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.


Sports News

South Korea’s OhMyNews is ranked at 12,195 at Alexa while Wikinews.org is not ranked in Alexa’s Top 1 million sites.

A.B. Dada


You’re right, I misrepresented my angle: it isn’t because the paleomedia isn’t wanted or isn’t necessarily profitable, it’s that they’re overleveraged due to bad gambles that they’re dying. Debt is what is killing the average paleomedia outlet, not lack of demand for what they create.

I do agree that simplifying their structure and content limit makes sense, absolutely. But not getting into debt in the first place is a far wiser proposition.

Kevin Kelleher

@A.B. Dada: If you read that and thought I was saying all news companies would go out of business, then maybe I wasn’t clear enough. Some will, but as with cars and music, the business model supporting newsrooms is changing and companies that adapt will survive. My point above was that it makes more sense now to focus on what that new model will be and how newsrooms can adapt.

A.B. Dada

Wrong, Om.

News companies are not going out of the business.

Car companies are not going out of business.

Banks are not going out of business.

Internet companies are not going out of business.

Households are not “going out of business.”

Want to know who is going out of business?

Overleveraged businesses and individuals with heavy debt. It’s quite simple.

Chuck Peters

As we are creating C3, Complete Community Connection, we are looking at a nested series of local information blogs, some by us and some by others, as the foundation for our efforts.

This is the year of implementation. I will let you know how it goes!


Kevin Kelleher

@Jason: You may be right that it’s just me. I did take a good look at it when writing this, and have before several times. Each time I left feeling it isn’t a must read for me. I am a little skeptical of citizen journalism in general (David Simon has critiqued it much better than I can), but am very open to being persuaded otherwise.

Kevin Kelleher

@Bill Rice: These are interesting times, in the sense of the famous proverb. I do think there is some creative destruction here, but I tried to avoid referencing Joseph Schumpeter since he’s being invoked a lot these days, sometimes too casually.

Kevin Kelleher

@Ed: Thanks for noticing. Carver is great (with or without Lish), that story in particular.


Wikinews does not look promising? Says who? Just you? Have you even looked at the site recently…and I mean REALLY looked at it?

Bill Rice

This is a live demonstration of Creative Destruction. It will be very hard for the traditional media giants to turn the Titanic before it runs into the iceberg. We have already seen the Detroit Free Press reduce print and home delivery.

It is a very interesting time and revolution. I am not sure anyone has a perfect vision of where we will end up. I am optimistic it will be better.

Ed Lee

Sweet. I can’t recall ever seeing a blog entry reference Raymond Carver (or should I say, Gordon Lish?). Nice job, Kevin (or, editor-person who wrote the title).

Comments are closed.