September 23rd, 2008 15:22 EST
And Now the Do-it-Yourself Newspaper
(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 46, Del Marbrook`s pod casts for The Student Operated Press)
I don`t like trying to take in a whole museum in a single gulp. I invariably get intellectual reflux. I feel gluttonous and unfulfilled. But if I take in one exhibition at a time, reading the wall plaques carefully, sitting down to consider ideas, walking back and forth "if I chew my food slowly I enjoy the feast and come away uplifted.
Could it be that the idea of newspapers as all things to all people, a little of this and lot of that, a potpourri of information, ideas and images, has outlived its usefulness?
Could it be that this is what the decline in advertising revenues and readers is telling us?
It used to be that newspapers in secondary markets aspired to be like newspapers in primary markets. The Los Angeles Times wanted to be as good and as big as The New York Times. The Baltimore Sun at one time fancied itself a baby New York Times, replete with a foreign news staff and bureaus.
There was nothing wrong with this business model, as long as revenues remained stable or grew. Radio was at first perceived as a threat, but it wasn`t. Television was then perceived as a threat, and to a certain extent it was. But newspapers bought television stations. Then there was talk that these regional monopolies should be prohibited. And this debate continues. Well, it isn`t really a debate; it`s more a question of whether Congress can keep its hands out of lobbyists` pockets.
Finally there was and still is the inexorable consolidation of local media into great multinational corporations. At almost the same time revenues and readers began to decline.
Television was blamed. The Internet was blamed, and is still being blamed. The educational system was and is blamed for a failure to stimulate intellectual curiosity. It was said the country is being dumbed down and that in response Big Media was turning news into infotainment.
There is probably truth in all these theories. And there are certainly other facets of the problem. For example, we don`t really know whether cutting staff and coverage in order to maintain shareholder profit has been wise in the long run. It has been the solution du jour. Whether it is a shortsighted solution remains to be seen. The underlying issue is that being visionary rarely pays off, so executives and shareholders usually don`t give much of a damn beyond the next quarterly earning report. They want theirs now. They feel they`re entitled to it because they`ve allowed somebody to use their money. This is perhaps the inevitable pitfall of a consumerist society, a society that has for many years been told by its leaders that its patriotic duty is to buy, not save. On the other hand, of course, those same leaders will think nothing of telling the same consumers that their troubles are caused by not saving enough. It`s similar to telling people to spend more while freezing their wages and cutting their benefits. And it works for the people doing the selling, but it doesn`t work too well for the people doing the buying.
My own views haven`t exactly flip-flopped "please remember that unlike most politicians and pundits I am in favor of flip-flopping as the jewel of an active mind "but my views have evolved and broadened. I used to say over and over that the media conglomerates were killing newspapers and networks by cutting their staffs, resources and reach. I still think this is so, but my view has become more complicated, less ideological.
For example, if I were the owner of a great metropolitan daily newspaper whose revenues and readers were in decline, I would consider reducing the scope of my coverage. For example, if I had a bureau in Washington and in the state capital, I might consider closing them. But at the same time I would heavily invest in local and regional coverage, because I would say to myself, this is the one thing we can do better than anyone else.
Now, if I were the sole owner and didn`t have to worry about shareholders, I would certainly reexamine the portion of the gross I was taking as profit. I would ask myself why I wanted to own a newspaper. If the answer was to make money, period, I would sell it and move into coal and gas. But if the answer was that I felt a needed to serve my community, to enlighten it, and at the same time make enough to assure my family a decent life, I would hold on and rethink the nature of my newspaper`s mission.
The first thing I would do would be to stay in my office late at night and play with Google and Yahoo and Meta search engines. It would be quickly apparent to me that the average Internet user can access far more news from every part of the world than I can possibly package in my daily newspaper. Even if I were one of those owners, like the LA Times` Sam Zell, who was thinking about fifty percent advertising and fifty percent news, it would be clear to me that simply shrinking the report to make room for more advertising wouldn`t be a long-term solution to loss of readers and revenues. It would be clear to me that a revolution had taken place, that I had already been left behind, and that I had to do some fast thinking, perhaps in the style of Bill Gates, who, after all, wasn`t so much a computer whiz as he was a marketing whiz.
I would say to myself, I think the little bit of this and the little bit of that concept is a 20th Century concept, as antique as the iron-clawed bathtub. But then what? Well, I would ask myself what all this consolidation has achieved. Has it made the media a better investment than energy, for example, or weapons or health technology? Probably not. What has been its downside? Ha I would say to myself, let me count the ways it has diminished American journalism. It has savaged the hometown newspaper, reducing it to a penny wrapper owned by outsiders. It has deprived thousands of communities of a local voice and the in-depth local coverage needed to keep a republic vital. A lazy local press will allow crooks to be elected and sent to Washington where they will continue their crooked ways on a grander scale. A lazy or nonexistent local press will allow crooks to scalp the countryside, exhausting water supplies, polluting, and raising taxes by creating a demand for services that the new homes can`t support. A lazy or nonexistent local press will encourage all the ills that will later with hindsight be exposed by The Washington Post or The New York Times, whereas they should have been caught by a vigilant local press.
I would say to myself, all news is local. If I can organize my Yahoo or Google home page to scoop up news and ideas and images from around the world in a few seconds, why on earth should I spend my personal fortune trying to do it with this newspaper, which is, after all, antiquated technology, tree-killing technology that is not environmentally sound.
The newspaper as we know it is not environmentally or economically sound. It rapes and poisons the environment. It takes too long to deliver. It pollutes the air with its deliveries. It requires too much maintenance and real estate. So, what if we used our ideals and our money to build a regional Internet-based news organization?
Yeah, right, you say, just go to First Boston or Wachovia and ask them for the money.
But that`s not what I`m talking about.
I`m talking about turning your search engine into a news organization. I`m talking about being your own editor. And I think what I`m talking about tends to be born out by the recent inauguration of Cuil, the latest search engine. If you study the Cuil format you will see that it`s laid out like a news magazine.
For example, I searched for data about my aunt, the artist Irene Rice Pereira; what immediately appeared looked like a news magazine in which she was the main feature. There were personal pictures of her and images of her paintings. There were articles about her with their appropriate links.
It dawned on me that I was looking at a news engine with a capability no paper-and-ink product can touch, nor can television, simply because they can`t provide the depth and
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/history.html` target=new>hypertexting . Interestingly, Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge, suggesting that the news engine of the future is really a knowledge engine, a claim not even the venerable New York Times could have made until The Times itself went online.
I haven`t had time to study Chrome, Google`s newest browser. But from what I read it fits in nicely with this idea of your own do-it-yourself newspaper.
Hard on the heels of Google`s launch of Chrome came the announcement from a West Coast company named Plastic Logic that next year it will launch a reader about eight by ten inches that will look like a newspaper and be updated around the clock by its Internet connection.
But as matters stand right now you can configure your computer screen to spread out before you reports from most of the major news organizations in the world. You can install weather updates, astronomical phenomena, scientific and literary information. You can build yourself a knowledge machine customized to your particular interests. Anything that is regularly updated on the worldwide web is at your fingertips. No traditional publication can do that for you. Your own custom-tailored news organization... it`s a revolution unfolding under your nose.
But what if you wanted to get into the news business yourself? It`s one thing to build yourself a car, it`s another thing to mass produce cars and sell them. You can read Reuters, for example, on your home-built newspaper, but you can`t sell Reuters content without paying Reuters. Whatever you resell to other people you have to pay for. But suppose you were willing and able to do that? How would you build a newspaper of the future? And what could your newspaper do that any other newspaper couldn`t do?
Well, the first thing you would have to think about is local content, and that`s just where most local newspapers are failing and failing miserably, for many reasons. Reading about town boards, zoning, school budgets, and other governmental subjects is not everybody`s cup of tea. Some people are avid gardeners. Others are pet lovers. Others... well, you get the picture. So here we are back at Square One where content is concerned. This is the very point at which metropolitan newspapers decided to be all things to all people. So do I just transfer my desire to serve this concept to the web, trading clunky technology for invisible ether technology?
I don`t think so. But that`s what many newspapers are doing. They`re treating the web as just another vehicle. But it isn`t just another vehicle. It`s a rolling revolution. So how do you innovate from this point forward? Well, you could take your cues from the specialty publications. You could produce specialty news in specialty formats, and you could then seek advertising relevant to those subjects. The results from this concept have produced a mixed bag. Some specialty journals are successful, others not so much.
So you can`t really go in this direction with wholehearted enthusiasm, because it might just end up with mixed results. It`s just late 20th Century tinkering, which is what most transitions from paper-and-ink to the web have been, tweaking and tinkering. What is needed is something of the exuberance for web technology that has given birth to Chrome. News organizations must stop trying to repackage the 20th Century.
Study the history of hypertexting. Call in some of the best web visionaries. Tell them what you have already decided to do. Pay them to listen to your brief history of the news business up to where it now stands. And then say, tell me about hyper links. Tell me what you know about how people use the web. How will they use the web a generation from now? How are they learning to use it in schools and universities? Tell me everything you can do that the people who put out the morning newspaper aren`t doing.
Say something like this to these technological visionaries: when I use the web, when I use links, I don`t always end up where I think I`m going to end up. I might decide, for example, to research an arcane subject like the old Pearl Route from the Omani coast to the Mughal court in India, but along the way, as I jump from link to link, I become interested in sunken ships off the Omani coast, and then I become interested in the fact that some of these wrecks contain the artifacts of medieval alchemical laboratories.
Now look around the room and see if you`ve lost anybody`s attention. Okay, there`s a guy who seems bored. Don`t invite him back. He thinks you`re nuts. But suppose you have intrigued your listeners because what you`re saying resonates with their own web explorations? Ask your high-tech audience now what kind of news and informational services can we provide by working together?
I don`t know what your experts would say. But I think it would have occurred to me that I had strayed into Gameboy territory, for lack of a better term. I had entered the territory of all those youngsters who are seemingly stoned on games. And it would probably occur to me that enlightenment should be fun, it should be enjoyable. It might also come to me that I had pushed journalism`s envelope into education, because that is exactly what is happening for people who use Google or Yahoo to make a newspaper out of their home page. They follow a story about investing in Oman, say, and in a few seconds they come upon links about Oman`s history, its great sea war with the Portuguese, its pearl divers, its medieval alchemists... the learning possibilities are almost endless. The reader can go as far as he wants to go.
And he can`t do that with a paper-and-ink newspaper. He can`t do that from television news. He can`t take charge of his own enlightenment.
The Internet, then, means empowerment. It empowers its users. That`s what the news media have always claimed to do. But they have defined the parameters. They have decided what is news and what is not. The Internet is giving that power to you. It`s not a passive object. It`s not a finite book. It literally has no frame: it reaches out to edge of human knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, it is controlled only in a limited way by the editors and producers who frame newspapers and television news.
This is why the term citizen journalism should be taken seriously; not because anyone can contribute to the body of knowledge, which is true and important all by itself, but because the Internet gives its users control of the situation. His body of knowledge can grow exponentially as much as he chooses, as long as he wants it to grow. He can go off on tangents. He can compare sources. He can find and read opposing views. The Internet is handing him the power to free himself of dogma.
Just as the church once considered the Gutenberg press to be dangerous "it surely was "so the Internet is dangerous to anyone who wishes people to think the way he does. Knowledge is always dangerous to the people who don`t want you to have it. But if what you wish for others is true enlightenment, if you don`t wish to control others` thought, then the Internet is in all likelihood the single most important issue of our time. And that of course is another reason why Congress should never give anyone the power to control access to it. The people own the airwaves. They should insist on it, because anything less is the power to police what we think.
To sum up, you can build your own mighty newspaper right now as your home page. Its potential will be instantly greater than any paper-and-ink newspaper. And tomorrow there will be visionaries who will build such news machines, using the still infant technologies of the web that they will have to be more properly called knowledge machines. News, as we know, will become an artifact, a relic of the past, but the paths to real knowledge will open wide.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.