"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

March 06, 2008

Part III: Daily Hampshire Gazette Gets Redesign Online, Adds Blogs Because Blogs Will Save The World, Haven't You Heard?

Part I is here. Part II is here. And finally, I can post part III. I can't say writing about the Gazette is something I enjoy. I guess it's like doing charitable work. [EDITED:: Conversation on why in the comments] It's an important activity, and it is said it will make you a better person. But I've had my taste, and it's not for me. Maybe we could call Service Net and see what help they can offer?

As I left off, via this article,

For all the accommodations facility design firms are willing to make as they work with newspaper publishers today, a few admit they are frustrated that newspapers remain too timid.

'Papers are afraid to take chances,' said one designer, who spoke on the condition he wouldn’t be identified. 'They’re hanging on to their 8-track players and wondering what’s going on. They are so crippled by shareholders and Wall Street, and God forbid you spend money when it’s everyone’s mandate to cut costs.

'There are solutions. You can embrace the Web. Microzone. Local content. But all of these take investments, and some publishers just don’t want to take the risk.

'This is what I want to tell them: ‘Go big. Or go home.’"
At the Gazette, blogs, a redesign, adding community bloggers, letting users create profiles with a photo, (it's like MySpace! Er, except not) charging for content or not...are all poor substitutes for what the community really wants. Those are all fine examples of attempting to emulate others' successes in other arenas without addressing your own strengths and shortcomings. Seemingly going to great length to ignore or downplay what is, ultimately, the only strength a local newspaper has, and for what the Gazette seems to have so much trouble delivering on a consistent basis; Local community news that informs, educates, illuminates, and engages the community. Everything else might seem to work at times, but without a doubt, unless you shut it all down and rebirth as a competitor to MySpace, everything else is just window dressing picked out by a blind man.

Kevin Anderson wrote recently about this topic at the blog, Strange Attractor,
"...One of the questions that was raised during my talk was whether the mainstream media should blog. Tobias Escher, a DPhil student and research assistant at Oxford, followed up his questions with a post. He says:

1. Journalists and their employers do already have a voice in the public sphere, they do not need yet another channel to get their take on issues across.
2. Most of these corporate blogs just don’t work. They are not written in the spirit of blogging, they are not looking for a real dialog (something they share with blogs of politicians) and aim only to co-opt bloggers into giving the media company some form of credibility.
3. The money spent on developing these platforms should rather be invested into the core business of news providers, e.g. in foreign correspondents and investigative stories (ie. the things that are most difficult for citizen journalists).

I agree with Tobias on point one, and I have often said publicly that to justify the effort of blogging, financially and editorially, that news organisations must do more than simply chop up content that they already produce and put it in blog format. (A friend of mine calls this approach ‘news sushi’.) I often play a Daily Show video in which Jon Stewart jokes that MSM blogs ‘give a voice to the already voiced’.

...For me, blogging is part of a community strategy, not a publishing strategy. As I wrote:

Adding comments to the bottom of stories or columns is a step, but it’s missing the point. It’s treating blogging strictly as a publishing tool, not as part of a broader community strategy.

I’m not saying that it’s a mistake to allow comments on the bottom of articles or columns. But that doesn’t change the fact that simply allowing comments on static content isn’t taking full advantage of blogging. It’s treating blogging as a content-management system that allows comments. If that’s your goal, just adapt your content-management system to accept comments.

...I think Tobias is also right that most corporate and MSM blogs lack credibility. For one, they lack authenticity. They often have no voice, no humanity. In the US, journalists are hampered by believing that strict objectivity requires them to adopt not only a neutral tone but actually a boring, emotionless tone. Readers don’t believe us because they don’t believe we as journalists are actually objective. Also, why would anyone engage with the disembodied voice of objectivity?
"...a community strategy..."

The post in full is here. Though it might seem at first blush as if the writer is referring only to large national papers, i.e., "The money spent on developing these platforms should rather be invested into the core business of news providers, e.g. in foreign correspondents and investigative stories (ie. the things that are most difficult for citizen journalists)", the advice can be applied to local community newspapers. "foreign corespondents" becomes local beat writers.
"Investigative stories" becomes investigative reporters.

You can be a community newspaper that truly serves the varied and complex community you live in, or you can coast along aimlessly, without purpose or mission, wondering where it all went wrong when the cards come crumbling down. But you can not be both. You can make a choice, and succeed at either option.

And with this mouthful, I need a glass of that kool-aid they drink at the Gazette to wash it all down. I would like to end by noting to anyone still impossibly reading...I am eagerly awaiting the moment when someone turns the light bulb on at the Gazette, and no one is there to turn it off. Scrap the AP stories about Britney, the canned editorials from sources available anywhere online. I do not pick up the Gazette looking for the latest story on saber rattling between Colombia and Venezuela. Paying to read the Gazette online when everything but a small number of marginally valuable local stories stories are available elsewhere for free? As my friend said, "are you joking?"

Investigate power sources. Dig in the files. Get to know your neighbors, and tell their stories. Live blog winter storms. Create multimedia histories of the hundreds of immigrant families who currently reside in Northampton, having arrived here direct from other countries, and tell their story. Profile every Indian shopkeeper, liquor store owner, and hotel proprietor in town, and ask them with a sincere desire to know...who, what, where, when, why, and how. Document every piece of street art downtown, track down who did it and when, and put it all on an interactive map online. Find the one out every ten fifteen adult black males in this country who are in incarcerated, some who happen to reside in Northampton, and tell a story. Tie it to a national picture. Write about the current plans for the expansion of 1-91 with historical context. Talk to the farmer who lost so much on Damon Road the last time this happened, and ask him to share his experience. Videotape it. Yes, you have an agenda...you are recording the history of the community. Find the people who have no voice in community affairs, and offer to speak for them. Create a statistical map of renters and homeowners in town. Add more information to it. Profile the men and woman who cook your food, wash your vegetables, and make your coffee. Do it because you care.

Create innovative, unique, powerful, engaging, informative, educational, and illuminative community news. Or start paying the people who want to do that, give them the tools, and then let them do it. Just give it a whirl, try it, see how it works out.

"This is what I want to tell them: ‘Go big. Or go home.’"

LABELS: daily hampshire gazette, journalism, media,