At a Confab in Phoenix, Lamenting (and Inventing) the Future of News
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the old newspaper business models would have permitted. But it’s also allowing citizens to talk to each other and share their knowledge about local resources and local issues, down to the level of the potholes and leaky fire hydrants that need fixing and the best farmers’ markets to visit this weekend. (“I go to other cities, and I’m like, ‘Where’s the wiki?” exclaims one DavisWiki user in a video at the LocalWiki home page.) I’m amazed and encouraged by the number of experiments going on in hyperlocal Web journalism, and by the passion of the experimenters.
Tablets will rescue long-form journalism on the Web. No, they won’t. There’s an acronym frequently used in Web discussion forums when someone drones on at stultifying length: TLDR, for “Too long, didn’t read.” Whether they admit it or not, many online readers have this reaction to any article that looks like it’s going to take more than a couple minutes to digest. And who can blame them? The Web is a cornucopia of competing distractions. As I write this paragraph, I have to focus hard to avoid the temptation to check Twitter or my e-mail inbox. Don’t ask me to explain why, under those circumstances, I regularly write articles like this one that exceed 1,500 or 2,000 words. My only excuse is that I was brought up reading, and writing for, print magazines. (On a serious note, I think that when you’re writing about entrepreneurs testing new technologies and new business models, it really can take that long to say something informative.)
The problem is that my readers are just as distracted and pressed for time as everyone else. We can see it in our page view statistics, when only 60 or 70 percent of the people who read page 1 of an article click through to page 2, and when only 60 percent of those readers click through to page 3. Could the new popularity of tablet computers and reading devices like the iPad and the Kindle provide an antidote? That was the hope of several participants in a News Foo session on the future of long-form journalism.
One name that came up again and again at the session was Instapaper. It’s a tool that makes it easy to save a full Web article so that you can read it later, in stripped-down, text-only form, on your iPad or Kindle or smartphone. I love Instapaper myself because it extracts articles from the noisy Web, upping the chances that I’ll make it through to the end of each piece. But most participants were skeptical about Instapaper or similar tools as long-term fixes for the attention-deficit problem. Louis Gray, a long-form blogger who works at My6Sense, a startup that helps readers create personalized Twitter and RSS streams, argued that journalists and their employers need to make peace with the idea that most long articles have small audiences, and that the payback for publishing compelling long-form content might come only over a period of months or years. “If you have thousands of readers to be effective, that’s a problem,” Gray said. “We have to find a way to reward people who do things right.”
News gathering will survive as a vocation, but with a different set of patrons. For reasons that Clay Shirky and others have analyzed at great length, the audience-aggregation and advertising models that supported big-city newspapers, national magazines, and TV news don’t work as well anymore, and we’re seeing it in the closure of major papers and magazines and the dwindling audiences for nightly news shows. But there’s at least one form of advertising that still works—keyword-based search advertising—and one company that’s exploiting that fact to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year, namely Google.
To its great credit, Google professes to care about the news business and wants to see it thrive. As it should, if for no other reason than that the news media create so much searchable content for Google to sell ads against. It created Google News, which sends lots of traffic to news sites. It’s undertaken experiments like Living Stories, a collaboration with several big newspapers to gather all of an outlet’s stories on a given theme in one place. It’s hired people like Chris Gaither, a former technology reporter for the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times who’s now Google’s ambassador to the news business, and, in an important sense, the news business’s ambassador to Google. And it sponsored News Foo and sent Gaither and several of its smartest engineers and product managers to participate in the weekend’s discussions.
I’m not implying that Google should, or even can, directly underwrite the next generation of journalists and journalism. But the fact that Google is even thinking about the survival of the news business qualifies as a Very Good Thing, in my opinion. At the very least, it will mean the company will continue to tune its search algorithms to reward high-quality content and punish spam and dreck. On a larger level, it means Google will continue to add new ways to get content to readers—this week’s introduction of the Chrome Web App Store, which already includes more than a dozen news apps, being one example.
I came away from News Foo encouraged, energized, and exhausted (but in a good way—one too many games of Werewolf). I’m grateful to O’Reilly, Google, and the Knight Foundation for having the vision to organize the event—and to everyone who was there for sharing their hopes, fears, and ideas. And to you, dear reader, for sticking with me all the way to page 3.