Related: Media critic James Fallows and Google News’ Josh Cohen will discuss digital-era journalism tomorrow, Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m., in D.C.
What if reporters didn’t take over from newspaper publishers, the tease I posted earlier? Suppose someone else did, Google. One old newspaper alum, Jeff Jarvis, has even written a book called What Would Google Do?
Guess which newspaper conglomerate has just bought copies of WWGD for “all publishers, editors and sales directors.” None other than the Journal Register Company, once singled out by a disgruntled ex-peon as “the most evil newspaper company on the planet.” It owns The Morning Journal, in Lorain, Ohio, fictionalized as “Marseilles” in The Solomon Scandals, my Washington newspaper novel. Eons ago, when the Journal thudded against doorsteps in the afternoons and lacked the M word in its name, I worked the poverty and public housing beats and wrote front-page features quaintly known as “blockbusters.” It was a time of black ink in the ledger, not just in the Lorain Journal’s news columns.
Well, good-bye to all that. In the early ‘70s when I was in Lorain and the Journal Register takeover was years off, daily circulation might have been around 35,000 and Sunday readership was heading toward 45,000. A quick, er, Googling showed the daily figure at 25,334 and the Sunday one at 27,248 for a six-month period ending in March 31, 2008. Thirty miles west of Cleveland and the hometown of Toni Morrison, Lorain is a classic Rust Belt city whose population has shrunk to around 70,000 from a peak of maybe 100,000. U.S. Steel’s pipe mill remains, but Ford has retreated to an existing plant in near-by Avon Lake. During the 2000 census, when the U.S. economy was healthier than today, 17 percent of Lorain’s people lived below the poverty line, compared to 12 percent for individuals in America at large. Just earlier this year, Barack Obama visited nearby Elyria and spoke on jobs and the Great Recession.
How to run a newspaper in a plucky but rundown town like Lorain and use Google-style strategies to stay solvent? In fact, the Journal Register Company, currently the owner of 19 dailies and more than 150 other publications, did enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company is out of of bankruptcy now, and in his blog, John Paton, the CEO since February 1, not only talks up the Jarvis book but also says the company has bought Flip video cameras for all reporters. The first Flips are already in use, with some spectacular results. Paton also promises an advisory board “to bring the outside to the Journal Register Company,” a stellar idea.
As part of the “outside,” then—and as a very small Google shareholder who has stuck with the company through the stock’s ups and downs—let me share my own thoughts.
So you’ll know I’m not a complete stranger to the care and feeding and development of Web sites, let me say I’ve just sold a blog devoted to e-book news and views. TeleRead.org’s monthly visitor count has been as high as 100,000. That’s tiny by USA Today standards, but excluding forum-dominated sites, it may well be the biggest and oldest blog on general e-book news and views in the English-language world. We’re actually drawing more traffic than Morning Journal, according to Alexa—with a fraction of the investment, even if our geographical coverage area is, ugh, a little larger. In a recent study, TeleRead ranked second by a variety of metrics among publishing blogs of all kinds. I sold for a variety of reasons, including lack of resources to monetize TeleRead fully and add new features. The buyer was the North American Publishing Company, the owning family of which started a predecessor of TV Guide; like the Journal Register Company, NAPCO wants to remake itself for the Google era and beyond. I’m not Sergi or Larry; but as someone who dates back to the Journal’s Smith Corona days and has been on the Internet since 1993, here’s what I would do in Lorain.
Most of my suggestions just might apply to newspapers and other media in similar markets: (1) focus more on the use of local people than the Journal did in my time there, (2) build elaborate hyperlocal capabilities into the Journal without kicking out all state, national and international news, (3) bring in a more Google-ish design philosophy for the home page and other parts of the paper, (4) help spread the right hardware around for enjoying the paper online, and (5) care maniacally about local and area economies. The Morning Journal is no Washington Post or New York Times in fame or stature. But in resources or lack of them, it is far more typical of America’s daily newspapers.
Idea one: Let more locals do local
Give out Flip HDs to community members, too—ranging from high school journalists to librarians and senior citizens—with the understanding they can keep them as long as they turn out X number of usable videos in a three-month period. Heck, the cameras probably cost or eventually will cost less than $100-$120 each if bought in bulk. Train the videographers and other citizen journalists so they have a good chance to succeed (Paton himself has talked of “community e-journalism media labs” for bloggers). Imagine the expanded news coverage. If you can’t find enough people fit for citizens journalism, team up with public schools, libraries and Lorain County Community College to upgrade writing skills among young people, a good idea anyway.
While the Flip giveaway is a mere detail, it reflects the philosophy of the real Google and of Jarvis in his book: the importance of enabling. Professional journalists—as acknowledged by Stan B. Huskey editor of the Times Herald, a Journal Register newspaper serving Norristown and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania—cannot create all content. On my e-book site, we lacked the resources for forums. But I loved to run essays from our readers. In fact my successor is not a lifelong journalist but a retired corporate lawyer and eternal e-book lover, who just happens to know the subject matter and the audience better than 99.999 percent of “pros” would. I’m not suggesting that the Journal kick out all professionals and replace them with either lawyers or steel workers, and we must remember, too, that America is a nation of nomads, compared to many other countries, so “local” can get you only so far. But chain journalism today relies too much on outsiders. Simply put, involve as many Lorain-area people as possible while still allowing for enough nonlocals to come in with badly needed skill sets and fresh ideas.
From forums to user blogs—ideally with tight links to and from regular news stories and staff-written opinion pieces—the reborn Journal site should abound with community-originated items. Do care about accuracy and other traditional journalistic goals. Work toward them through new-style copy editors who are able also act as moderators and moderator-trainers. Strive for fairness not in individual opinion posts but overall, so as not to inhabit posters’ freedom of expression. Meanwhile people with journalistic background can synthesize the facts and opinions they pick up from forums and Journal-hosted blogs. That is where fairness should count.
As revenue grows, aim to pay the best and most committed part-time writers, video people and moderators from the local area. Promote them to full time within the limits of budget.
Tighten ties with local institutions. The local library system, for example, should routinely receive copies of local texts, videos and other images that it could make available should the Journal no longer be around. Of course, with a new, digitally oriented local focus, there would be less of a chance of the Journal fading away as the older print readers died off. One way or another, when it comes to preservation of content, the Journal needs to be more institutional, not less. This permanence is one of the lures that the paper can use to encourage local people to write for it rather than simply for their own blogs or Facebook pages, just so it gives them sufficient freedom of expression. The Journal could link to social networks like Facebook and Twitter and Google’s new Buzz, in line with Jeff Jarvis’s philosophy of “Do what you do best—link to the rest,” an approach to which Paton himself subscribes; but I would urge the Journal not to neglect development of its own content.
Idea two: Hyperlocalize to the max—both the news and biz sides
Use tags to target cities, neighborhoods and maybe even individual blocks (through coding). Then via cookies, readers can get editions of the Journal customized at the most local level. While the Journal serves a wide area in Lorain, Erie and Huron counties—proudly proclaimed as The Golden Crescent, the existence of another notwithstanding—it could use technology to simultaneously be a hyperlocal paper for people’s neighborhoods. At the same time, with the right mobile phones, readers could toggle in location awareness to reflect their whereabouts of the moment. To his credit, John Paton is already about talking hyperlocal, one of the topics of Jeff Jarvis’s interview with him on the future of newspapers.
The real Google respects geography by serving up ZIP code-based ads. Let’s see both editorial and advertising do the same at the Journal. The smallest mom-and-pop hamburger should be able to afford advertisements directed at its customers and potential ones. Kudos to John Paton for calling for new infrastructure for Journal Register publications—an opportunity to implement exactly what I have in mind and what he himself probably does
No, don’t neglect state, national and international news. Just cover it as much as possible from local and hyperlocal angles. Is China about to increase steel exports markedly? What a perfect item for you to tag for South Lorain and other places well populated with steelworkers.
On the business side, pay generous commissions to part-time ad reps throughout the Golden Crescent who know the local hamburger-slingers and used-car-lot owners. Do you really think that such prospects on their own will fill out elaborate forms to order ads?
Idea three: Pick up Google’s focus on a user-oriented interface
The current home page of the Lorain Journal devotes too much space to ads and other promotion and not enough to news, especially at the top. I suspect that both Google and usability experts like Jakob Nielsen would recommend radical changes to reel in more readers.
The reinvented Journal would rely heavily on highly localized text ads communicating information of genuine interest to readers, such as the latest on the prices of groceries or used cars or other merchandise that was locally buyable. It would also carry national advertising targeted hyperlocally to reflect precise demographics.
Idea four: Worry not just about content but also the devices that people read the e-paper on
I doubt that most Lorainites own tablets, big-screened smart phones or other devices fit for reading the paper. Perhaps the Journal Register Company could work with phone companies and/or the real Google to address this situation, especially in an area with so many out-of-work people. Team up with the local library system, government agencies, philanthropies and others as well. And remember that many and perhaps most people will want multi-use devices rather than newspaper-only ones. Try to drive down the cost of wireless access, too, and beware of special interests warring against public WiFi.
Worry less about cannibalizing the pulped-wood Journal and more about serving readers. As I recall, the Journal is farming out its printing elsewhere, so at the local level, it probably has less invested in old technology than many similar dailies might. Probably most of the print edition’s most ardent fans are already over fifty, and with the right hardware, capable of blowing up the print for aging eyes, they might feel more at home than they would suspect. While dead-tree newspapers have their virtues—enjoy a YouTube produced by my friend Dan Bloom—the future clearly is digital.
As “snailpaper”-crazed as Dan is, do you notice how he’s spreading his message around? Print alone, as even Dan would presumably admit, can take you only so far.
Idea five: Care maniacally about the local and area economies
Lorain has dozens of nationalities, and the late and much-beloved Irving Leibowitz, editor of the Journal while I was there, started the Lorain International Festival. Maybe Tom Skoch, the current Journal editor, might consider starting a Golden Crescent Business Festival or other networking events for small business people—and follow up the in-persons gatherings with on-going forums.
Closely cover topics such vocational training and also the number of Lorain natives who return to the town after college. If they aren’t coming back, why not? What amenities could lure them? Also, how can Lorain benefit in upcoming areas such as wind and solar power and next-gen broadband (the Obama speech mentioned “the clean energy job training program here at Lorain County Community College”)? Via forums and otherwise, but without distracting too much from the core mission, journalism, can the Journal help the right business people and others find each other?
Long term, the Lorain-area economy could thrive without the Journal, given the area’s mix of electronic media, pulped-wood competition like the Elyria Chronicle Telegram and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, business publications and small local Web sites; but believe me, the reverse isn’t true.
With wise and imaginative use of technology and reinvented journalism, however, maybe the Journal can still make a go of it and along the way improve local life in ways that no one else could do.
Another Journal Register connection: The company now owns the New Haven Register, one of the papers through which I broke the story of the late Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s secret investment in a CIA-occupied building.
Update: Also see Google IS killing newspapers—but not in the way you’d think.