Friday, February 09, 2007

Straw dogs

Steve Outing is a smart guy who realized early on that the internet was going to have profound impact on newspapers. He's been an important voice for change and conduit of information about how to do it for more than a decade.

That's why it's so discouraging to see his E&P column reflect unsupported, one-dimensional thinking. There are plenty of other folks out there eager (hell, positively giddy) to seize on every fragment of survey research or observational anecdote as proof of their Chicken Little thesis.

The biggest disservice of their apocalyptic chorus is that it drowns out conversation about genuine change that desperately needs to be happening.

A couple of examples:

Outing tells us he has a couple of teenage daughters and then concludes, “If there are any folks in the newspaper industry who have notions still that they'll adapt the print product to attract some of my daughter's generation, or those in their 20s, and probably 30s, too, I'd say your chances for success are practically nil.”

Come on, Steve. Nil? Something like 70 percent of people 18-34 read a newspaper every week right now.

He also approvingly quotes supposed experts making statements like this: “First of all, video formats will remain dominant. That's been a bitter pill for local newspapers to swallow for a long time -- but that's just the way it is.”

Huh? That’s not true in either the wired or unwired world. Text is overwhelmingly dominant on the internet, as it is in analog communication. There's a good reason for that: people listen at somewhere between 100 and 160 words per minute (depending, perhaps, on whether the speaker is from Biloxi or Tacoma). Yet in that same 60 seconds people can read between 300 and 1,000 words, meaning text gets facts into your head between twice and 10 times as rapidly.

Of course video is important, and becoming more so. That’s why we’re pushing hard to present more and more of it in our online news reports, why we’re learning to deliver it on a variety of mobile devices. Ten years ago you needed to buy a television station to do what our sports reporters in Kennewick now do routinely. Public demand for on-demand video is an opportunity for newspapers, which have deeper and richer content local news content to distribute than anybody else.

Much of the argument in Steve's column is classic straw man rhetorical technique: misrepresent the opposing position and then knock down the misrepresentation. Is the printed, once-a-day newspaper as premier provider of headline news doomed? Yes. But who do you know in the news business nowadays that pretends otherwise?

My own view is much closer to the one Outing reports from Robin Sloan: it's by far the most insightful of all the observations in the column and has huge implications about how and why we must change the top-down, hierarchical culture of news reporting. Here's a big snip, but by all means read it all:

I think 'news' just becomes a less distinct category. You don't sit down with a newspaper, or even a news website, or even a super wireless e-paper device, for 10 minutes in the morning to very formally 'get your news.' Rather, you get all sorts of news and information -- from the personal to the professional to the political -- throughout the day, in little bits and bursts, via many different media. With any luck, in 5-10 years the word 'news' will be sort of confusing: Don't you just mean 'life'?

Here’s perhaps the most troubling of all the predictions Outing features: the view that "there really won't be a … shared news experience" in the future. Though it’s presented as "the bitterest pill for newspaper executives to swallow," it would be far worse than that. No shared news experience? Wouldn't that also be a death knell for civic life and self-government?

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