What We Talk About When We Talk About News

Updated: Old-media newsrooms are dying, as are some of their less-lucky online rivals. One seemingly immune cottage industry has emerged: chronicling the demise. A Twitter feed focusing on this grim theme has gathered 8,400 followers, and the parade of unsavory little scoops is relentless and oddly compelling. (Update: Seattle P.I. is going to stop publishing print or go all web within 60 days.)

Although the stories have stacked up since the decay of old media began years ago, there is still surprisingly little mainstream discussion about what news will look like once it begins to emerge from its Internet-powered state of flux. We do have an idea of what’s unlikely to work.

Citizen journalism, with a few exceptions (like South Korea’s Ohmynews) has disappointed so far. Wikinews doesn’t look promising either, although Wikileaks does. News aggregators do a great job of collecting relevant stories — more often than not ones published by enterprises that are cutting back or simply surviving.

For certain topics, there are indicators of what does — and will continue to — work. Some online upstarts devoted to technology or national politics seem to be doing relatively well. But those success stories haven’t crossed over to areas of coverage that used to be the heart of newspaper — beats like court reporting, police blotters and even overseas news. Even the New York Times, which as Michael Hirschorn noted in the Atlantic has broken some of the biggest stories of the past few years, risks defaulting on $400 million in debt this spring.

And yet this week, the Times unveiled a new feature that points to the potential of a more evolved kind of news: Congress API, which lets developers tap data on members of Congress, including roll calls and votes, updated throughout the day while Congress is in session. Letting the crowd parse the data could increase transparency to a Congress that many Americans are skeptical about.

But Congress API isn’t a huge development, while a collapse of the Times might be. The destruction of the old business model for news is clear, certain, even inevitable. The model replacing it is fragmented, innovative and frustratingly incomplete. So, it’s encouraging that more conversations about how news is evolving are popping up amid all the chatter about dying newspapers.

One of the more interesting voices is Matt Thompson, a journalism fellow at the University of Missouri and board member of the Poynter Institute, whose blog Newsless was one of Fimoculous’ top blogs of 2008. Newsless is among a group of microblogs like yelvington.com and the Biz Blog, where questions about where the news industry is headed are being hashed out.

When I spoke with Thompson, he pointed out that the business models of many newspapers — a generalist, one-stop source of all kinds of news — is at odds with how many online news sites, which hew to much narrower focuses, have evolved.

“When you ask, ‘How do you support news organizations on the web?’ it looks completely daunting,” Thompson said. “But many successful journalistic enterprises on the web started out the other way. You had a few individuals creating enough value to be supported, and then building on that value.”

That has been the case for many a tech blog: starting out with a single author or two and adding in staff. There are signs the model is catching on, as sites that report on citywide communities, politicians and courts are starting to take root as well. The Online Journalism Review recently compiled a list of 20 online startups covering local news in places from San Diego to Baltimore to Idaho.

These sites have received little attention in the mainstream media, which has focused on its own demise. That’s too bad, since they may be the best hope for the kind of journalism we used to count on from local newspapers.

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