A Future for NewsAugust 28th, 2010 by David Nelson
Just more than a month ago, I wrote about our 75th anniversary and shared what that felt like in the newsroom. It was a look back at where we began, and the thread that still runs deep here on Fifth Street.
Today I’m writing with the same intention of opening the door to the Sun’s psyche, if slightly differently. I also hope to bring you in on the discussion of a question always present in a newsroom: what’s next?
Call this part two of that 75th anniversary column.
I’m asked often about our future, which is no surprise in a region that’s seen a major metro newspaper go online-only, is filled with tech companies, and has an audience that has heard too often our industry’s “bad news” — declining circulation, laid-off staff, loss of trust in traditional news sources. With that backdrop, where we’re headed is a question we ask ourselves internally during the cycle of annual planning, both as the Sun and as a part of the E.W. Scripps company.
There’s also the future of our industry to contemplate, a complex question in a time when change is more prevalent than ever at newspapers and websites competing to stay relevant.
The easy answer is yes, there is a future for the Sun and for journalism. The tougher follow-up question is what that will look like, what growing pains we’ll go through, what skills our journalists will need, what new options readers and advertisers will demand, and whether the revelation that solves the riddle will be posted to Facebook or Twitter first.
I’m kidding on that last one, but those social media tools are a real part of our present and important to our future. How to harness new software or products to share the news and recruit talent that uses them is something we’re seeking, both in this newsroom and in collaboration with our 14 sister newspapers in the Scripps chain. (Newspapers that, incidentally, are using Facebook now to explore the issue if you’d like to join, at facebook.com/futureofnews.)
One step in finding that answer is Sunday’s front-page story package, our contribution to the media’s attempt to explain how changes in information consumption shapes what we do. The exercise helps explain a trend to readers, but also helps our newsroom think through the challenge.
The lead story, by reporter Derek Sheppard, looks at how mobile devices have changed communication habits. That’s as broad as how much easier it is to talk with one another, something not unique to Kitsap County, and can be as narrow as how that technology delivers kitsapsun.com in a way not even thought of four years ago.
When we review readership numbers, mobile-phone use — whether on the iPhone, Blackberry, Android or other phone through m.kitsapsun.com — has become the consistent leader for growth. With Kindle and iPad popularity growing, smartphones may not hold that lead for much longer. Looking at where readers fit us into busy and technology-soaked lives is in part what prompted Sheppard’s inquiry, and it’s why we are spending resources to find out how we serve our community through those platforms while still putting energy into a printed newspaper.
Another piece in today’s edition is a profile of Publicola, a Seattle website started 18 months ago. We examined the niche political site to offer a specific look at an online-only publication staffed by journalists with deep roots — who, not incidentally, walked away from paying gigs to experiment with digital-only publishing. Other attempts have been made in the Pacific Northwest, most notably with seattlepi.com, but Publicola offers an interesting angle on the story because it’s evolved a niche news strategy and business plan swiftly — with a flexibility that may be common in media for the foreseeable future.
There is some hope for journalism in that start-up, just like the encouragement I see when the Sun’s mobile and online readership builds on our print reputation. Or when our staff adapts to new technology, or when new readers find us through Facebook or a mobile site. As I wrote in July, there’s also optimism when people simply ask how the Sun is doing these days.
Technology, as we’re seeing with niche websites and social media
hubs, doesn’t diminish the interest folks still have in local news
— and I believe the advances can make that community more
inclusive. For example, visit a site that specifically serves
tomato growers, or fly-fishermen, or Kitsap County prep football,
or, I have to mention, our comment threads on stories. None of that
existed not long ago. People are in dialogue more specifically, but
we’re still a relevant part of that.
There are more entry points to our newsroom now, more ways for us to be part of a conversation that was for decades relegated to the Opinion page or your breakfast table, and more ways for readers to be informed or involved. There are success stories coming from start-up news organizations that we watch, new delivery devices to make reading convenient, and nonmedia digital companies we can learn from or partner with.
Answering the questions related to those innovations and other trends we see in the business world — “Who pays for this stuff?” chief among them, of course — is the part of the discussion we’re knee-deep in. It’s also the part I’m inviting you to participate in.