Too much of a good thing, II

Keeping the online report local might protect the local daily.


Where were we?

Oh yes. The aggravating effects of online aggregation. Continuing with yesterday’s topic and a source already quoted, according to Jim Rutenberg’s April 17 article in The New York Times, Jim VandeHei believes that survival “depends on giving readers what they really want, how they want it, when they want it, and on not spending too much money producing what they don’t want.”

As a newspaper’s ad revenue declines, subscription revenue must increase. Online viewers have a world of content to choose from and are notoriously resistant to paying for any of it.

Thus, the advice. Give them what they want, how they want it, when they want it — convince them to become a subscriber.

Methinks it’s time to consider different perspectives.

Let’s start with one of our imagined dailies from yesterday’s post, the Herald, about to cover a campaign stop by Bernie Sanders at the state capital.

Presume the Herald presides over a rural corner of the state and is a member of The Associated Press.

The Herald editors decide they’ll use the AP’s campaign-stop story as a sidebar. For their main piece, they’ll send a reporter and a photographer to the event with a busload of local Bernie supporters.

(The supporters are quite happy to invite the journalists along, knowing Bernie will get excellent coverage in the local paper as a result.)

In the print edition and on the Herald’s website, the story about the supporters’ day trip runs with the sidebar from the AP.

(I am presuming that, as an AP member, the Herald would have the right to publish whatever AP stories it publishes in print on the web as well. Not sure that’s true. If you know one way or the other, please comment.)

In print and online, the Herald has produced what its subscribers expect.

But — and here’s an idea — perhaps the newspaper should refine its approach for platforms designed for the mobile web — Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, Apple News and Facebook’s Instant Articles.

When the Herald pushes its news feed to them, the paper could withhold all wire copy and wire photos. The effect would be to make the Herald stories totally local and therefore totally different than everything else being served on those platforms.

One would hope that, as the Herald maintains a local focus, producing news uniquely pertinent to its local readership, it would maintain its subscriber base.

Now, let’s consider the perspective of a newspaper or online-only news organization with national aspirations — The New York Times, Politico, etc. We’ll call them “the majors.”

The majors have a much tougher row to hoe. They need to convince a world of potential subscribers that they are the best source of national news. And, unlike the Herald, the majors face serious competition from each other, for none have a naturally local angle.

Of course, each of them is going to try to produce the best story of the Sanders event. Of course, the stories will be similar. Of course, the internet will aggregate them, creating a confusing clutter of similar pieces.

And — and this is the real problem — not all of the majors will enforce a paywall. Some of them will let readers peruse the Sanders story for free. The free stories will likely be most often read, which will improve their standing on search results pages. Right?

(If I’m wrong, please comment.)

I’ve got no ideas here. First of all, the AP has to cover the national story for its members. That’s why it exists — to cover events its members can’t afford to cover. I reckon the same could be true for the national newspaper chains that have formed their own wire services. They have to be there, on behalf of the dailies that are owned by the chain and can’t be there. Right?

Add in other news organizations without a geographically local focus and what do you get? As VandeHei decries, “50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s last speech.” Competition, aggregated online.

It’s bad for everyone, but how can one expect a major to refrain from covering a national event, to let the other guy cover it and glean whatever associated pennies fall out of the internet ether? I’m afraid the market is going to rule here, and it will be ruthless.

No, I don’t have any ideas, unless — consider a jury trial of national interest. The court will only allow one member of the press to attend. The majors (and they know how to do this) form a pool; one reporter goes in and his/her story is given to all.

Could this model be applied to national stories, with a twist? Would the majors agree to take turns? You take Bernie; I’ll take Hillary; we’ll share stories? Only one version of each gets published?

Crazy idea. Nah.

Author: TAM

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