Learning from mistakes

*From the Journalism and Democracy blog

Many of the topics covered in this week’s reading, a Federal Communications Commission report titled The Information Needs of Communities, have many similarities to subjects we’re covering in another class, Changing Media Business Models. I can’t help but think about what a good thing this is. We have learned so much about the reporting in the last four years, but not as much about the economics or business behind the news.

Learning how to write and report are valuable skills. Just as valuable though, are how to make a living off of those skills. Or think of it in this way — how to not make the mistakes print newspapers have made in the past.

Before I knew more as to why newspapers had been reluctant to jump on the Internet train in the beginning or why they didn’t charge for that content, I naïvely thought it was because members in the industry didn’t know any better. But that is far from it.  Look at the developments from a market standpoint. The newspaper industry is not the only industry to be effected by disruptive technology (i.e. the Internet). Disruptive technology happens all over the place. Just look at computers from the 80s to now. They’re significantly different and many businesses have entered and left the industry along they way because they couldn’t keep up with the technology developments.

This is what happened to newspapers. When the popularity of the Internet started growing, newspapers couldn’t immediately shift all their resources over to the web, they had to learn what the new resource meant for them and how to start using it. It’s hard to make business decisions with an unproven technology.

This manner of thinking has led me to look at the newspaper industry’s mistakes in the past decade in a completely different perspective. I sympathize, although not completely, with why the industry has faced profit difficulties in the last few years.

The reading explained how the rise of radio led newspapers to act hostile toward the new medium. The newspapers didn’t want the competition. This is eerily similar to what we saw with the Internet and the print medium. The print papers didn’t know how to react to the Internet at first and were somewhat skeptical to the new competitor in the market. However, now, we see newspapers learning how to utilize the Internet to the best of its ability.

The Internet has also created about as many negatives for the democratization of news as it has positives. Newspapers have had to cut down on their staff sizes due to decreasing revenue. After all, ad revenue dropped 48% from 2005 to 2010 according to the reading.

The decrease in staff size has led to less things being covered. Beats that used to have four of five reporters now only have one. That doesn’t sound good at all. One of the worst beats to get hit by this all is the investigative teams of newspapers. With less time for reporters to invest in stories, you can only imagine the amount of investigative stories that weren’t done as a result.

“An ill-informed public will benefit people who can push an agenda without accountability and public scrutiny,” Education Week publisher Virginia Edwards said.

I think that quote epitomizes what can happen if we have less reporters filling that watchdog role.

Now those are just a few of the negatives the Internet has created. It has also created many positives. The barrier for entry into the journalism world is essentially zero nowadays because of the ease of creating a blog. More voices in the public discourse is a good thing. If newspapers can figure out how to best tap this resource, they might figure out how to break even in the industry instead of continuing to lose money.

Capitol Hill Seattle is one of the bright spots in the rise of blogs. It is basically run by one man, Tom Fucoloro. But what is so intriguing about this website is the neighborhood’s investment in the site. It’s a blog that focuses on the news for one neighborhood in Seattle. The beauty of it is that just about anyone can post on the website. The “news” stories are distinguished from other types of posts, as Fucoloro explained to our media models class last week.

This type of website may not be able to survive in other cities not as big as Seattle. But what it does do is tap that interest all of us have in the happenings in our neighborhood. It allows for the community to have a stake in the website. Without them it wouldn’t be here today. It’s an example newspapers today can probably learn a lesson or two from.

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