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Newspapers will not save themselves

By now, it’s a given that in a short amount of time (if not already) people in industrialized nations will get most of their information through electronic devices, much of it by way of the Internet. It’s a fact that news “papers” are obsolete as a means of delivering content. At one time they were the most efficient and cost-effective method. They no longer are.

In time, new businesses will pop up based exclusively upon the creation and delivery of content to people electronically, whether through Web browsers or by some other means. I had hoped that newspapers and the people who worked at them would lead the charge. Upon reflection and observation, however, I seriously doubt it.

During their several-decades-long tenure as pseudo-monopolies, newspapers developed a culture based on very strong traditions. The AP Style Manual was their Bible. Ledes were sacrosanct. Headline-writing was an art. Terms like “above the fold,” “cutline,” and “news hook” were the insider currency of the newsroom.

In some cases, the rules and traditions were good. Fact-checking standards, libel precautions, and interview etiquette, for example. In other ways, traditions were wasteful, dull, and not particularly useful to the reader. Foreign correspondents enjoyed huge expense accounts to produce mediocre, little-read content. Reporting and news judgment were subservient to story-telling formulas. Layers and layers of editors turned safeguard into bureaucracy.

Worst of all, much of the content in newspapers is there because it’s always been there. While I might be wrong, I doubt most newspaper editors ever pause to wonder if anyone reads “Fred Basset” or the weather page. They’ve just always been there, and were they to be cut, a handful of octogenarians would write letters. Best leave them alone.

In sum, newspapers and the people who made their careers with them are fundamentally creatures of tradition.

Unfortunately, the news (or rather, content) business is entering an era when traditions will get you killed. The business has gone from zero competition to intense, global, and extremely fast-paced competition. I just don’t think people who’ve made their careers in the warm cocoon of traditional newspaper monopolies are going to survive out here on the cold, hard Internet. They will not be able to turn away from their traditions long enough to visualize something fresh

Enough rhetoric. How about an example?

Take I like this site, I really do. And a good friend of mine works for it. But the entire concept is wrong. Basically, it’s a Web site dedicated to traditional feature articles written by foreign correspondents posted around the world. I would like to see this site succeed, and I’m sure they did their market research and will make some money.

But all the power of the Internet and the backing of a billionaire, and that’s the best they could come up with? The content isn’t nearly rich or varied enough to gain the attention of someone who follows news from a particular country avidly. Neither is it quirky enough to draw in the casual Web surfer. The reporter “notebooks” are updated rarely and are too formal to be interesting.

The sky was the limit, and they decided to focus their resources on safe, predictable, long-form, 800-word, perspectiveless feature stories, of the kind favored by Reuters. This is what you get when a team of former newspaper people launches a Web product.

When a bunch of programmers decide to deliver content, however, you get Funded by some ex-Google people, this site takes a stab at community journalism, I presume so they can sell ads to local businesses that otherwise aren’t interested in Internet marketing. There’s a site for three New Jersey suburbs at the moment.

So far, it looks like they have an editor and two or three reporters, and about two-dozen engineers and designers. The news comes in short, significant bits, a sizable portion of it is opinion, and user-generated community announcements, business listings, and reviews play important roles.

This is different, useful, fresh… it just might work.

As more people get online and more money flows into Internet advertising, we’ll see more investment in Web enterprises that actually produce content, as opposed to aggregating (digg) or commenting on (Gawker) other people’s content. Those who figure out how to do this will get rich.

I doubt those people will come from traditional newspapers.