Newspaper of the future

The New York Times in June published a long article in its business section headlined “The Newspaper of the Future: Taking the World Out of the World Wide Web” and focused on what is happening in Lawrence, Kan., with the local 20,000 circulation Journal-World. (In case you don’t have access to the Times’ archives, the article may still be found at the following link.)

The newspaper has made a major investment in its web site, and the article went into detail about the many innovations that are occurring there.

Lawrencians buying tickets for University of Kansas football games can visit the same site, LJWorld.com, and find photographs offering sightlines from each of Memorial Stadium’s 50,000 seats. Law aficionados can find transcripts of locally significant court cases posted on the site and participate in live, online chats debating the pros or cons of some cases – sometimes with experts who are involved in the proceedings.

A related Web site, lawrence.com, is aimed at college readers. It allows visitors to download tunes from the Wakarusa Music Festival, find spirited reviews of local bars and restaurants and plunge into a vast trove of blogs, including the Gay Kansan in China Blogger, who recently had his first “disgusting” experience with a woman, to the Born-Again Christian Blogger, who offers videotaped huzzahs to the Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Much of what is going on there now is the work of Rob Curley, well-known throughout the online media world as one of the foremost innovators in our field. (Curley, by the way, has since left Lawrence to go to Naples, Fla., to rejoin the publisher he was with in Topeka, Kan. It was in Topeka where Curley got to try out many of his ideas about newspapers could use the web.)

One of the most striking things about the Times article, however, is not what the newspaper is doing now but what the newspaper has a history of doing: innovation. The newspaper delved into cable television in the 1960s, long before others could see its potential.

 

Today, about 80 percent of homes in Lawrence have cable connections. The Journal-World began publishing on the Internet in 1995, the same year that Sunflower, the broadband subsidiary of the World Company, first offered cable modems to customers. In 1999, the newspaper and its television station began sharing talent, using reporters to write for The Journal-World and appear on the company’s news stations.

“We’re not afraid to jump outside of the box, and that’s because of who our owners are,” said Patrick Knorr, 32, Sunflower’s general manager, who also oversees strategic planning for the World Company. “They’re determined not to lose because they were asleep at the switch.”

The farsightedness of the Simons family, which owns the newspaper, is truly remarkable, especially for an industry that seems to be unable to see beyond its next quarterly report. Why else would newspapers – in the face of falling circulation and with the claim that local news is their most important product – fail to invest in and expand their local reporting staff? The absurdity of the newspaper industry’s response to its current dilemmas has prompted many critics to throw up their hands in frustration.

One such critic who throws up his hands in frustration on a regular basis in Vin Crosbie, a man whose ideas about how the old media should face the new media have permeated the discussion among online commentators for several years. He and Bob Cauthorn have begun a weblog called RebuildingMedia, and one of his recent posts, The Lessons of Lawrence, is a reaction to what he read in the New York Times article.

Crosbie calls on newspapers (for whom he often works as a consultant) to get over their two most virulent diseases: myopia and mimicry. The mindset of the industry in the 1990s was that nothing will change (myopia) for newspapers, particularly not the presence of the web. Newspaper executives are now shaking that mindset off to some extent but have fallen victim to trying to copy whatever someone else is doing (mimicry). Crosbie makes an excellent point in his essay about the ideas that will save newspapers: they will likely come from people who are working in the trenches (reporters, programmers, even consumers themselves) rather than executives. What is happening in Lawrence is a perfect example of that.

Crosbie’s most valuable contribution in this essay, however, is not his flailing of newspaper executives (though, as usual, it is richly deserved). Instead, Crosbie points out that the future is not that hard to discern, and consequently, planning for it should not be that difficult. Rather than trying to anticipate what the next little thing is (podcasting, RSS, etc.), newspapers should be looking at six fairly obvious long term trends and figuring out how to adapt to those.

The trends he identifies are

• Multimedia. The web allows information to be presented in a variety of forms. This flexibility demands that the medium fit the information. Whatever medium works best (video, audio, text, etc.) should be used to present information.

• Unlimited depth. Consumers who are interested in a topic or event should be satisfied with the amount of information they can get on that topic. One of the things the folks in Lawrence are doing is loading up their site with a wide variety of public documents and records. Crosbie criticizes newspapers for their consistent failure to recognize the value of inline links for their stories. There is, of course, an obvious reason for this failure. Including inline likes takes time and effort – an investment in personnel that many newspapers are still unwilling to make.

• On-demand content. Consumers are no longer bound by the news organization’s schedules. Yet many newspapers often act like they are. They fail to update their sites with breaking news, and they fail to place information on the site when it’s ready. Many newspapers still wait until the presses have run before they post stories on their site.

• Depackaging. According to Crosbie, “Depackaged syndication isn’t traditional syndication. It isn’t providing other newspapers with a wired package of stories. It instead means using XML to code and categorize each and every story, then using computerized means to deliver which of those stories is appropriate to each individual reader.”

• Individualization. Newspapers should continue to work on ways to offer individual readers what they need and want. Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all news package.

• Mobility and ubiquity. Crosbie predicts that hand-held devices – not necessarily those that we are familiar with today – will be the desktops and laptops of the future. We are also likely to see great advances in wireless technology. Newspapers should plan for these changes, not just try to catch up with them when they occur.

Looking at and planning for all of these trends makes sense. The newspaper in Lawrence seems to be pointed in this direction. Most other newspapers, unfortunately, are not.

Jim Stovall (Posted July 26, 2005)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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