Thinking about the future of news, with or without newspapers

Darn… Cyber scholar and new media thinker Clay Shirky was almost in town today and I missed him… When someone who was there posts a report, I’ll link to it here. Until then, I’ll let this ramble from link to link.

As promised follow these links: Beth Macy and Carole Tarrant both shared their accounts of Shirky’s visit to The Roanoke Times, the “almost in town” I referred to above. I wish I’d been able to make it, but I was off at the doctor’s office learning how to avoid having a stroke — not entirely unrelated to this business of keeping up with a dozen new Web technologies at once.

Meanwhile, even a near-miss is a good enough excuse to post this link to a speech by “Digital First” newspaper publisher John Paton, who mentions Shirky in a recent speech gently titled “Old Dogs New Tricks and Crappy Newspaper Executives.”

Paton doesn’t actually link his Web post to the article by Shirky that he mentions — not that anyone reading his speech couldn’t slap the title into Google and be there in an instant: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.

I can’t help but think Paton is right about community knowledge and identification with local news, and I love his idea about the newsroom as public coffee shop… but I wonder about the extent to which the audience has to have the news habit in the first place.

Torrington, Conn., is home of his open-newsroom-coffeeshop experiment and, coincidentally, I’ve spent some time there back before the Web was spun. Back then, the two papers (Torrington Register and Winsted Citizen), apparently now merged at http://www.registercitizen.com, probably benefitted from the disappearance of The Hartford Times (RIP c. 1976) and the decline of The Hartford Courant under Tribune co. ownership since 2000. When it had The Hartford Times as well as these smaller papers to compete with, the Courant had strong bureaus in both Torrington and Winsted and stringers in all the smaller towns surrounding both cities. (I was a bureau reporter, later bureau chief, in two comparable bureaus on the other side of the state.)

For my students and colleagues in southwest Virginia: Imagine a city of 20,000 to 40,000, about the size of Radford, with FOUR competing daily papers, three of them with full-time resident reporters, plus a strong local news radio station!

Some people still living in Torrington or Willimantic, where I was a reporter, grew up with that kind of news-consumer-culture. Add a strong League-of-Women-Voters and New England Town Meeting civic culture, and whether it’s “digital first” or “print-only,” a news organization has something to tap into. (That “print-only” link goes to a recent Nieman Reports article about The Boston Courant, a small weekly that is no relation to the Hartford institution.)

How do you “grow” a civic-minded news culture or revive one that has been dormant? Before the end of the semester, I hope to get students thinking and talking about that — and this page’s links should help.

Here are a few more links for good measure: “The Washington Post — a Newspaper, and a Legacy, Reordered,” a New York Times piece from last week, and a Times letter to the editor by Rachel Davis Mersey, author of Can Journalism Be Saved? She apparently is almost a former classmate of mine. (I was pointed to her letter by Philip Meyer, who admits to having both of us as students, and who has just added an autobiography to his list of publications, and a Twitter feed. )

Finally, it dawned on me that I’ve written blog posts about these issues off and on over the years, so I’ve started my own “Old News” aggregation page — on the menu at the top of this blog.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in community, Digital Culture, hyperlocal, Journalism, News, Newspapers, Online-Only, Roanoke Times

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