Shopping for readers: a proposal for local news

As she often does, Amy Gahran got me thinking today, this time about the average-at-best job local news organizations do covering consumer news. She asks whether news orgs could focus on shopping year-round, and not just on Black Friday, to do a better job of offering utility to readers.

The short answer: yes. The long answer, though, needs to also address the nagging question of why newspapers aren’t doing this already.

Ultimately, I think the problem is how we define what journalism is. And under currently-accepted definitions, helping shoppers find deals isn’t up there with Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable. The irony is – especially in our current economy – data-driven consumer reporting could be of incredible value to local communities.

To figure why this is – why What’s On Sale is relegated to the commercial side of the house – let’s step back for a second and look at what newspaper do cover.

Is this journalism?

I think we’d all agree that covering the intricacies of local government counts as journalism. Certainly tallying the numbers and types of crimes – whether through narrative journalism or in a database – is journalism as well. Grading a movie? Tracking baseball stats? Charting the financial performance of local companies? All journalism.

But what about sales and deals? What if news organizations reported on that? Where are the best shoe sales? Which grocery chain has the cheapest milk? Which stores have the worst parking lots or the shortest check-out times? Is this journalism?

And what about auto mechanics? Who can you trust? Who specializes in Mini Cooper repair? What’s the going rate for an oil change? Is this journalism?

These examples may not read like dream assignments, even for someone fresh out of J-school. But they could very well be exactly the information that people in our market are looking for, but can’t find. Anywhere.

So, if it is journalism, why not do it?

So the question is simple, but provocative: if it’s just as difficult to report on the machinations of a complex government bureaucracy as it is to scope out the best deals this week at Big Box Mall (both can’t be effectively automated and both require reporting) why do news organizations choose to do one and not the other? And are we sure that readers would agree with that choice?

I’d argue that if newspapers want to grow readership and revenue, they to do both. They need to think even more broadly about what they mean when they talk about “reporting.” And they need to think of new and more useful ways to deliver that information that gets to the user when she wants it and needs it. This flips the existing reporting hierarchy upside-down:

Imagine a team of reporters whose job it is to cover consumer spending – arguably one of the most important drivers of our local economies and something all of our readers spend many hours doing – from the point-of-view of the consumer. And not in the traditional way, through columns and slice-of-life narratives, but with real-world data that will make it easier for people in our markets to live their lives. How surprising and welcome would that be?

And imagine a structure that would allow for data to come from multiple sources – reporting shoe-leather, data-feeds from participating retailers, reports submitted by readers – and distributed at the moment of greatest need: when a reader is at the mall, in the supermarket or in the car.

For a significant portion of the local audience, this is exactly the kind of high-utility, relevant information they need and that a large, organized newsroom is uniquely qualified to provide.

If only we’d agree that it’s journalism.

Who’s doing this well? Any examples of any US newspapers marshalling significant forces against retail data reporting?

The revenue slide gets steeper

Alan Mutter was paying attention when The NAA tried to quietly dump its latest revenue numbers on the afternoon before Thanksgiving. And what he saw was grim, including continued falloff in all categories, and the second quarter in a row of declining interactive numbers.

The performance in the third quarter was affected only partially by the worldwide financial panic that froze the credit markets in mid-September, throttling the already waning demand for hiring, auto sales and home purchases.

The outlook for the final period of the year is worse, when the three classified verticals are likely to experience the full impact of the economic meltdown.

So it looks like I’ll need to update this chart I created at the end of Q2, showing constant-dollar print revenue at newspapers dropping below 1982 levels. When I made that estimate in September, I said 2008 print revenue would hit $36 billion, a number that needs to come down by at least a half billion (applying 2007 Q4 decline percentages, clearly an optimistic projection), if not a whole lot more.

Jarvis offers a year of good ideas, summarized in one post

Yesterday, 140 characters at a time, I hacked into Sam Zell and his far-ranging interview with Portfolio as signifying a man who is 1. very good at identifying the newspaper industry’s problems but (and this extends to his key advisor Lee Abrams) 2. woefully inept at articulating real responses to the crisis (other than to cut costs, which is necessary, and to add visual flash to the papers, which may or may not help), simply because as non-participants in where news is going (digital), he and Lee can’t begin to imagine its future.

On the flip side of that coin is Jeff Jarvis, who has been taking flak of late for being a supposed journalism hater, but who, in my opinion, has been a steady source of ideas over the years – mostly solid, a few shaky – for where we might try to steer this battleship.

A few days back, he gathered many of those ideas into one post. It’s step-by-step instructions on one (informed) guy’s recipe for saving the business:

Note well that none of this is new. The essential functions of journalism – reporting, watching, sharing, answering, explaining – and its verities – factualness, completeness, fairness, timeliness, relevance – are eternal, but the means of performing them are multiplying magnificently. That is why I so enjoy teaching journalism, because we need no longer pick a medium and its tools for a career but can select them every time we need to tell a story – and because journalism is no longer about preservation (it never should have been) but is instead about change and growth.

Could journalism die? Yes, but I have faith and optimism that it will survive, evolve, and grow. I believe there will be a growing market demand for journalism; I know there is a growing need.

Journalism doesn’t need THINK PIECES!! It needs solid thinking. Like this.

A cry from the heartland: “Don’t let newspapers die”

Thanks to Journalism Iconoclast (Pat Thornton), I just found the “Don’t Let Newspapers Die” Facebook “cause” page.

My first thought, especially after reading point #3 (“Newspapers are cool!”) was that this was a big fat furry sock-puppet created by the NAA. But instead, it appears to be a genuine effort from an Indiana mom. Who loves newspapers and thinks they’re cool. And hopes you’ll buy a copy to help save a journalist’s job.

I love journalism (as much as anyone can be said to “love” a craft or a skill or, even, a calling). Journalists are underpaid and undervalued by a society that often forgets that they help keep this Democracy thing moving.

But I’m not so sure I feel the same way about newspapers.

For several hundred years, newspapers were the most efficient way to transmit news and information. Cheap. Fast. Disposable. In many ways, the newspaper was the internet long before the httprotocol came along. It was a printed database, filtered for our needs by trusted agents (AKA editors) who did their best to assemble in the daily pages what we needed to know. Or at least what they thought we needed to know.

But do we need newspapers anymore – in paper form? I think the jury’s still out.

If you’re surer of the answer, you should check out their Facebook page and join the 10,000+ members of the group.

Print less to save the paper and the business

This is just about the most challenging and possibly true sentence I’ve read in weeks:

Two fat newspapers each week and a robust web platform will have more impact than five or six skinny papers and a site that’s not foremost in the newsroom’s mind.

Martin Langeveld, who blogs at News After Newspapers, makes the case that local newspapers are on the road to ruin if they continue to publish every day in print. His recommendation: Print two big papers weekly, on Thursday and Saturday. Profits do shrink under his new model, but at the end of five years, he says they’re much more robust than they would have been following the existing 7-day model to its slow death.

I do hope he posts his spreadsheets, though, so we can all poke and prod at the assumptions.

People like Langeveld are reinventing an industry, idea by idea.

Read the entire proposal here.

Let’s put the government in charge of journalism!

Writing in The Mediashift Idea Lab on pbs.org, David Sasaki wins the award for the longest argument yet in favor of government funding of the failing journalism business.

I try not to get into outright arguments here, but this seems to me to be a really, really bad idea. You can’t micro-manage every single industry with bailouts and new taxes to support them. If US automakers, for instance, can’t build cars that people want, then they should contract, combine or even, in the most extreme outcome, disappear. We won’t have any shortage of vehicles, as better-run companies slip in to fill the void. That’s cold, true, but that’s also the marketplace in action.

Same goes for journalism. If newspapers have created the perfect storm of outdated content and revenue models at the very moment when user consumption patterns are changing radically, then that’s a bright neon sign that it’s time to change. Not that it’s time to find a deep-pocketed government benefactor to allow things to operate as they always have.

But don’t tell that to David Sasaki. He’s thinking about the National Journalism Foundation, funded by the federal government. Which, as we all know, is really you and me:

The National Journalism Foundation would essentially serve as a re-invented Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Annual funding should increase from $200 million to $3 billion. (One percent of the total cost of the Iraq War; four percent of the federal bank bailout.) Similar to the NSF, the National Journalism Foundation would regularly award grants to individuals, organizations, and institutions that propose projects which serve to better inform the American public about their communities, government, nation, and the rest of the world. PBS and NPR would, of course, continue to receive funding, but other organizations and projects like EveryBlock and FiveThirtyEight.com, which provide important information to the public but don’t attract advertising revenue, would also be considered for funding.

As described, it sounds sort of enticing. Let’s fund the the cool startups. Let’s tax those “telecommunications giants” (who will, no doubt, totally absorb these new taxes out of the kindness of their bleeding hearts) and give the money away to a super-sized Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Yes, let’s. And Popsicles for everyone.

Or, publishers could look down the long-barrel of changing realities and change in ways that will allow them to continue in the business of informing people while still making a profit. But they surely won‘t do that if the Gravy Train is about to pull into town, just like GM won’t change if it’s guaranteed a future through taxpayer bailouts.

And what’s really the worst thing about this? Live for 5-10 years under such a system, and the bulk of the press will be dependent on the government for funding, essentially defanging an already gap-toothed watchdog.

Sorry, I’m not buying it. Journalism is currently screwed, but that’s a good thing. It’s finally forcing some real change. Let’s not screw that up by taking away the only incentive they have to change: fear.

There is great hope for journalism in people like David Cohn

Recent posts have been especially dark on my part. Which isn’t entirely representative. I believe that journalism – especially that journalism practiced by the organizations that today publish daily metro papers – is essential, and can have a very bright future if we stop thinking about the last 150 years and focus on maybe just the next 10.

And let the smart people lead.

For instance, people like David Cohn, creator of Spot.us.

I am writing this post physically exhausted but emotionally charged. I feel like a lion. As if I could talk down the curmudgeonist of curmudgeons. Not because I know the answer(s) – but because if we can’t even talk those people down, then we might as well just crawl into a whole and give up. F- that! We are moving forward with or without them.

The answers are out there in every startup (journalism focused or otherwise), community, blog, micro-blogging, micro-financing and CMS on the web. The internet is ours for the taking if we only reach out and grab it with as many hands as possible.

Breathe deeply. This stuff is good for what ails you.