The Roadmap For Building a 21st Century Newspaper

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Yesterday, I weighed in on the Tribune Company bankruptcy filing, noting that where voids might be created by the disappearance of established newspaper brands, there was opportunity for those nimble enough and digitally savvy enough to adjust. In my mind, as I wrote that, I was thinking primarily of alternate newspapers, but had a dream somewhere in the recesses of my head that there would, or could be an answer from the blog world. That there were blogs with enough presence and notoriety that could fill the void left by a major daily. Of course, power players exist but are generally single vertical sites (i.e. Engadget operates in the tech gadgets space) that don’t have the wide-ranging appeal that a daily newspaper does.

However, since I wrote that piece, I’ve carried on a number of private conversations with folks inside the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The questions seem to be, “Aaron, what do you think we can do better?”

Interesting question.

2125669268_6aa230b967_oOrlando Sentinel Newsroom. Photo by wcouch

I think the New York Times, as mentioned yesterday, has road mapped a lot of where the newspaper business needs to be in the digital age. All of their content is robustly tagged in a machine-readable way. It’s possible to find all content from Author D between the months of June and October in even-numbered years having to do with the auto industry.

The fine level of meta-data (data describing the stories) has been applied in such a way that the entirety of the Times is opened up to ambitious people who want to use their data and mash it up, re-apply it and, by nature, extend the New York Times readership.

The roadmap is there.

Interestingly, with a New York Times approach to metadata and the variety of Tribune Company properties (not just the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune and LA Times, but also the Hartford Courant, WGN, Orlando Sentinel and more), it should be possible for users to create their own newspaper, and the newspaper to suggest content by behavior. Facebook is all over behavioral advertising and might be a willing partner.

If you provide a common sense approach to content discovery, across all Tribune properties, and allow readers to assemble and find content that is not only localized, but also relevant to their interests and concerns, with the understanding that the 21st century American is transient and not likely a loyalist to a metro area or a metro newspaper, then you have the basis for breaking the newspaper out of the early 1950s.

It is not simply good enough to provide a way to have external content (a la “Add an RSS feed”). That does not help the greater company to be coherent in the digital age. You must provide a way for Tribune Company content from all properties to be searched (Talk to me about Lijit – we can do a deal that works), discovered via meta-data analysis (NY Times approach) and user behavior feedback and offerings (a la Facebook).

There, my friends at the Tribune Company, is your road map to building a 21st Century newspaper business.

Tribune Company Bankruptcy Highlights New Media Opportunity

About an hour ago, the privately held Tribune Company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. The Tribune Company is the owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, as well as a minority owner of the Chicago Cubs (not included in the bankruptcy filing).

The conversation I’ve heard around this news has been interesting. For as much grief as some of these main-stream press have caused some community members, mostly in politics or local governments where the Tribune papers are, the feeling is that metropolitan areas served by these papers currently cannot function without a hard format newspaper.

The cities with the biggest three Tribune papers all have alternative daily circulars. Kind of. Los Angeles could lose the LA Times and still have the Los Angeles Daily News. Chicago could theoretically lose the Chicago Tribune and still have the Chicago Sun-Times. Baltimore would be stretched thinnest losing the Baltimore Sun and leaving the Examiner (though proximity to Washington, D.C could position the Washington Post or the investigative journalistic Washington Times to fill the void).

What strikes me is the difference between long-standing community members (those who have been born and raised in an area, and have been shaped by the daily circular) and the generational transience of those who simply don’t care, and move from locale to locale throughout life.

I’ve personally lived in the Baltimore area for most of my life, and have no loyalty or affinity to the Baltimore Sun. But those who have lived here all their life (and maybe from another generation) have been directly impacted by the Sun and can’t cope with life without it.

In my life, I can’t answer the famous Palin question/non-answer “What newspapers do you read?” because I don’t. If there is a loyalty to a paper, it is the New York Times. Why? Because they adjusted to a world not based on the physical paper. They are no longer “the grey lady” and now represent something so much more, and have extended their base outside of the previously known and understood paradigm. (Of course, that won’t necessarily keep them out of trouble either, but I digress.)

It will not sadden me to see the Tribune company go. It is obvious to me that newspapers, like the Tampa Tribune, who don’t adjust to the 21st Century need to fail. That does not mean that the age of hard print should die. On the contrary, it is possible for news organizations to rise up around an open culture of information sharing and digital cultural change, and provide an offline (paper) offering as well. It’s not just a possible change. It’s a required one.

Also to be clear, Chapter 11 is reorganization… not apocalypse. The Tribune Company will likely spin off some of these assets to, hopefully, better digitally savvy stewards. It is possible for these papers to reinvigorate and jump into the 21st century as well. If not, they will be replaced by lighter, more nimble and astute media organizations that are digitally competent.

I can’t wait to see how it plays out.