In the Miami Herald yesterday, columnist Leonard Pitts had a radical idea--radical for him anyway, from the sound of it. In this world where more and more people are turning to the online universe for their news, Pitts suggests that the website ought to become the focus of media conglomerates, as opposed to the physical newspaper.

It's really not that radical a suggestion. Pitts uses the recent announcement of job cuts by the McClatchy newspapers as his frame, and while many news organizations have come under legitimate fire for putting short-term profitability ahead of their responsibility to report actual news, McClatchy has been one of the good ones. They were the only major news organization questioning the rush to war in Iraq, and for that, I'll forever owe them a debt of gratitude. So when they say they're feeling the pinch, and when I see articles about their economic difficulties, I tend to cut them some slack.

Pitts, to his credit, at least acknowledges the changing landscape.

Yes, every newspaper has a website now. Some, like The Herald, have TV and radio facilities as well. I'm talking about something more: a radical change of focus.

We still tend to regard our websites as ancillary to our primary mission of producing newspapers. But I submit that our primary mission is to report and comment upon the news and that it is the newspaper itself that has become ancillary.
I don't think the hard copy is going to disappear completely very soon--there's still a market that hasn't gone online at all, much less with handheld devices, and open Wi-Fi is much less prevalent than it ought to be. There will come a time in the near future where newspapers become fetish items of sorts, but we aren't there yet, and I say this as someone who hasn't bought an actual paper in over a year. But Pitts is looking forward, and that's an important step--the newspaper as it exists now is not going to be around much longer, and media companies need to recognize that.

The problems come in with his solutions:
So maybe we should regard the Internet not as an extra thing we do, but as the core thing we do. Maybe we should maximize the fact that we know our cities as no one else does. Maybe we should make our websites not simply online recreations of our papers, but entities in their own right, destination portals for those who want news and views from and about a given city, but also for those who want to find a good doctor in that city, or apply for a job in that city or reach the leaders of that city or research the history of that city. Maybe the goal should be to make ourselves the one indispensable guide to that city.
So far, so good. Yes, acting as a one-stop area for information about a single city would be awesome. Lots of papers are already moving toward that model, and mixing it with hard news about local issues would make the site even more effective. Please, give us that.
And then maybe we should hire away the bright people who figured out how to make Yahoo and Google profitable and ask them to make our sites profitable, too.
It's not that simple. I see the logic--Yahoo and Google make most of their money from ad revenue, and so do newspapers, so put those people in charge and bingo! Profits. Part of the difference is scale--Google and Yahoo are global, and Pitts is talking about something that's necessarily regional, so there's a smaller revenue stream to dip from. But it's certainly worth looking into. The next one? Not so much.
Maybe -- heretical idea ahead -- it's as simple as requiring online readers to pay for the product, just as our other readers do.
Sorry, dude. Did you miss TimesSelect? For better or worse, people are not willing to pay for access to online news. It doesn't work. Every news organization that has tried it has backed away later, beaten and bloodied. You can bemoan the culture of "if it's online, it should be free" all you want, but it's been encoded onto our surfing DNA--we don't pay for news online. If you try to "require" us to do so, we will simply go elsewhere--and other places will spring up, leaving you without page views, and by extension, the ad revenue that really pays the bills.

Here's a different suggestion, but I'm afraid Pitts won't like it. What local newspapers provide better than anyone else is information--news, local interest, restaurant reviews, local political coverage, that sort of thing. Pitts' idea for the salvation of newspapers is for them to become more local, more necessary to the community. What's less necessary for them? Opinion. Commentary. That's the area where the internet has really cut into the newspaper business. See, bloggers don't usually gather their own news, but they--we--generate plenty of opinion and commentary on that news. I'm not saying that blogging can fully supplant the role of columnists, but we're certainly competing with them, and making them less necessary, and if I were running a local paper and trying to make it essential to the community, I'd certainly be seeking out local voices to talk about local things. And bloggers, I hear, work cheap.

Hat tip to Rick

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