Stop the Presses, Take Your Credibility With You
As newspapers continue to face financial difficulties, and as newspapers and magazines continue to close, it’s important to remember that newspapers have changed continuously through their long history. Standards and expectations have changed, as have their audiences and the source of their authority. The tensions between owners’ interests and “objectivity” (and in recent years, being “fair and balanced”), between business models and community mandates, and between professional practices and new technologies together make for a complex dynamic.
Newspapers propel themselves onwards, both because of an in spite of these tensions. Some adhere to older unviable business models and find themselves increasingly unable to fulfill their most admired mandates to create an organized institutional voice that can exercise free speech and question both governments and corporations, and to offer communities a story of themselves.
The new media formations emerging online are well equipped to do the latter; less so the former. Without professional training, without funding and institutional backing, it’s difficult to establish and maintain relationships with government offices and officials, with the various human and non-human entities that make up society. As important: without training, funding, and institutional legitimacy, it’s hard to win credibility in the eyes of the audience. A million blogger voices still need source material- reporting and information as a starting point for comment and distribution.
Photographers are acutely aware of the issue of legitimacy. Social documentary and photojournalism are based on credible visual reporting. Pictures don’t really speak for themselves- that’s photojournalism 101. Photographers speak through pictures. And then what they say in the picture is quoted, requoted, and sometimes drastically decontextualized as the pictures are recontextualized in different publications, with different captions, in the service of different stories by outlets with different biases. Photographs are accurate and true when we trust the photographer to represent honestly; we trust the photographer, not the camera. And we trust the outlet that publishes the picture- or we don’t.
It’s important that we find a way to define and establish legitimacy for online news outlets. This legitimacy will look a bit different than it did with newspapers, but at its core it will be the same, a question of who you trust, why and how far you trust them as a source of information and of opinion. The internet is notorious for the ability to broadcast false information.; no less than Tim Berners-Lee, widely-recognized as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has suggested that there should be some way in which websites should be flagged for credibility . Others argue that this is against the very central virtue of the web as a place in which information can be openly shared, without an authority determining what is true and what is not.
As smaller newspapers take stock of their assets in their struggle to survive, they should be thinking not only about their staff, their advertising base, their production costs, and their readership as the factors that have to be balanced in order that their good name survive. Instead they should use their “good name” to save the rest. In their good name- their brand- lies their legitimacy as a member of the fourth estate, and the credibility of all of the words and pictures that they publish. It doesn’t have to be on paper; it can be online. But if it’s going to be online it shouldn’t be “the website of the newspaper”, the website is a news outlet. Larger media organizations are better at being webby than smaller ones.
“Yes, the heart’s still beating. We’re in Denver. Are You?”
The INDenver Times is an interesting case, a new online only local newspaper drawing heavily on the skills and good name of the recently-closed Rocky Mountain News. The Denver-based Rocky Mountain News closed on February 26th after nearly 150 years of publishing. The INDenverTimes is online now, launching officially on May 4 . The online news outlet will offer local news for free but charge a subscription for access to other sections, including live chats with the newsroom staff.
The site feels small and local. It will focus intensively on the Denver area and have no print edition. INDenverTimes offers the news that you would expect from a local paper:
“Colorado House passes budget with $800 million in cuts”
“8000-10,000 attend annual CU pot protest”
“2500 in Evergreen without power for 4th day”
“Avalanches close Berthoud Pass overnight”
The site’s design appears to be the product of a good rethink of what local newspapers have to offer. It’s a balance of traditional news sections with useful realtime web features such as traffic and weather and an iPhone version. There are home page links to a twitter feed and facebook page. Stories are by staff writers and multimedia authors who presumably are both photographers and videographers, (and perhaps otherwise graphic storytellers as well?) Stories are identified by byline and time of posting. Attention is drawn to staff personalities, and bloggers are commentators again.
This model isn’t original- large newspapers’ online versions look like this already. What’s different is the claim to journalistic legitimacy without having a print edition, and the recognition that their product is worth charging for even if it is online.
Watching the news industry transform is a wrenching thing, and hearing about journalists losing their jobs is saddening. It’s heartening to see these journalists take the future into their own hands and give bloggers something to write about. Good luck to them.