In local news, the threat is more obsolescence than competition

Posted on July 26, 2011 by Janet Coats

As I noted in my last post, I've been re-reading Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody'' to help stimulate my thinking about how people collaborate in a social, digital age.

I first read his book when I was still a newspaper editor, and I have to admit, it scared the life out of me. When you sitting in a newspaper editor's chair reading about the shift from journalists as a professional class to what Shirky describes as the "mass amateurization'' of news gathering and reporting, it is hard not to feel a chill go down your spine.

I knew then that he was right, and the book confirmed so much of my own experience and gut-level feeling about where things were headed for news organizations and journalism -- which, by the way, are not one in the same thing.

Almost two years out of the newsroom, I'm reading this with an eye toward what this means for the next wave of journalism innovators. My focus in the last two years has been on learning about and helping to enable the efforts of journalism's entrepreneurs. The spirit of collaboration, of openness to trying new ideas that I have found among these innovators has been bracing after spending years trying to convince organizations of the need for dramatic change.

But in reading Shirky again, I find myself worrying that small tendrils of the same thinking that has paralyzed traditional newsrooms may be growing in some corners of the entrepreneurial community. It is something to guard against, and I offer these thoughts in that spirit.

This sentence in Shirky's book practically leapt off the page when I read it four years ago. It struck me the same way in this reading:

"It is easier to understand that you face competition than obsolescence.''

It's pretty clear the way the traditional media face obsolescence -- the old model was built on information scarcity, the high prices of information distribution and the need for filters to create packages of information. The digital age has pretty much blown that model to bits.

But I do see that same creeping avoidance of the obsolescence problem in some corners of the entrepreneurial space. It is hard to think of online news sites as facing obsolescence. But the idea of people sitting down to a desktop or opening a laptop and accessing a website through a browser is on its way to becoming quaint. The next wave of innovation lies in the mobile and social space, but so many news entrepreneurs remain focused solely on their websites.

Believe me, I understand the pressures of trying to maintain what you've built while reaching out to create the next thing -- that is what managing a traditional newsroom looked like for the last decade of my newspaper career. At least traditional newsrooms had the financial resources to make the shift, back in the good old days of 25 percent margins; today's entrepreneurs are trying to balance these competing needs on the slenderest of threads.

But I also understand that, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have reached out to create the next thing with more commitment, more passion and much more urgency if I knew then what I know now. I wish I had pushed harder. I wish I had made tougher choices. I wish I had been more forceful and convincing about the need to trade off some of today's priorities in order to ensure a future.

Add to the impulse to delay the future in order to keep up with the present this reality: The local news space is incredibly competitive. You have entrepreneurial startups and legacy media organizations and AOL's Patch and public policy groups and health care organizations and community foundations all getting into the news space.

It is easy to see the threat strictly in terms of the other organizations that are after a piece of the community news pie. But speaking as a veteran of one of newspaper's most heated wars, focusing on the other guy is exactly the wrong strategy.

Understanding your own game -- really understanding it -- is, I think, the key to having any shot at success. Understanding it means knowing when to make short-term tradeoffs for long-term gains. It means understanding where your community's news and information needs are moving, and anticipating that in your own content and business plans.

If it's so easy, then why am I working with a foundation instead of running my own local news site? A perfectly fair question. But the one thing I think I bring to this work is the perspective of someone who really, genuinely tried to get traditional organizations to make fundamental changes in the way they approached their mission. My failure to gain much traction there broke my heart, but also made me sensitive to seeing those same mistakes repeated in the new information ecosystem.

Part of our work in both the Block by Block network and with the Journalism Accelerator has been to try to bring transparency to issues like this. For too long, newspaper publishers acted as enablers to each other -- refusing to see what should have been as plain as day. One of the next challenges for those who are building the future of community news is to learn from that and to confront the need for tough conversations about priorities, competition and the very real threat of obsolescence.

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