J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Denver and Seattle: Let the Experiments Begin

Posted by chanders on March 17, 2009

The gist for the Twitter generation:

Seattle P-I is taking the core of its former newspaper staff, along with the big guns of the Hearst Corporation, and trying to build a Huffington Post-in-Seattle website with a lot of commentary and linking out and a bit of added original reporting. They are counting on  online advertising revenue to build a working business model. In Denver Times is taking the core of its former newspaper staff, without the backing of a big newspaper chain, and trying to rebuild a webbier version of the Rocky Mountain News through a subscription / donation model.

Now, the full post:

Going back and reading my doctoral research after I’d put it away for a little while, it strikes me as a remarkably depressing piece of work. And why not– the subtitle is “the unraveling of metropolitan journalism.” Given the time period in which it was researched and written (2006-2009), there’s almost no way it couldn’t be anything but the story of something– basically, the journalism industry as we’ve known it– ending.

There are hints of hope, of course: the first days of Indymedia in Philadelphia represent the earliest hint of some of the distributed reporting models we hear so much about, as do the conversations Philly Future and some of the remarkably successful local blogs. In particular, I think that the Philly NORG initiative was something of a “born too early” test run for the conversation that is going to happen in Philadelphia if and when one or both of the newspapers shuts down, or goes all online, or something else.  With any luck, the fact that the conversation has already begun will leave the folks in Philly in a better place if / when they have to start it again.

in-denver-times But … the good people of Philadelphia have suffered enough from my endless microscope trained entirely on them. This is not to say I’m leaving the City of Brotherly love behind, just that they’ll have company. Because one of the things that happened yesterday, March 16, was that we saw the simultaneous emergence of two institutionally based re-imaginings of local journalism in two different cities, Seattle and Denver.  By noting the fact that these are institutionally-based re-imaginings, I want to emphasize that a ton of experiments in news journalistic practices have already begun in Seattle, Denver, and elsewhere.  Indeed, the best coverage of the planned launch of In Denver Times came from the website of the Westword, the local alt-weekly. But the Denver and Seattle developments strike me as important because they mark an attempt by two already organized groups (the Hearst Corporation in the case of the online only Seattle P-I and a cohesive group of ex-Rocky Mountain News staffers in the case of Denver) to put the rethinking of journalism into practice. In short: we should expect more of them than we do of the early experiments because they’ve got some combination of money, personnel, training, and organizational support.

The way I see it, these are natural petri dishes in which to watch the changes in local journalism, because both products aim to be online only, and both are in fairly mid-size big cities that still have a newspaper. So you can compare the Seattle P-I.com and In Denver Times to each other, but you can also compare them to the Denver Post and the Seattle Times, respectively.  In short, there’s a lot to look at here. Let’s get to work.

The way I see it, the difference between the online only Seattle P-I experiment and the (hoped for) launch of In Denver Times can be summed up this way:

Seattle P-I is taking the core of its former newspaper staff, along with the big guns of the Hearst Corporation, and trying to build a Huffington Post-in-Seattle website with a lot of commentary and linking out and a bit of added original reporting. They are counting on  online advertising revenue  to build a working business model. In Denver Times is taking the core of its former newspaper staff, without the backing of a big newspaper chain, and trying to rebuild a webbier version of the Rocky Mountain News through a subscription / donation model.

Big question: will either experiment succeed?

But there are also economic questions and editorial questions.

Economic Questions: what happens to the Seattle PI advertising dollars when their print product goes away? As Scott Karp wisely wonders, “What will happen to the print advertising when the newspaper stops publishing in print?”As for In Denver Times, the question is even more stark: will 50,000 people pay to read bonus content in an online newspaper? What if 30,000 people pay? What if only 10,000 people? (Because IDT claims that it wont launch without reader backing, the Denver experiment could be a short one).

Editorial: In Seattle, what will the relationship between aggregation and reporting be? Who will they link to, and how? Will the online only Seattle P-I ever “scoop” the Seattle Times? Should it have to? Will it do investigative work? In Denver, assuming the IDT gets off the ground: will its subscription model insulate it from some of the more typical web 2.0 strategies of audience building? Will it do less linking? Will it do more traditional journalism? Will it look more like the old Rocky and less like the HuffPo of Denver? Or what?

In any case, the work has just begun. Keep an eye on this space … I hope to apply some of the serious empirical research techniques I honed during my Philly fieldwork to Seattle and Denver. The past is over, and the future– for better or worse– starts now.

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