers about journalism reach a similar conclusion: at best, the mainstream media contributed little to the understanding of the current economic situation. At worst, they repeated the uncritical reporting of the so-called “March to War” in 2002-2003 and added to the panic state.

Here’s Howard Owens:

What you rarely found or heard was any serious questioning of whether the crisis was anywhere near the proportion George W. Bush said it was, or if the bailout was really necessary, or if the bailout would work, or if, maybe, the bailout might make things actually worse.

It could be argued that the American people, who pressured representatives to reject the bailout, saw through the clamor and clouds, but if you spend time reading comments on newspaper web sites, angry constituents reacted more viscerally than logically.  If you support the reform, you should be concerned that the lack of depth in news coverage also failed to clearly communicate why the bailout was necessary and wise.

And here’s Jeff Jarvis:

I’m reminded of Bob Garfield’s chaos scenario for advertising, in which he argued that the old media world would crumble before the new media world was ready for marketers and advertising dollars would fall into the crevice between. That is what is happening with our political and financial and industrial and journalistic leadership. The old is crumbling fast — and angry voters yesterday helped push it over the cliff. But what now?

A daily folds

A very wan “Yay”

I just collected thirty-four fake dollars by correctly forecasting that this would be the year that a daily paper would shut down.

Jeff Jarvis posted the question a while back on Hubdub. It’s just been settled with the shuttering of the New York Sun.

This is not a contest I’d hoped to win.

Added for clarity: Jeff’s question talks about a daily with circulation of 50,000. I believe he meant paid circulation, but the question is not explicit on this point. Wikipedia: “…according to April 2007 article in The Nation, its [the Sun's] own audit indicates that “the Sun is selling 13,211 hard copies a day and giving away more than 85,000.”

A right-sized newspaper

At my local Starbucks this morning, I noticed this:

It’s one sheet of newsprint, folded to about six-inches square, focused on one topic, published once a week, distributed free.

To a non-print reading public, this may be the perfect newspaper.

To be fair, this is probably not where our local papers are headed, but it is a step in the right direction. After all, what’s the number-one reason people give for canceling a newspaper subscription? Not enough time to read. A typical metro daily has hundreds of entry points and dozens of topics.

The Good Sheet has one topic and dozens of entry points, presented as a quick primer on key issues for the upcoming U.S. election. It’s hardly a purely objective vehicle, but the issue I picked up – on immigration – attempted to focus more on facts than cant.

But what interests me more than the content is the form. Designed to be a quick-read for when you’re waiting for your latte or as a conversation-starter for the table-hogs, The Good Sheet makes it incredibly easy to dive into a single topic. Imagine if a local news organization – paper, tv station, talk radio program – took a similar approach to offer hooks into issues of local interest.

There’s decent web presence for the Good Sheet as well (mercifully free of the assault of headlines you’ll find on most news sites), though I don’t like how the only response to clicking the “discuss” link is a message that says “You need to be logged in in order to do that.” Also, the paper could benefit from suggested links/sources for further reading, but all-in-all, I think this is a worthy print experiment.

And, it’s sponsored, by Starbucks, of course, which underwrites the distribution, but also by Lenovo, which has a full-page ad that, smartly, picks up the theme of education and empowerment. So, as Navin Johnson would say, it’s a profit deal.

Any other examples of micro-editing in the print world?

Imagine if a mainstream site acknowledged the existence of blogs

Tip of the hat to the folks at bthesite.com for including prominent links out to Baltimore based and Baltimorecentric blogs in the main well of the recently redesigned site.

(Disclosure: I helped create bthesite.com and argued loudly for the inclusion of local blogs)

The local blogs have been there since day one, but were somewhat hidden in the left rail. Now, they’re pushed out front and center.

It’s great to see a major-market news organization showing signs that it realizes it lives in a wider web.

A peek behind the curtain at Curley’s lasvegassun.com

In a post that seems to have largely gone unnoticed, Rob Curley wrote a detailed summary last week of what goes into a typical day’s work at the innovative lasvegassun.com. The paper itself is just a few pages – with no ads – inserted into the competing Las Vegas Review-Journal. So the web site has a lot of ground to cover on its own.

A local newspaper filled with lots of local journalism that matters and no ads. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Hell, it’s probably the craziest thing any of us have seen in regards to local media.

One of the things that we’ve found since being at the Las Vegas Sun is that a lot of that amazing journalism that works so well in the print edition (it’s essentially a kick-ass “A” section of all-enterprise local and state stories) doesn’t always translate to big online traffic numbers.

Because of that, our new-media journalists and editors have a ton of focus on writing lots of breaking news stories and essentially the other sections of a typical newspaper (metro, sports, entertainment/lifestyle). Those are all stories that because of the JOA, the Sun just doesn’t cover in print like a typical newspaper.

What that means, with the exception of all of the crazy alternate delivery and multimedia we do, is our new-media news team is about as old school as it gets.

It’s a long piece, rich with detail and examples. If you’re at all interested in the intersection of traditional and digital journalism, there’s much of value here.

Hyperlocal won’t wait

Newspapers and TV stations have been throwing around the hyperlocal buzzword for years. Some have actually done something with it and launched web sites focused on tight geographic areas. But many of these are thinly-resourced and dependent on user-generated content that’s been slow to come.

So what happens when a media-adept resident of a neighborhood looks around and realizes that there’s an opportunity unmet by the local publisher or broadcaster?

In Cory Bergman’s case, he and his wife launch a neighborhood news site that winds up netting more readers than the local print community paper.

Bergman, who runs the excellent Lost Remote media blog, describes how he used off-the-rack tools to create what he calls his own hyperlocal experiment:

Soon after we moved to the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard last year, my wife Kate reserved MyBallard.com after we noticed there was no daily news source dedicated to the community of 35,000. We rolled out a standard WordPress blog and started writing about news in the neighborhood. We added an events calendar, restaurant guide and a forum, too.

The lesson: There’s an entire subset of people who are absolutely comfortable with the tools of content creation who, when they see a need for news or communication, don’t wait for someone else or some vast media company to create it for them.

How is your neighborhood being served by your local newspaper? Is there an opportunity to do more? Have you already reserved the URL?