What will tomorrow’s newspaper look like?
Pitkin County Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” With the invention of Napster nearly a decade ago, the musical unit of consumption shifted from the album to the song. After a brief crisis, the music industry, or at least Apple, responded, inventing the iPod, iTunes and a whole new way of providing music to consumers.
With the invention of online new media, the newspaper industry has also seen its unit change ” from the overall newspaper to the individual article. Many newspaper readers no longer consume an entire newspaper, instead consuming a variety of articles from different news sources, said Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience. She spoke at a forum Sunday at the Aspen Institute that focused on an ongoing study by the Knight Foundation of the information needs of a democracy.
The day before, clarifying her idea for the foundation Web site, Mayer wondered if the static article is the best atomic unit of consumption for the online arm of a newspaper. What if, instead, news websites had Wikipedia-type articles that could only be updated by reporters and editors, she asked.
For instance, imagine going to The Aspen Times Web site to read about Burlingame and finding one article that synthesized all prior articles on the subject printed in the paper editions. The article would keep the same URL address, but would be updated anytime a new Burlingame article appeared in print.
A three-day Aspen Institute conference titled “Media and Democracy” kicked off Sunday. The 50-plus participants include former Secretary of State Madeline Albright; Patricia de Stacy Harrison, president and CEO for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; and Philip Bennet, managing editor of the Washington Post Co. They will focus on the relationship between media and democracy in the rapidly changing media environment
As befitting a conference focused on the state of media, the conference had reported on itself in at least a four ways before lunch: the Aspen Institute streamed video over the web, http://www.groundreport.com also streamed video and offered the opportunity to comment in real time, the Knight Commission blogged the event, and Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, blogged a series of short videos he had made.
Problems and opportunities
Newmark began a roundtable discussion on media and public engagement by noting that while the Internet may be new, the broader concerns surrounding it are not.
“I will remind people that from my point of view the Internet was first invented by a nerd named Gutenberg ” although it kind of languished, it didn’t get anywhere, until a blogger named Martin Luther invented the first killer app,” he said.
The participants duly noted many of the usual Internet-specific concerns about news: the Internet filters news, exposing people only to what they like; it allows untrained journalists to break news, sometimes resulting in ethical breaches or compromised stories; it draws advertising away from newspapers, forcing them to shrink their newsrooms; it encourages people to interact digitally rather than actually; and it allows advertisers to pinpoint their advertising to most-read pages, discouraging the writing of “spinach” news that people aren’t tempted to read but perhaps should.
Ultimately, though, participants were upbeat, many of them extolling a laundry list of recent newsgathering projects worth a click. http://www.Earmarkwatch.org, for example, provides a national map of earmark money. Patchwork Nation (www.csmonitor.org/patchworknation/) a project of The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and Politico, monitors how the presidential candidates’ messages shift between talks to different demographics. Congresspedia, a citizen’s encyclopedia of Congress, allows citizens to research one’s representatives.
And several participants noted that while advertising revenues were falling at newspapers, readership is not. It may be a bad time to be a newspaper, but it is a great time to be a journalist, Bennett said of the state of the newspaper industry.
John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, noted that when he left his paper two years ago, surveys repeatedly indicated that what readers most wanted from their newspapers was local news. He then acknowledged that newspapers have not always met this demand adequately.
Thus, sites such as http://www.everyblock.com have stepped into that gap by giving people “hyper” local crime reports or restaurant reviews. Another site, outside.in, tracks what it calls “news, conversation, gossip and rants” in 5,495 cities and 6,789 neighborhoods.
Michael Klein also cited http://www.frontporchforum.com, which allows neighborhoods to set up their own hyper-local Internet forums.
He agreed that readers are clamoring for local news, noting that by the time the average American picks up his paper in the morning, he has already read, online, nearly all the important national and international news. So Internet users pick up that newspaper to read about what is happening locally, Klein said.
He argued that most newspapers would do better to cover their own back yard before they cover Bosnia. But he lamented that many, starved for funds, were cutting back on local coverage at a time when they most needed to expand it.
Diana Owen, professor of political science and director of American studies at Georgetown University, led off a roundtable discussion on the upcoming election by noting that the shifting media landscape is influencing how voters get their information.
But ultimately, she wondered if the open media environment had made information more accessible, or whether it had resulted in a landscape of information too cluttered to negotiate. She noted that some people seem to have trouble distinguishing the candidates’ views from the pundits, bloggers or journalists.
And Reed Hundt, a senior advisor at McKinsey and Co., wondered if the country ought to consider whether it wants the Internet to become the dominant method of communication in an election. Since 1940, he noted, that method has always been television.
But the general consensus was that while television is still important, the Internet tactics of the Obama campaign ” from online fundraising to its use of social networking ” has already shifted the campaign landscape, perhaps irreversibly. One participant suggested that the Obama campaign is a disruptive technology that will be to politics what the iPod was to music ” and said it could have an impact on all future national and international campaigns.