The Crystal Ball is Really Murky

I want to believe that news has a future. I don’t mean that things will continue to blow up, countries will continue to go to war, celebrities will continue to stumble, and people will continue to invent and discover.

That news of course, does have a future in that their will always be things people want to know about. I also have faith that those kind of things–the war, and crime, and inventions–will get passed on from the newsmakers to everyone else without much trouble. That’s the kind of news that can be passed on with a release or a tweet. Community boards can start their own newsletters or blogs. Even some of the really big news can come straight from the source through the Internet. And, if we see newspapers as the way that people found out what was going on in the world, then newspapers probably are obsolete.

But newspapers are more than that. It’s not enough to know war broke out; people should know what happens in that war, what leads to things going terribly wrong as well as what is going right. Cold cases should come back in the public eye. Industry deception and hidden dangers should be revealed. The news from the mouth of the source should be weighed against opposing views. That’s the kind of stuff that journalism provides, and that can’t always be replaced with the mess of ways to communicate that the Internet provides.

Of course, those stories are generally expensive, and, as Nick Carr points out, were previously funded by bundling. Carr’s article did an excellent job laying out the problems with the industry’s over-reliance on bundling. But he ends his post by saying that quality journalism might just die. He offers no solution to the very real problem.

I was heartened, however, by the underlying message in Jeff Jarvis‘ post, even though I remain skeptical of it’s most obvious point:

I’ll say it again: Distribution is not king. Content is not king. Conversation is the kingdom. It’s about relationships.

I believe that it’s somehow about relationships, but I’m still not sure how the community interaction part plays in. The Boston Globe is betting on the True Fans model: people who just need their Red Sox fix can get it for free, but people who love the Globe–for it’s reporting on non-sports, or for other, more emotional reasons–will pay for it at Not coincidentally, is also where they intend to have their most vibrant commenting system. But, I think that relationships and conversation are two different things.

I have a relationship with the Globe. My very first byline was on a book review for the Globe‘s long-gone Student Page. I was nine years old. The Globe is My Hometown Newspaper, so when they told me I’d have to pay for access, I did. But I don’t have a conversation with the Globe. I rarely comment on newspaper articles; I can’t imagine my Globe subscription will change that.

When I asked the publisher of the Globe, Christopher Mayer, what value he foresaw getting from a commenting system, he talked about community, and feedback and solid reader contributions, driven by the fact that readers would not be able to hide under full anonymity (at least the subscription sale people know who you are no matter how strange your commenting handle is). Maybe that can all be monetized, and maybe he didn’t want to tell me how that would be monetized (the answer might be offline–the Globe will be offering that same commenting community in-person events), but right now I don’t see how communication leads to money, or certainly not to the money needed to make up for the unbundling. That being said, I’m not sure the True Fans model will make enough money for that either. I don’t think shorting stocks or “”scooping the muck from the sewer and holding it up in your hand and saying, ‘Look at this. Smell this””  is the answer either.

I’m skeptical of conversation as kingdom–though I recognize that might be because so many sites add commenting as a tack-on rather than a thought-through part of their site and business model–but what really struck me about the Jarvis was that he pushed the idea that newspapers need to figure out what their value is. He argues that it’s community or conversation. I’d say it’s providing information beyond the basics.

But, I do think that newspapers don’t often enough step outside of the journalism bubble and ask what their value can and should be in the Internet age. It might be some sort of smart aggregation. It might be letting computers write the breaking news so that staff can only focus on investigation. It might be becoming the virtual town square. I think that that answer needs to be found first before the solution to the money problem can really be found.