Are newspapers a larval stage?

“Saving newspapers” is beginning to look like saving caterpillars. Or worse, like caterpillars saving themselves. That’s was the message I got from Rick Edmonds’ API Report to Exec Summit: Paid Content Is the Future for News Web Sites, in Poynter, back in early June. In The Nichepaper Manifesto Umair Haque points toward a possible future butterfly stage for newspapers. Sez Umair,  “Nichepapers aren’t a new product, service, or business model. They are a new institution.”

He gives examples: Talking Points Memo. Huffington Post. Perez Hilton. Business Insider. He’s careful to say that these may not be the first or the best but are “avenues that radical innovators are already exploring to reconceive news for the 21st century.”

These, however, are limited as news sites, and not the best models of future nichepapers. Yes, they’re interesting and in some cases valuable sources of information; but they all also have axes to grind. In this sense they’re more like the old model (papers always had axes too) than the new one(s).

To help think about where news is going, let’s talk about one cause of serious news: wildfires. In Southern California we have lots of wildfires. They flare up quickly, then threaten to wipe out dozens, hundreds or thousands of homes, and too often do exactly that. Look up San Diego Fire, Day Fire, Gap Fire, Tea Fire, Jesusita Fire. The results paint a mosaic, or perhaps even a pointillist, picture of news sourced, reported, and re-reported by many different people, organizations and means. These are each portraits of an emerging ecosystem within  which newspapers must adapt of die.

Umair says, “In the 21st century, it’s time, again for newspapers to learn how to profit with stakeholders — instead of extracting profits from them. The 21st century’s great challenge isn’t selling the same old “product” better: it’s learning to make radically better stuff in the first place.”

Exactly. And that “making” will be as radically different as crawling and flying.

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11 comments

  1. umair’s avatar

    awesome post, totally thoughtful.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Umair. Much appreciated.

    We should have lunch or something one of these days. Perhaps here in Cambridge (MA, not UK :-) ) or London, where I tend to show up every month or two?

  3. Rick’s avatar

    Interesting. It seems the complexity of the world is increasing very quickly and one can’t blame people for seeking out a source that simplifies things a bit.

    Both in limiting content and perspective.

    Thanks for the piece.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Tom, that’s a great post, with enormous and important scope. I’ve avoided thinking about the Net’s commons being caught in a pincers between the pipe owners and the content sellers. Did that a few years ago with Saving the Net. Maybe need to go there again.

  5. Don Marti’s avatar

    Newspapers have been incredibly profitable businesses, and they haven’t had to throw that much of their revenues over the “wall” that’s supposed to separate the business side from the newsroom.

    So if the wall is there anyway, why not make the newsroom its own NGO? Texas Watchdog seems to be working so far.

    I still don’t get the pure amateur news model. There are a lot of PR people making a good living, writing for no-pay or low-pay media outlets and billing their clients.

  6. Ben’s avatar

    I agree, newspapers are on the way out, just like CD’s for music, unless they do something drastic. It’s just like you said, what’s the point of saving the caterpillar. Just bring out the butterfly. You always write about really interesting topics. I’m very glad I found your blog.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Don, I’m not sure “pure amateur” is a “news model”. I’m not even sure what the new model, or models, will be. I am sure that all the things we’re doing now — blogging, tagging, tweeting, even linking and adding constantly to the portfolio of XML lingo and markup jive — are early efforts. Prototypes.

    Another metaphor.

    Think of the Net’s arrival as a slow-mo Chicxulub event — and of what’s going on now as the earliest bend in the long path between dinosaurs and birds.

  8. Allan Hoving’s avatar

    always thought-provoking, doc, thanks. i just keep repeating to myself as i rock back and forth: “we can’t keep saying information wants to be free, and then wonder where all our jobs went.”

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