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Newspapers: The End of Dailies

August 26, 2008 Leave a comment

We’re seeing obits for the lowly newspaper now, most notably at ValleyWag and other places, especially since the recently-announced sale of all but three of its newspaper holdings.

The Austin American-Statesman, to which I am a daily subscriber, is among the papers included in the sale.  It has 925 employees and a circulation of 150,000.  I didn’t realize until reading the articles for this blog post how low those numbers are.  For the 16th largest city in America, having only 150,000 copies of the local newspaper in readers’ hands is shockingly low.  Even one of my favorite political Web sites, Wonkette, gets 88,000 unique visitors every day.  My daily routine of walking to the curb to pick up the newspaper to see the “news of the day” is quickly becoming an anachronism in the 21st century.

But rather than pile on, I’d like to propose a scenario for what local news can become, using my local market as an example.

Right now, The Dallas Morning News (owned by Belo) and Houston Chronicle (owned by Hearst) still have Austin bureaus.  The old-school logic they use is that to be a “real” newspaper, you need to have people on your payroll stationed in various markets.  But given the state of the newspaper industry today, that thinking doesn’t make a lot of sense any more; the margins aren’t there, and certainly print circulation isn’t going to increase because of the remote reporter.

So here’s a proposal: break the corporate barriers and antiquated thinking and pool the resources to create a center of news competence for all things Austin, creating news that is syndicated out to other newspapers.  This regional knowledge base could house the expertise for the Longhorns, the Capitol, regional businesses, etc.  This model has to be less expensive than the office space, personnel, etc. required to run discrete news bureaus.

Those reporters could be partially funded by these other newspapers and partially by advertising on a revamped news site for Austin.  Reporters would need to cover the local angle for the outlets they represent (in other words, if the Dallas paper is partially supporting the news center, they are going to want to have a Dallas angle/mention in the story, if it exists).  Covering the Capitol in particular is tricky because of the number of state legislators, but ultimately with some seasoned and savvy reporters, not impossible.  An aggressive, rock-solid group of journalists who write for online media, other local media, sports sites, etc.  could be dedicated to cover Austin in depth.  The focused Austin-only news site could be very powerful, much more so than the sites that are available today for local news.

And that’s just my local market.  Seems reasonable that this thinking could apply to other major markets as well.  Instead of doom/gloom/fear/uncertainly/doubt, the future of local news could be a very exciting place if the right energy is applied to it.

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The Power of Facebook

August 14, 2008 1 comment

I joined Facebook in late June, 2008.  Two months and 184 friends later, I am shocked and amazed at the power of this site.  It presents a profoundly different way to interact with people, and in many ways delivers on early predictions for what the Internet would become.

I worked in the Bay Area during the mid-1990s, which was a magical time, kind of like the Golden Age of the Internet.  It was an anything-goes period, limited only by bandwidth and graphics technology.  Example: I remember talking to a reporter from the then-titled “PC Week,” now “eWeek,” and asking her if, instead of gathering reporters for a press conference, she thought it would be viable to instead participate in a hairbrained idea we had called a “Web-cast” which would transmit the information by video over the Internet.  She said the idea was interesting, but her office didn’t have the bandwidth to support it, so it would be impossible to participate and therefore a flop.  We scrapped the idea.

Back then, we’d write about what the Internet would become, with “every home having a home page” and the power of Internet commerce, and networks being the computer.  However, the networks we were talking about were centered on ethernet, not social networks.  Through social networking, Facebook has allowed the “every home a home page” vision to become a reality – but it essentially skipped over the “home” part and went straight for everyone in the home.

As someone who entered the work force before the Internet, this has resulted in a very weird feeling for me, sort of “Facebook Vertigo.”  That’s the feeling of long-forgotten memories flooding back into your brain after being approached by old friends who want to get back in touch.  It’s disorienting, and has happened to me quite frequently over the past couple of months.  But I love the ability to stay in touch so easily, so the feeling of momentary disorientation is definitely worth it.

But the most amazing thing to me is that high schoolers right now, and even my preschool-age kids, may never experience the concept of “getting back in touch” with people.  From the time they assign someone “Friend” status, they will forever be in touch, because they’ve built a network that allows for communication at a glance, in a way that’s more passive, more informative and much more content-rich than email.

From a financial perspective, Facebook is still “wait-and-see” as to whether it will be a profitable venture.  The new interface they’ve launched is more cumbersome than the previous version, and it’s possible that users will tire of it, fracture and choose something new, causing the base to erode.  But as of right now, what this thing could become is staggering.

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