With a mountain of newsboy hats already thrown into the how-to-save-publishing ring, here's another. The collective naval-gazing of reporters and publishers far exceeds the outcry when free downloads upended the music industry and streaming video tanked television ratings, because when a crisis hits the writers it's what we write about.
1) Style. The inverted pyramid AP-style story is obsolete. It existed to accommodate print limitations when there was a good chance your last three paragraphs would be cut at the print shop, but there are no space limitations in web journalism. The good news? More writers will be afforded the big finish that was previously only guaranteed to top columnists like Ben Hecht. The legendary journalist took the traditional route from crime reporter to columnist to novelist to Hollywood screenwriter. I once interviewed his daughter about what home life was like with one of the greatest crime reporters of all time and she recalled him coming home at night and sitting at the kitchen table, head in hands, repeating over and over, "What they did to that girl." The stories stay with you. Hecht didn't just write The Front Page, he wrote the original Scarface at the height of '20s excess. And he did not just cover the police beat, he helped unravel true crime stories. Much hand-wringing is going on over the potential loss of investigative reporters, but they're not going anywhere with journalism school enrollment at an all-time high. Journalism jobs are at an all-time low and that's a recipe for innovation even if it involves each reporter becoming the publisher of his or her own web site. Traffic will rise or fall on the relevance of the story to each reading community. Even if no ads materialize, see Ben Hecht. Back when top journalists were valued, they went on to publish books. The books were optioned by Hollywood and we ended up watching The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway would have been a standout on Twitter -- his work came pre-edited.
2) Sources. It's no longer enough for reporters to write what they know, it has become necessary to write what they live. If I'm doing an article on veterans for peace, I can interview Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. But Rieckhoff doesn't need me to write his story -- he writes about these issues himself on the Huffington Post and probably receives more traffic than the Washington Post or the New York Times based on a recent survey. Much has been made of the NYT home and garden story picked up by Yahoo and spiking the New York Times' traffic to 9 million page views. When Yahoo News picked up my last Huffington Post piece, 17,000 other blogs did too. So it's not big news that Yahoo News is big, but it is big news that the relationship, still symbiotic, has flipped to the point that the aggregator now helps the daily reach a wider audience. But neither the aggregator, publishing a paragraph and a link, nor the newspaper is profiting off the sinkhole that the advertising industry has become in this economy. Advertising is the elephant in the room, and it's not even buying ads for peanuts. Mirroring Tivo, Adblock can keep ads off an Internet page entirely. And readership data mining for profit is not only in its infancy, it's creepy. Product placement wedged into a Twitter stream is also dubious -- shilling for an advertiser in 140 characters or less will only get a writer's stream blocked. So how to monetize?
3) Advertorial. Following a small town newspaper's example, all roads lead to the dreaded advertorial section. Weddings, recipes -- we acted like it was the end of the world to write for an insert. That's why the sales department hated the newsroom, but we took our terrible attitudes to the small, local shop and wrote seasonal articles. The shop would often call to say thanks for the writeup (reporter inwardly seething: "it's not a writeup, it's an ad"), then clip it and frame it for placement behind their checkout stand. We would mourn our wasted journalism degree and go back to writing the next feature that was going to change the world. In online publishing, advertorial is going to have to translate into a section of articles, written by actual journalists, about products that they don't hate. Soap operas used to be sponsored by soap. Today's writers may have to solicit manufacturers about product placement. James Thurber once wrote a satirical column on this very premise, a sponsored post on a family crisis saved by a product such as delicious biscuits. Literary patrons predated this, and you notice no writers trashed the Medicis until well into the 1500's. Some in the mommy blogger community are facing a backlash after writing about sponsored products, but feature sections have always been buried with products mailed in by optimistic publicists. We didn't write about them, but we didn't send them back. I once wrote a glowing article about a local beer company's product, but in my defense I was drunk. The reading public is smart enough to know that if a product is featured in a story, someone either bought an ad or sent in a sample. With an online advertorial section, the sponsor can be clearly indicated in an article about, say, delicious buttermilk biscuits.
4) Lifecasting. In one more example of the small town paper's potential relevance, welcome to lifecasting. Otherwise known as, everything is interesting if it's happening to you. Andy Warhol was right, in the future everyone will be famous but instead of 15 minutes it's been whittled down to 15 seconds. The most popular feature in our suburban newspaper was the birth announcements, followed by weddings. Then obituaries. One in 100 Americans now has a web site, so you can easily announce your own milestones, but there's still power in a printed product. Something to clip, frame or tuck away in a scrapbook. If micro news can help save print journalism, that still leaves the question of what's to become of national newspaper reporters. We used to wistfully watch the dailies pick up our small town news stories and catapult local characters like Vlasta the Polka Queen straight to the David Letterman show. But reporting in the major leagues meant following jobs around the country, and many top writers now being laid off have sacrificed their families' stability to an industry in crisis. I am hopeful that if any old dog can learn a new trick, it's the American journalist. From Hecht to Hemingway, Dorothy Dix to Molly Ivins it is a spectacular act to follow. We may lose publishers, we may lose editors but the writers will continue to write. I hope we don't lose editors -- without them I once misspelled Senator Al Franken's name. And I hope we don't lose publishers as I would like to someday complain about having to go to my own book signing.
Ten years ago I left my newspaper editing job to move to New Orleans and write. Four years ago I quit my clerical job the Friday before Hurricane Katrina hit, complete with a going away party making me one of the only evacuees with closure. This doesn't make me an expert on anything but impending disaster, but sometimes it's easy to feel which way the wind is blowing.
Why bring any of these ideas into the mix? I have plenty of time on my hands.