The news miasma hits New Orleans

The death of the newspaper industry has arrived

Future journalism, reporters doggedly pursuing the news on their own or in small clusters

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The United States has lost nearly one-third of its major city newspapers in the past 72 years, and another has just buckled and gone under, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The loss of the newspaper, in a city where one-third of adults have no Internet access, triggered a lengthy article in the CS Monitor, “Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?”, with 23 lengthy comments when I last looked.

Sure, there are newspapers out there and they will survive, albeit maybe without print versions and usually with an owner who can absorb continual losses, for few are making money.

The NY Times, despite years of red ink, is unlikely to fold tomorrow and now functions as a kind of national US daily, as does the Huffington Post, both of which rely heavily on news agencies.

None of the agencies report on the local level: stories by AP or UPI from Geneva are picked up sparingly in Switzerland, but will be carried by US news outlets as the gospel truth from Geneva; where is the other, local voice that brings balance and local angles to their stories?

The same goes for Seattle and San Francisco and now New Orleans.

It matters because of news deserts

It wouldn’t matter more than any company or industry going under, except that the Internet doesn’t really replace newspapers, despite the massive increase in the volume of news, broadly defined.

The Monitor, citing a number of studies, worries that the death of newspapers is creating news deserts. Citizens may know what’s  happening in Washington, London and Damascus, but research seems to show they are often clueless when it comes to their own towns, once a newspaper dies.

Let’s just say it: it’s time to bury our local newspapers

For 10-plus years I’ve been hearing, and occasionally writing, about dying newspapers. Let’s just cut the life support; the time has come.

What do we make of this, though, when we live in a country where we’re foreigners, so our sense of civic duty is diluted or non-existent? As newspapers disappear, what are we doing to replace them, not for our world or home country news, but for our knowledge of what goes on in the place where we live? And if civic duty isn’t driving us to get local news, what is?

Making sense of our smaller worlds

When I moved to Paris several years ago I was desperate to try to make sense of the French, and reading Le Monde didn’t do it. I read a scrappy, lively weekly newspaper in English. It’s gone under and while there are lots of “hi, welcome to Paris” web sites, I wouldn’t want to count on them to help me build, over time, a sense of who the French are and why France ticks as it does.

Ditto in Switzerland, which is part of why I founded

The sad truth is that despite many small-scale efforts to keep local, community newspapers alive and healthy, overall, there are no visibly successful new models, and that includes the web.

Everyone lives in a community, everyone needs to feel they belong. Local social media have tried to fill that gap, and while they’ve been good for the emotional side, helping us avoid a sense of isolation, they’ve created the opposite of a news desert, a kind of news jacuzzi, with hundreds of bubbles of information, few of them with solid underpinnings. For every forum question with a correct answer there is at least one and often several with mis-information that bubbles away, taking on a digital life of its own. It’s a postulate of the Internet that bad postings never die.

Social media and the sticky art of candy news

One solution, but it hasn’t really worked, is for social media and other web sites that sell services or products to add news. I’m not talking about Facebook fans reposting, I’m talking about such sites trying to be the source of news in the first place.

Social media sites that add news are mostly just stirring it, picking up a bit here and a bit there, soup-chef style, rewording it to avoid copyright issues, but not actually checking facts and talking to sources, which is what real journalists do. They are not creating news, or when they try to create it, they create candy news: sweeteners to make their sites sticky (visitors return) because transient populations of foreigners come and go and have little loyalty, and you can’t sell ads with that.

Candy news tends to be mainly celebrity stories, robberies and drug busts, the emotional pullers about the cost of housing and job world surveys (bosses paid too much, foreigners treated poorly). There’s nothing wrong with that kind of news, and I don’t want to diss the candy industry either, but as a steady diet, it’s pretty poor.

The solution is to have more, not fewer journalists, but if there aren’t any newspapers, where are they going to work? Radio and TV are part of the picture, but they’ll never be the whole show and without transcripts they don’t provide useful, easily searchable archives for a community’s news.

How will journalists be trained? And how do we know who is a journalist and who is a wannabe?

The newspaper is dead: long live the journalist

Here’s my suggestion: newspapers are dead, or if they aren’t, they are really, really on the way out, and what should replace them is simply journalists, sometimes working in groups, often working alone. Before the Internet made rapid individual research possible, this wasn’t a viable option. Today it is.

But it means journalism professional organizations, public relations people as well as media counters who compile stats for the advertising industry will need to acknowledge that the game has changed radically. Forget the press conferences, the long and rambling press releases, accreditation based on a decades-old media title’s reputation, and numbers of readers/visitors/viewers that are inflated by technology tricks.

A few examples exist, notably TomDispatch in the US, which has a strong political bent. It’s survived for 11 years in part thanks to grant money. The Knight Community News Network in the US now has a database of 1,000 community web sites, many of them created by single journalists.

Seasoned reporters, value for money

The Monitor’s article offers a useful reminder that US newspapers traditionally inform readers but also encourage civic engagement, using “seasoned reporters” to make sense of local happenings. Reporters who know the ropes, who have editors with long experience in one place and who are good at ferreting out correct information. Journalists of that calibre need time to do their work and to help train others.

The journalists will need subscribers or donors to have some income, but without all the overhead of today’s mainstream media, supporting them would be very good value for money.

Here’s how we will know them: a high percentage of original material, acknowledgement by other reputable journalists, professional behaviour and ultimately, a public that keeps following them because they have credibility. The tricky part is measuring the fans.

Public relations people, advertisers: you’ll need a new approach, too, please

PR teams and advertisers will need to be more creative to find ways to work with journalists, who can’t spend their time selling ad space or attending parties if they are going to create good news streams.

The CS Monitor story also points to the ages-old need to have a check on the dodgy dealings of politicians, but the scaling down of newspapers and their ultimate disappearance also bares another need. Truth is a wobbly creature that needs more than one arm to hold it up and help it walk.

Investigative journalism is one of the romantic myths in the media world, and solo journalists will be tempted by it. While it is necessary, you also need boring old local journalism to keep adrenalin- and power-loving investigative reporters honest. The temptation to save the world through journalism and bend the facts to suit can be as great as the temptation to use a political job for personal gain.

It’s all about competition, folks

As we move to a ratty new world of single operators, aka journalists, we’ll need to find a way to make sure we can trust them.

In short, we need competition and several voices, experienced journalists who know how to keep each other honest.