Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A short defense of daily publishing

Maybe Jeff Jarvis and I disagree so often because our view of journalism and the value it provides is just so different.

That’s the inference, at least, from his post today (The death of daily) berating “outmoded ... dailiness” as “staleness.”

“Once it’s out, it’s over,” Jeff writes.

That’s true, of course, but only if your view of value is restricted to event-driven facts. I’ve been arguing for years that newspapers – yes, printed, daily newspapers – have a good long horizon on the value curve if they shift their focus to the value they already do best: summary, briefings, orientation, authentication. If a printed product did that well, the fact that it’s a once-a-day product would be a strength: a starting point, presumably first thing in the morning, which helped readers orient their day and prepare to parse and interpret all the fact-clotted data that would wash over the ceaselessly for the rest of the day.

The newspaper thus becomes a tool for managing the rest of your information habit. It can help you sift and sort and filter the vast river of news that flows past constantly, effervescently through the day. Think of it as a cup, or instruction manual, for getting a drink of water from a firehose.

Society is not a mere assemblage of individuals each acting purely on self-interested motivation. We are a collectivist, social species, and we need a common vocabulary, a shared starting point, at least, from which to launch our individualist endeavors. We can’t all check the accuracy or authenticity of every data point that floats by. There is a robust, profitable business here for the entity that provides those services.

Remember, even in cities with great libraries, people still bought encyclopedias. You don’t always need the whole library; indeed, it can overwhelm or bewilder, and leave you more confused than when you started.

Data gets stale; insight doesn’t.


I had a nagging feeling I'd said more or less this same thing once before. (That happens to me more and more these days.) I searched this blog and found this, from May 2006.

I'm reminded again that most choices facing us in this new era inolve AND rather than OR. We need to do everything Jarvis is talking about and sustain our central role in provising context, perspective and authentication:

Yes, we know you’re awash in data and information. You wake up to NPR, listen to talk radio on your commute, surf the web when you should be working and see CNN in the lunchroom. You’ve been titillated by blogs and email alerts all day; friends and coworkers have sent you IMs about the latest item to tickle their fancy. You’ve got books and podcasts cued oup on your iPod. So what can we possibly do for you?

How about this: I’ll ask a hundred of the smartest people I know to spend all day sorting through that information, figuring out which of the blog items you saw is accurate enough to deserve your attention, comparing what the Secretary of Defense said on TV with what he told you last month, figuring what’s likely to happen tomorrow on that big story that dominated CNN. They’ll organize it in concise and manageable dimensions, collect it all in one spot and deliver it to your doorstep first thing in the morning to help you organize and orient your coming day.

In the meantime, we’ll use all those other channels as well to keep you posted on what we learn about the latest developments, and to deliver the information – chiefly local – that we alone have bothered to check out and discover.


  1. I agree with a lot of this Howard. Just one question, though -- why set the mark at daily? I might be part of a tiny minority in this regard, but a weekly local news product would be even *more* valuable to me than a daily one, so valuable I'd probably even pay for it, if it was good enough. :) I haven't seen any data estimating the potential market value of consumers like me.

  2. This is an important point I should have addressed in my original post.

    I think daily is a virtue because it is intimately tied to the way we live our lives. In general, we awaken, work through about a third of our day, and then recreate and retire. It’s a 24-hour cycle, and for the vast majority, it boots up every morning.

    That is the best possible time to get your briefing-summary-orientation to help equip you to manage the information flow that will surround the rest of your day. Having some appreciable fraction of the population starting at the same point, with the same briefing, is likewise advantageous, a network effect perhaps best illustrated by the role the Wall Street Journal has long played in executive suites: You dare not be the only one who hadn’t read it.

    I don’t think there’s any either/or here; let a thousand flowers bloom. A weekly compilation of quotidian news (tee hee) might be the best format for it. Other news, we all recognize, needs to be displayed as quickly as possible. A newsless, process oriented news report should be timeless.

    I think the daily orientation function is best done first thing in the morning.

  3. I'm reminded of my very first Journalism prof saying to me, "You can't layout a newspaper on a computer screen!" as he'd hand me a stack of blank dummy sheets.

    Well, who uses dummy sheets today? No one, newspapers are all laid out of computers (ok, there's gonna be that one guy...).

    The "daily" news summary... (and lets try to keep the medium be it print or online out of this) is simply a learned behavior. The question here is not whether you or Jarvis think it has any merit, but do "the kids today" think it has enough merit to keep it a sustainable business as they grow and have kids of their own.

    Given the number of 40-something-year-olds I know that, like myself, are perfectly content to get their news in various sized bits from an ever growing array of sources (and many of them not newspapers) I'd say that there just might be some wisdom in what Jarvis says.

  4. My point is that the notion of s daily briefing or orientation is explicitly *not* just learned behavior; it's a part of a natural rhythm and preparation for activity.

    Of course not everybody will want it. But saying people don't want it now is shooting in the dark, since it's not available now in the form it needs to be. Saying we should just give people what they want now reminds me of a story about Henry Ford: asked how he found out people wanted his automobile, he replied. "They didn't know they wanted it. If I'd asked what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse."

    It's also important not to think about these activities as last forever. Maybe the 40-somethings (and surely the 30-somethings) will one day substitute other things entirely for print. But that won't happen all at once, or immediately, I assure you.

  5. Anonymous5:56 PM

    From the Sales Manager of an Alt. Weekly -

    Howard, I completely agree that a daily paper is critical in providing a starting point for community dialogue about any number of issues.

    In my Alt. Weekly world, we are constantly competing against "the big bad corporate daily." We like to think of ourselves as a place to publish community news that is in-depth and looks at issues through a different lens. Often through a lens of advocacy.

    My impassioned colleagues and I do a lot of reading. And yes, I think we all subscribe to the big bad daily. I hope with all my heart that you are right. I love my ritual of reading the daily in the morning, even though in our market the daily could be a much better read (not a McClatchy paper). Even though it's not that great of a paper, it's dropped everyday at my house and at least the very thin A section is still written by local reporters. I know they do their best to collect information that matters to the community. With only 9 of them left, they must be working very hard.

    It would be tragic to not have this news source, it would be tragic for our paper to be left with nothing to be an alternative to, and it would surely lead to an overall dumbing down of the entire city.

    I hope dailies everywhere can get through this struggle and emerge from it in a marketplace that will sustain daily printed news. Local private ownership could be a good thing too.

    We really like what we do, and don't want to try to fill in the vacuum a daily would create if it were to stop printing. We're busy doing our best serving the community where the daily can't or won't.

    The big bad daily was the villain of our non-conformist past. That stance was a necessity when there was ONLY the daily. The villain now is a world without them. I hope you're right. I don't think anybody here wants to cover sports or publish obits. The daily affords us a luxury to have a more leisurely type of jounalism that can bring new perspective to an issue already aired. Without them, the "us" would change into an unrecognizable organization.

    Keep fighting dailies. Be nimble and be quick. And stop billing me wrong for God's sake! Reader first!