The Roadmap For Building a 21st Century Newspaper

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.

22 Replies to “The Roadmap For Building a 21st Century Newspaper”

  1. I was thinking about this very type post when I read that recently our oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News was up for sale in Denver. I think what companies need to do is take the experience of online reading from what it was like for our parents to read their news. I used to watch people as they pulled up with their coffee and the paper. Now they need to get that same experience. I loved looking at the paper and looing at all of the ads and doing the Sunday circulars etc. I think that with technology such as Larry’s Larstan flipper that he uses for Blogger and Podcaster Magazine is something that they should be looking into. Being able to flip to the next page and open up that experience is what old schoolers are looking for. I suppose the next technology that should be developed is being able to get that black ink on your hands at the end of the paper reading session.

  2. Aaron wrote:

    “the 21st century American is transient and not likely a loyalist to a metro area or a metro newspaper”

    I understand the point here, but I’m not sure I would go quite that far. Most people do have some loyalty to their home area and do prefer their local newspaper if it’s any good, and they definitely want such a source of local news, especially as TV, radio and print become more and more abandoned. (Can you imagine people here in Baltimore NOT wanting local crime news and articles about our vibrant arts community?) Certainly, many of us in the geek community are living, working and thinking much more globally, but your average citizen still has plenty of interest in the place where he or she lives–quite possibly, primarily so.

    I think people still depend on a good local newspaper for local news, but are now willing and able to search out the best source for national news, world news, sports, entertainment, and so on. I still lean on The Baltimore Sun (as well as the Baltimore City Paper) for local stories and information, but for other things, I have a billion sites and feeds to browse.

    Aside from this point…I wholeheartedly agree with every single thing Aaron says about where and how the newspaper industry needs to focus its efforts.

  3. No biggie, though it was rather weird suddenly seeing a photo of my desk on a blog I regularly read. :) (And yeah, I’ve got front-row seating for all the big newsroom announcements.)

  4. …ummm, where does news gathering come in in all this?

    Newspapers will continue to survive in one format or another because citizen journalists can not provide all the news. I’m watching them, and they are just not seasoned or professional enough.

    When the need for real journalism is gone, then I’ll worry.

  5. This post is just one person’s opinion( as is this comment) that suprisingly included a plug for Lijit. Easier said then done as talk is cheap. No mention of other avenues such as news crowdsourcing ( ala Digg style), the Topix geographical approach or even the Printcasting project. What do I know though.

  6. While I love the NYT’s implementation of metadata, the problem is that their digital business (outside of is a fantastic money-loser. There’s a reason the NYT is effectively losing 2B$ in the next 3 years and is leveraged to the hilt as it is. The NYTCo barely makes enough revenue to cover its debt expenses, nevermind operating expenses.

    I’m all for a new style of digital news that’s transformative and learns from the mistakes of newspapers, magazines, social news sites and even blog networks and publishers… but I’m not convinced any company with as much weight and overhead as the Tribune or NYTco can actually make that level of change in enough time to make enough revenue to make enough of a difference…

  7. I totally disagree with your statement that the blogspace overlaps the newspapers, and disagree much more fervently with the statement that “citizen journalism” is done by amateurs who don’t know how to be journalists. I haven’t seen one blog in which the author isn’t trying to foist personal opinions and beliefs upon his or her readers. I haven’t seen one blog (outside of perhaps tech review blogs!) that isn’t an op-ed wannabe. Nowhere have I seen a blog that purports to supply regular, straight, unbiased news reporting from people who were at the scene. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

    Conversely, I believe that the real problem with the papers that are failing is that they have gone the way of the bloggers, in that they espouse their political leanings in every article they write, not just their op-ed columns. In these papers, there is nothing you can trust any more. Witness the demagoguery of this past eight years of Bush adminstration:

    1: Not once did we see anything about the WMD’s finally found in Iraq (here’s one from MSNBC, of all places, about 550 tons of uranium removed from Iraq just this year!:

    2: Nor have you seen the fact that UN and Nato officials say that Bush has been the best president ever in terms of getting U.S. humanitarian aid to Africa.

    3: What is eported as fact are reports of leftists spouting that Bush kills little babies, and Murtha, Kerry and Obama blaming the US for raiding villages at night and killing innocent civilians…and the NY TImes, the Tribune and the LA Times reporting this crud as if it’s the fact!!

    4: None of these papers have mentioned the fact that torture of insurgents and terrorists has led to the thwarting of dozens of attacks, and hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives being saved.

    5: Nowhere have you seen that by most estimates, about 4% of the people crossing illegally over our southern border from Mexico are actually of middle eastern descent, and likely terrorists!!

    6: Let’s not even get into the media bias in the last election…

    No one trust mainstream media’s “news” any more.

    The bias in US mainstream reporting has created total cynicism of these “news outlets”. And the US People in their hearts know better. When their sensibilities are threatened like this, the papers that deliver such garbage lose traction, so much so that it’s not worth reading them any more. This is the cause for the bankruptcy of these once-great papers.

    With the sports site I am building,, we hope to build a corps of millions of on-the-ground reporters who are at the events and report the news from the stands or the sidelines (or the locker rooms, if they are lucky!). We are hoping that we can get them to be unbiased in the reporting of the events themselves, and if they have personal opinions, to state them in a separate paragraph from those in which the facts were reported. The rating system we will have in place allows readers to judge these writers on the readability of the columns and their belief that the facts were reported well and fairly, and that the opinions that were shared were clear and cogent, and didn’t influence the factuality of the reports. The rating system will therefore allow good journalists who present facts clearly and circumspectly to percolate to the top, and the articles they write to be represented higher in the lists of articles shown to the readers. We will then reward those journalists with a share of the ad revenues we get when people read their articles.

    In my opinion, sites like Zoosse, with these systems in place, are where real citizen journalism will take place – not on the blogs, unfortunately.

    Perhaps that will change. I have friends who want to develop more general sites with just this model in place, real citizen journals for all news.


    1. Greg, did you really just question the ability of bloggers to be unbiased and then plug your own shit? Really? Come on dude.

      Also, you seem to be making a large assumption that political blogging is the entirety of blogging. If it were, you’d be right. It seems people (not just bloggers) have a real inability to separate emotions and bias in the political world. Get outside of that and, yes you will still find opinion, but you will also find people who are being fairly measured in what they write.

      Don’t ever come on my site to spam my audience with your own links and marketing unless you plan to pay for it. As you can gather, there is a paid advertising contingency here that might not enjoy the fact that they have to pay to play and you don’t.

  8. Aaron,

    First, about your accusing me of “spamming your readers”. Lighten up dude. First, there is probably little overlap between your readers and the profile of our users, and my writing 5 paragraphs in a cogent comment on someone else’s blog would be an immensely inefficient way to do so. It certainly would not be characterized as “spamming!” Secondly, I was using my plan for citizen reporting on to demonstrate how I hope my users go about their news reporting on Zoosse, and how that may be the model for a new era of reporting that can actually fill the gap left by the dying traditional media.

    The derivation of the term “blog” is “web log”, or more directly, a web-based diary. Almost all blogs, including mine, the Zoosse Chronicles (, are, by definition, meant to be our personal views and feelings about events, things or people in our worlds. We write them primarily to get our own ideas out into the “cloud”, for anyone to see and hopefully validate, or if not, challenge.

    I also began my statement about blogs in general by stating that blogs about tech seem to be more factually based, and not the usual web diaries, and as such seem as a genre to be an exception to my generalization. Yours certainly seems to be so, from what I have read.

    You would have to admit that most blogs are built at least partly with the goal of self-promotion of the writer and his or her views. Yours is no exception. Nor is mine. The vast majorty are not done, nor meant to be read, as “news”, per se.

    My Big Points are twofold:

    1: In order to improve on the mess the Tribune, the LA Times, Washington Post and the NY Times are in, blogs (if we still want to call them such) in which people purport to be reporting factually on events they have witnessed must clearly state which parts of their articles are facts and which are the writers’ opinions and beliefs. Again, it’s not bad to have or state an opinion, or to come to some overarching conclusion, but it MUST be segregated from the writer’s reporting of the events themselves.

    2: There needs to be a central structure, or agency of some sort, that does the job of the editors of a newspaper, deciding which writers’ work gets to be read by the paper’s readers. It should use the readers’ reviews, as I stated in my first comment, to ascertain which writers’ work floats to the top, hiring or firing writers in an organic fashion per the readers’ responses.

    Are you arguing with me about my vision about the future of reporting, ex (or post) newspapers? Frankly, I would then ask you to give us your own alternative vision.

    Further, I question your praise of the NYT. Is it just the way they metatag their current and archived articles? No disrespect, but that’s a trivial matter that most relational text-based databases do as a matter of course. Certainly that is exactly what the Google system accomplishes, and which it offers to sites as a free service.

    But I repeat, I personally have concluded that neither paper has failed (or is failing) because of the cumbersome ways in which you get around their sites. They are failing because you just can’t always know where their reporting of facts ends and where their editorializing or foisting their own agenda on the readers begins.


    1. Greg-

      It’s my prerogative to handle comment moderation, and comment response in anyway I see fit. I am the owner, operator and Chief Content Contributor over 4 years to this site. Don’t tell me to lighten up here.

      In response to your points.

      1) Every major newspaper does clearly have an editorial and news relating function. Not only are these two desk segregated from each other physically, they have different editors (many times co-equal editors) and they are published clearly and distinctively from each other in print and on the web. Sounds like you only have an axe to grind because someone or something in a newspaper somewhere pissed you off.

      2) No there does not need to be a “standard”. This is not a publicly regulated utility. We have Capitalistic Darwinism in this country and the shoddy papers… no one reads. There are conservative papers and progressive papers. There are IJ papers. There are foreign language papers. There are papers of all sorts and varieties. Readers choose what they want to read… not regulators, whether government or otherwise. They have this thing called a Pulitzer Prize which gives prestige to organizations who earn it. That’s the way it should be.

  9. Aaron,
    True, you don’t have to lighten up. You can be as pissy as you like.

    About your points:

    1: Ugh…You can’t be serious. The NY Times, LA Times, Tribune and Washington Post are among the worst violators of the very thing you are suggesting -that the editorial leanings and and cultural beliefs don’t affect the news reporting. Check Over70% of the reporting of Obama in these papers was positively biased, while 38% for McCain was positive. And in surveys, over 80% of news staffs are Democratic. And just look at the way these papers in particular skewered Palin, and sent dozens of reporters to Alaska to get any crud they could on her, asking ex boyfriends from 30 years ago what kind of a girlfriend she was, and reporting on a 22 year old DWI that her husband got. It would be incredibly naive to believe that this is just a coincidence.

    Even in the tech world, there are biases that exist throughout the cultures of organizations, including news organizations, that leak into their news reporting. Even on the most basic things, like PC vs. Apple. I personally like the right click and left click buttons on my mouse, and have aways had PC’s, so when I write anything about PC’s or Apple, I will report about a Mac as if I would report about the visiting team in a local football game, even if they kicked my local team’s butt.

    Look at the way PBS reports news about Republicans. Let’s say PBS was reporting about how Republicans, despite earning less on average than Democrats, actually donate significantly more to charities. Their statement would be (and has been) “Now this is an interesting twist…” Even though their news reporting is accurate, their inner beliefs and leanings leak out in the way they position the statement.

    You might want to reconsider that point.

    2: You are right. And because of the LACK of news standards when it comes to the kind of reporting, and that home team/visiting team bias that these papers in particular allow, these papers are failing. Do you think that it is no coincidence that these leftward leaning papers that editorialize within their news reporting are failing and other papers that practice more balanced reporting, like USA Today, are not failing?

    I am also suggesting that Darwinism should exist, but it can only happen within a structure that allows readers to tell other readers what they think, even through a simple 1-5 star rating system that is used commonly these days. It won’t happen out in the blogosphere on its own, especially if you are looking for actual “citizen reporting” of events.

    Another commenter had a great point, about how some news necessarily has to be local, or delivered from the perspective of someone within that niche. Sports are a great point. If I lived on Long Island, I wouldn’t care much about the Miami Little League scores. That has to be addressed in the setup of the alternative news service that should exist on the Web.

    Thanks for letting me share.

  10. Great post on a fascinating widely discussed topic. I wonder what you would think of the site I write for. I only write on the Mayor, but the bigger site is [link removed] I’d love to hear your thoughts via e-mail or in this comment thread. We’re still young and need to make lots of changes, additions, subtractions, etc. But our goal is to be an online newspaper for Chicago and I think we’ve made great strides so far.

    1. Anna and everyone… I am removing links from peoples comments that are self-promotional in nature. This is not the place to plug your stuff. Anna, I’ll leave it to readers to provide feedback if they so choose.

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