March 28, 2005
The death of the scoop

Adina writes about the death of the scoop in newspaper journalism and notes how the assumptions are different when blogs cover the news.

Early reporting on the big Texas House telecom bill involves bloggers sharing information, puzzling out the intricacies of a debate with nearly 40 amendments, and the meaning of the bill that came out of the sausage machine.

The enemy isn't other bloggers -- it's the indifference of the mainstream media to stories that are less dramatic than an oil refinery explosion. The Statesman covered the telecom story. The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle apparently didn't.

In a world of online peer production, facts aren't the scarce resource. Attention is the scarce resource. We're not limited by the front page, news-hour spatial constraint where an oil refinery explosion crowds out other news. We're limited by social dynamics that focus attention on the day's cause celebre.

The scarce resource is attention. Collaboration multiplies links and attracts attention. Thus bloggers swarm to assemble the facts.

Kimberly, who unlike most of us bloggers is an Actual Professional Journalist in real life, has some thoughts on this. I think this is a bit harsh on the Chronicle, since the BP refinery explosion happened in its back yard at the same time, and there's only so many reporters to go around. They did have a story about HB789 the next day. Of course, they didn't have much of anything outside of Dwight's TechBlog before that, and what he had was mostly links to me and to SaveMuniWireless. Her point about attention is well taken. The Chron didn't think this story merited it, and that was that.

Clearly, though, there was and is an audience for narrow-interest stuff, and that brings us to where blogs stepped in. I think the effect that the proliferation of blogs has had on news coverage is akin to the effect that the proliferation of cable channels has had on broadcast TV. Think back, if you're old enough, to the dark days of the Big Three networks, PBS, and UHF. How many shark documentaries were there back then? How about shows about home design? Celebrity poker? Fashion faux pas? They didn't exist because the audience for them wasn't big enough. But cable channels, who took to specialization as a means of competing, gladly went after those audiences. Though the overall numbers they got were small in comparison, the people who did tune in tended to fit a niche that was attractive to advertisers. The smaller audience was still a very desireable one.

I think that's the role that blogs play now. Just as there's only so much room in the weekly network schedule for niche programming, there's only so much room in the dailies for stories that don't have broad appeal. Bloggers, who do have the time and inclination to follow stories like the lifecycle of an otherwise dry telecom bill, step in to fill the void. Speaking as a voracious consumer of news, I couldn't be happier. The (generally) collaborative nature of blogging is a big asset here, since no one person can stay on top of all developments all the time, and most of us aren't usually heavily invested in publishing first. We just want to make sure that thing we're obsessing about gets the coverage we think it deserves. On busy days especially, we're happy to be able to throw a link that says "my colleague so-and-so has the goods today on that story we're following" and know that the interested readers are still being served.

The interesting question, of course, is whether the mainstream news producers will attempt to leverage these efforts as a way of boosting their own product line, much as NBC, Viacom, and Disney have snapped up various cable channels. That seems to be the direction that the Greensboro News & Record is taking, and if this story is any indication, others are beginning to follow their lead.

The News & Record's Web site features 11 staff-written Web journals, or blogs, including one by the editor that answers readers' questions, addresses their criticisms and discusses how the paper is run.

That puts the paper way ahead of even much larger news organizations. The News & Record's blogs range from "just-the-facts, ma'am," to slightly spicy.

There's a page for reader-submitted articles, another for letters to the editor and an online tips' form. The Web site hosts online forums on 23 topics, including safety at a local high school, FedEx Corp.'s move to the area and cameras at local stoplights. Traffic cams monitor local road conditions.

The site posts up-to-date public records on property ownership, marriages and divorce.


Other papers are watching. The Houston Chronicle, The (Portland) Oregonian, (Raleigh) News & Observer and USA Today have all called News & Record editor John Robinson to discuss what his paper is doing.

Intrigued? I am. I thought participatory journalism was a good idea when I first heard about it, and I still think that. How it will shake out, how widely it will get adopted, and whether there's more than one way to do it right, I don't know. But I think this is coming, and I think it will be good, especially for those of us who can't get enough news.

UPDATE: More from Grits, including some good comments.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 28, 2005 to Other punditry | TrackBack

Had a little followup with Adina and Banjo on that at Grits here.

Posted by: Scott on March 28, 2005 4:33 PM

There may not be that much interest in the HB 789 daily developments for the print version of the newspaper, but that version is no longer a growth industry.

The online version is the perfect place for such stories, and I think they will generate niche interest. MSM then has to figure out a proper advertising model for that sort of online coverage (see the Pegasus News guys for that conversation).

But do you really think Clay Robison is the sort of visionary who's thinking that way? Because I don't.

Maybe Dwight Silverman, who can certainly move things in the right direction as online editor for the Chron site (one of the more heavily trafficked news sites out there), but even so, he's not in charge of the Austin bureau, so just how much impact can Dwight have even if he has support from higher ups to take online to the cutting edge?

Posted by: kevin whited on March 29, 2005 7:51 AM

Thanks for the link!

Posted by: Lex on April 2, 2005 10:31 AM