Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Reinventing Newspapers – ideas for Knight Foundation News Challenge

Posted by shannonclark on October 30, 2008

UPDATE – I did not end up submitting this but am interested in pursuing these ideas further with anyone who is interested, leave a comment or contact me directly

I grew up reading multiple newspapers nearly every day of my life. In our home in Oak Park, IL the two papers we subscribed to were the local Chicago Tribune and the national Wall Street Journal. Even as a young child I would read both papers, scanning some sections, reading nearly every article of others and following certain favorite collumns. In particular I loved the irreverence of the center collumn of the Wall Street Journal front page (which is a feature they did away with, to the paper’s detriment I think, many years ago). I also read the opinion pages of the journal avidly – if rarely with much agreement. 

In our household however old papers piled up, my dad would generally read the papers first (though when he wasn’t home – i.e. away on a business trip my mom would usually get to the paper first) but neither paper left the house to be recycled until both my parents (and often my sister and I) had had a chance to at least skim every section. 

When i left home for college and then was living on my own in Chicago (and then a few years ago here in San Francisco) I have occasionally subscribed to a newspaper, but at the moment i do not. Just a few months ago I did have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal but I was finding myself with weeks of papers piled up and little if any interest in reading them. The news, even the business news, I usually had already seen online hours or sometimes days before and the opinion sections (which has grown to be three pages if you don’t count the rest of the paper which is increasingly highly partisan as well) while longer seem of a lowered quality and of less impact – more partisan, less thoughtful. 

And in place of the once a day random but usually well written collumn the WSJ now has a weekend section and an occasional magazine which do cover cultural issues (and the weekend edition is actually pretty well written) but in isolation they seem less interesting – and fewer stories are just well written stories about a curiousity, instead they cover the same set of movies, shows etc as so many others cover. (the great wine collumn being perhaps a rare exception)

In Chicago as well I for years had a weekly habit (which my now ex-girlfriend occasionally accused me of taking a bit too seriously) of reading the Chicago Reader every single week. Mostly for the long form, often investigative articles which made up the front page main story. I also read it for the other, shorter stories in most issues, the great weekly collumnists, and the actually useful classifieds, movie listings (this was pre-iPhone) and occasionally the other sections. Most weeks I would also read the New City Journal which was Chicago’s other free weekly, a bit of a smaller paper but one which also ran great and serious journalism, though was a bit smaller and had much less useful classifieds. 

On moving to the Bay Area I tried to find a local equivelent for the Chicago Reader but have been immensely disappointed with the many local free weekly papers – all of which seem to have horrible writing, terrible reviewers, have insane and highly partisan politics (indeed I find myself looking at the Gaurdian’s endorsements and usually voting against them). Online or offline they local papers are pretty awful (and the San Francisco Chronicle in terms of the “serious” papers – or the SF Examiner are also both pretty bad). 

So why all of this background?

I am thinking about local news and hybrid models a great deal at the moment and have, I think, come up with a business model and approach which I think could address many of the issues facing local newspapers (both dailies and weeklies), be scaleable – so could be started small and grow, and could work for the microlocal and then relatively large geogrphic region (perhaps even on a national or international level but that would require some modifications). Importantly my ideas are based on some major changes from “how things are done” online and offline today.

I am posting here to solicit feedback – first from a group of people who have been invited to comment – and then shortly (and when this post is made public) from anyone. I may end up working on this idea somewhere myself – but I am also looking to share these ideas widely and I hope inspire many people to adopt these ideas, modify them a bit, and launch many great sites and papers. 

  1. Pay writers professional rates – but also demand serious work. I’m looking for exact figures but for the majority of writers for this project I plan on paying them at a rate a writer’s union would deem professional. But also asking that they incorporate multiple mediums into their work – original photographs often, audio recordings of interviews, video of events or interviews when possible, and scans or copies of sources they refer to in the course of an article. The articles themselves will be serious writing – whether opinion pieces such as reviews or long form investigative journalism and see below, will include working with editors. 
  2. Post edited copy only – which means nothing is posted as an article that has not been reviewed. We may have a side collection of blogs for posts about inprogress work and likely will have some comments from readers (or perhaps more likely an active set of letters to the editors). And feedback well could come in via many means – including video and audio comments. But the emphasis here is quality over quanity or speed
  3. As a general rule nothing which would be available via a wire service will be posted on the site. That is, nothing which is a rewriting of a press release or a rehash of a wire story. The one possible exception might be a story which the site writes and then syndicates out to the wire services. 
  4. Though the project will start from the web and will be highly webbased, there will be a print component as well. Depending on the community served this may be a monthly, glossy publication (think Monocle magazine but focused tightly on a given geopgraphic area), a weekly magazine (with some color) or a weekly or even more frequent newsprint edition – probably of a quality that could handle some color at least on some pages. Initially however this print component may only be available via subscription, expanding slowly to local businessses and newstands. 
  5. Topics will be chosen in large part by the passion of writers and the emphsis will be in quality storytelling and documentation over dry, non-partisan reporting. Though initially this may be a bit chaotic my expectation that the passions of the writers and the readers will converge with regular contributers covering a wide range of local issues and local topics, ideally from a variety of perspectives and points of view. The projects I would hope to be personally involved in would accept contributions from across a wide range of political opinions and I would seek to encourage a diversity of views.
  6. Advertising and commercial content would be a 1st level type of content – always fully and clearly disclosed, likely also clearly of a different type, but distributed in much the same manner as any other content. Online this means that ads (more on what these would look like below) would show up as objects in RSS feeds right after and between other articles. Offline this means that some pages or some parts of many pages (depending on the type of print) would include what are clearly commercial content. A likely majority of the advertising would be locally based and focused but national ads would also be accepted. Political ads or messages might not be accepted and ads with an adult target would be up to the publishers and their local community’s interests (here in San Francisco for example ads from a local business such as Good vibrations would probably not be particularly scandlous). The advertisers would NOT have a choice about whether or not an ad runs online or in the print editions – if they buy one, they buy the other and the ads would run in both and would be a part of the permanent record of that edition (which should make the online ads a very good value – though perhaps the links of the ads themselves would only persist for a limited duration the copy itself would be part of the archive). The logistics of this would be addressed with an eye to keeping in good standing with the online community and businesses such as Google – and the paid ads would have to me highly vetted – as would the destination of where they link to for the duration of there being an active link. Ideally where the ad links to would also be archived and part of the records of the publication. 
  7. Curration and editing is the primary focus, based on starting from working with great writers but building on them and enforcing a ethos of it is better to make fewer but higher quality recommendations over many but lower quality. So while the emphasis may be mostly on articles, to the degree that the publication also has event listings or reviews whether of local businesses, artists, or items of national interest such as books or movies the focus would be on being selective (and yes opinionated) instead of being comprehensive.

This last point emphasizing currating over being comprehensive is one key area where my vision is highly different from many other approaches I see online. Instead of focusing on the infinite space of the web, on the ability to have something for everyone (but all to often not attracting anyone) my vision is to be opinionated, to be focused, and to have a point of view (or points of view). Combined with a high degree of basic quality of writing (grammar, structure and form etc) as well as a good design and look and feel my thinking is that being focused ADDS value today. As a reader I have many sources online for looking up everything – all the movies ever made, all the music, all the books, but opinions I can test and grow to trust are rare and valuable. And in turn that value is translated into attention and also value to the sponsors that bring to me as a reader the content I value.

A bit more about the types of ads I would see running. In many local weeklies (and daily newspapers as well) a large and useful category of ads are ads from local venues promoting upcoming events and shows. Some of these are purchased by individual venues, others by local promoters, others by national promoters, and still others by national brands (i.e. a beer company presents the following shows…). This type of content rich commercial message is exactly the type of content I think would make a lot of sense for this type of project – on the web and off the web. 

And there are many other types of local advertisers whose content would resonate with a locally focused set of content – and my goal would be to focus highly on a local base of advertisers supplemented by the occasional national brand or advertiser (movies or books for example, national car brands etc). The focus, however, would NOT be on hypertargeting – the messages would not vary from reader to reader – instead they would be deeply integrated into the flow and design of the site itself – as content not as something isolated (and thus blocked) – but also always clearly disclosed (likely visually colored differently online). Probably pricing would be set initially at local free weekly rates and might approach local daily paper rates as distribution and reach grows.

That is the idea in a nutshell – lots of details to be worked out – from the technical to the rate settings but the above are the highlights. 

In terms of technology much of what i envision could be done via wordpress (or perhapd though I’m less of a fan via Drupal) with careful use of tags, categories, multiple authors, multimedia posts and a very clean design set of choices. A given batch of posts and content would then be collected and formatted for the print edition (perhaps rendered also as a PDF file for the archives as well). 

From a business standpoint the content producers (writers who might also create photos or video or photographers and/or videographers) would initially mostly likely be freelancers but paid at a fair and professional rate. A limited amount of expenses would also be covered (limited in part due to the geogrpahic focus – one reason this model might not work as well on a national or international scale) and ideally most writers would be covered by some group benefits and given press creditials (in both cases probably after meeting some writer’s union type set of requirements in those areas with writer’s unions). The editor(s) would probably be saleried and full time and would work with a range of writers – initially there might only be one editor – but as the range of topics and volume of content expands there would rapidly need to be multiple editors. A separate set of editors and salespeople would handle the commercial content and sales relationshiops. And likely there would be a small set of technical staff (some of whom might be on a contact basis to start) to handle the initial and ongoing web configuration as well as the preprint production work. 

My thinking also is that with the emphasis on telling great stories (non-fiction mostly though fiction stories would be a natural addition to this type of publication) some number of pieces written initially for this publication could have an additional life in other publications – via syndication or reprint/repurposing (This American Life for example). My initial thought would be that the writers would retain these rights (though the publication would have the right to keep the works online, probably freely available – though in some cases perhaps only for subscribers) and when the publication is the source of the additional sale (for example via syndication agreements) a portion of the syndication fees might flow back to the publication (though this would be based on the publication’s needs and the numbers involved – with the overall emphssis being on cultivating and supporting great writers and journalists. 

So what questions do I have / what I am seeking from readers who make it this far?

  1. What are professional rates for writers? (per article or per word, for reviews vs. for long form articles)
  2. What are fair rates for photography/video work? (note the goal here is not to use stock photography but to use photos which add to the story and are original to the author – see Monocle or FiveThirtyEight for two great examples)
  3. What would be likely sunk costs for such a venture (laptops, very very small office space, other fixed yearly costs)?
  4. What would be likely print costs per print run for each type of publication (Glossy color magazine, lower quality magazine sized publication, color newsprint publication) and at what printrun sizes do the per unit costs decrease? (i.e. what are the fixed and what are the variable and when do the lower considerably)
  5. What would be the likely distribution costs (mostly local mail, local non-mail distribution to individuals, mostly local distribution to businesses)
  6. Initially I’m thinking about this as a local (i.e. San Francisco/Bay Area venture) but am happy to see it in other cities and countries – what specific CA/Bay Area complications should I anticipate? (local Unions – though I want to be friendly to unions etc)
  7. What are some examples of magazines or newspapers which are adopting something akin to this already (especially in terms of good online integration of offline ads and an emphasis on long form, quality writing over quantity of writing via including pool/wire stories)

It should also be noted that what I am proposing is NOT a blog or indeed not very bloglike. Though it might use blog software as an underpinning, the idea here is to tell great stories – some of which may be very “small” others of which might be very pressing and important (investigative journalism) – but to do so with an emphasis on the quality of the writing vs the timeliness of posts.

Also and perhaps a more subtle point my thinking is that these publications would trade one tool of today’s journalists away (anonymous sources) in favor of only using deeply documented sources and providing those documents for public review and oversight. And yes, this means these publications might not be able to tell some stories initially (though via tools such as Freedom of Information Act requests and careful use of public spaces and rapid documentation this could be assuaged to a degree) I think the reliance on providing the sources directly would result in overall a very high quality of articles – and many attempts to say misquote someone would be addressed and resolved quickly.

I would also suggest that the publications be quick to address serious (or even relatively minor) complaints – such as about misquoting – and if articles are published online before they are published in a print edition (which would depend on the timing of the print edition – which would likely be weekly or monthly so articles likely would be published online first) major errors should be corrected before they are put in print. Using a wikilike publishing platform might make it very easy to show the history of any such changes (wikilike in that past editions would be viewable – but not wikilike in that people would not be able to edit posts)

So that is the idea – I welcome feedback and suggestions and I’m planning on pulling this into a formal proposal for the Knight Foundation by the Nov 1st deadline and perhaps also into a short business summary/pitch to select investors. I think some of these ideas could work for a new, greenfield publication OR could work for an existing publication looking to revamp.

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