Perhaps newspaper companies need to begin thinking of themselves as curators. Their job is to provide a single space in which a variety of writers post print and video content within particular specialties: In this formulation, Will Bunch might provide national political commentary; the Daily News’s Chris Brennan would offer local political reporting and writing; the Inquirer’s Andrew Maykuth would cover the police. But Bunch, Brennan and Maykuth will need to be as comfortable offering opinion as they are facts. They’ll need to be good in front of a camera and responsive to reader commentary, approaching their audiences as participants in the coverage they provide. And the company that employs them will have to treat each of them as a stand-alone business rather than a brick in the wall.
To take the music analogy a step further, the New Journalists of the 21st century face a task similar to Bob Dylan’s when he traded his acoustic guitar for an electric. They must remake themselves and challenge the old ideal, in this case of the objective reporter whose opinions and perspective were supposed to have no bearing on coverage. Daily papers need to make these changes now, themselves, or the entrepreneurs out there conducting interactive experiments will erode their readership even further.
In San Francisco, a website dubbed Spot.us is asking readers to finance coverage of local issues, from the aftermath of an oil spill to why no dog park exists in Pacifica.
In Seattle, a two-person start-up called Instant Journalist enables anyone, anywhere, to create and manage an online community of citizen reporters.
Here in Philadelphia, Joey Sweeney at Philebrity and Jonathan Valania at Phawker are paying the rent with blogs that speak directly to readers left cold by the coverage daily newspapers provide. These sites aren’t yielding big loot, but how easy might it be for someone to start the kind of grassroots site Bunch envisions, one that could boast the right DNA for online growth?
Well, if a start-up could afford a couple of web designers and nine reporters, it could cover the city’s four major sports teams, police, local and national politics, music and restaurants. It could also invite citizens to join in, enabling them to post their own stories and photos about neighborhood developments, school board meetings, whatever strikes their fancy. And who knows? As the enterprise grows, it might even hire some of them. This is, needless to say, pure conjecture. But these solutions are, like the Internet, founded on the same egalitarian principles journalists love to espouse. In essentially placing readers right there in the room with journalists, they are also a threat to every reporter’s ego, and the old idea of authoritativeness that the daily paper traditionally represents.