Publishing and content

Befuddled San Francisco officials

The Internet continues to create earthquakes across the entire spectrum of society as established ways of doing things crumble under the unprecedented publishing capabilites of Internet-enabled information tools.

Elected officials, who have enjoyed a close relationship with mainstream media over the decades, are becoming increasing irrational over blogs. While the media has often had an adversarial relationship with elected leaders of one stripe or another, those elected leaders, the media, and political parties all have tended to play by a set of well-understood rules (I'm generalizing here--there are obvious exceptions).

But blogs have changed all that. Bloggers, publishing their own commentary for a worldwide audience (albeit often a small one), don't have to play by traditional rules. The blogosphere is creating an entirely new set of rules, and some politicians don't like it.

San Francisco leaders have introduced city legislation that would require bloggers to register with the city if they write about politics and candidates. What on earth are they thinking? Do they really think they can stifle criticism of city leaders and policies with this kind of heavy-handed approach?

To illustrate just how absurd this is, a transnational fight over publishing is brewing. Excerpts from a secret government hearing in Canada that allegedly is investigating fraud on the part of government officials has been published on a U.S. Web site, and Canadian leaders are seething because they can't do anything about it.

It's not at all clear who, if anyone, has committed a crime. The ban forbids publication. So the Canadian that passed the documents on may not have broken the law, and the American blog is not subject to Canadian law at all.

Ethics and the lack of them certainly play a role here, but it's always been difficult to legislate moral or ethical behavior.

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NC paper blogs--will it work?

A North Carolina paper has jumped feet first into blogging the news, with 11 news feeds written by reporters and staffers on the paper. The Greenboro News and Record thinks that the paper has no choice but to do this. I agree, as I wrote recently about this issue.

I've always thought the Web has great potential for newspapers, but they have to begin to see their role for what it really is--editing and writing, not printing black marks on paper. The Web is pure writing, and it frees newspapers to do that really well. Combined with the growing viability of advertising on the Web, newspapers can have a future.

But the most interesting thing in the article was that a newspaper is blogging. From the article:

Night cops reporter Eric Townsend, a 26-year-old who also contributes to a blog about traffic, said he's happy to post to the blog, but he thinks declining newspaper readership among the young is more a symptom of a decline in civic engagement than anything else. "Young people don't have a sense of involvement, a sense of community," he said. "It doesn't matter how many 'young' stories we do. I don't think blogs are the answer either."

What I see in under 30 people is an unhealthy attachment to their devices--their cellphones, their music players, their Gameboys--that keeps them tuned out and turned off from the world around them. Next time you walk down a town street, look at how many young people have on earphones--earphones that are blocking out the real world in favor of a world that they can manipulate.

Is this phenomenon important? It's too early to tell. But I do notice, as do many of my colleagues, the absence of young people at town meetings convened to talk about the future of the community. The ones that do show up are bright and engaged, and have typically have a lot to contribute.

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Newspapers are in a death spiral

CNet has an article about the future of newspapers. It says that some papers, like the New York Times, have more people reading the paper online than on paper. But the papers are mad because they are giving away the content for free. They want to start charging for online subscriptions (note that a few papers, like the Wall Street Journal, have been doing this for years).

The papers have it wrong in several ways. In the first place, it's ads that cover most of the cost of newspapers, not subscriptions. An online edition has essentially zero distribution costs, compared to the massive expense required to print news on paper and distribute those paper copies. With the boom in online advertising, it seems like better ad management might actually make online newspapers profitable. But you'd have to let go of the idea that "real" news is better on paper.

The other problem most papers have is that their capacity to generate original news is extremely limited. Many mid-size local papers simply fill their pages with AP reprints, and sprinkle in a few local articles along the way. I'd like to see a paper embrace the blogging model, where you simply turn reporters loose with a well-designed blog framework. If you did so, you could fire most of the editors, who have a limited function in an online edition. The original purpose of editors was to decide what "fit," literally, in the paper. You don't need editors in the same way because you don't have limits in online publishing. Editors could still fill a vital function by keeping reporters focused and by identifying important stories, but my guess is most mid-size city papers could get by with just a couple of editors--and could cut costs substantially.

But I think some papers would rather go out of business first. Blogging is a tool, not a medium, and it's a tool that would work well for newspapers

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