Another dangerous post, in that I am commenting on someone else's industry, but we all have an interest in the topic. It is no secret that the Boston Globe has been facing financial problems not atypical of many newspapers in the major markets. A steady fall in advertising revenues has resulted in a steady shrinkage in bureaus, reporters, and local coverage and more and more reliance on wire service stories. The decline of the "newspaper of record" function means that very important civic events and local stories go without sufficient coverage. Those of us involved in important local non-profit and business activities, community boards, and civic affairs fear that the participation of an informed and knowledgeable public will be diminished as the Globe itself is diminished.
The paper has responded by publishing an on-line version, but it does not generate the revenue of the old newsprint editions. They, like others, are searching mightily for the financial model that might work. There has to be substantial pressure from the owners, the New York Times, for improvement in results. This is ironic, in that the Times is a competitor, too. Indeed, as the Globe reduces its coverage of significant stories, the Times is viewed by many as the replacement paper to read.
Dan Kennedy, one of our wise media analysts, wrote an article in the Spring 2007 edition of Commonwealth magazine suggesting that a new ownership model, based on nonprofit ownership, might help ensure survival of daily newspapers like the Globe. Could be. As always, a very thoughtful analysis by Dan. But I do not see that happening soon, and even if it did, much of the underlying problem would still exist.
I certainly don't have a full answer, but let me set forth a theme: community engagement. Whether in the print or online version, the local newspaper has to be considered sufficiently relevant to people's lives that they look at it at least once a day and preferably more often. Beyond these "eyes", though, they need "clicks". Advertisers, who will continue to be the main source of revenue, have now been trained to be able to measure the precise value of their advertising investments by looking at click and purchase decisions resulting from specific ad placements.
How to do it. First, upgrade the server! As I have learned on this blog, unless people have the opportunity to comment an online forum, they will not become engaged and return to your site. It is not that they always submit a comment -- it is that they have the opportunity to do so. If the Globe's online columns and blogs do not permit comments because they do not have the technical capacity for doing so, and if you can't change the server in the next month, lease one from someone else and move your online version over there.
Second, take chances. The Wall Street Journal's blogs are self-moderating. You mean no one edits the submissions before they are posted? Right. Why? Because it means that my comments are exposed to the world immediately. The readers get immediate gratification and are stimulated to participate more. (Bad behavior is reported to the editor and then cleaned away.)
Third, work around the clock. The blogosphere does not follow a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday work day in Boston. Bostonians travel and live around the world and check their computers in the middle of the night and on the weekends. So, provide new content at all times to keep your sites fresh and interesting.
Integrate reader participation into your print edition. BostonNow had a concept for doing this, which is more or less successful. But it could work for the Globe like no one else. I'll explain in a minute, but first we have to recognize that it would mean reader participation in the hallowed halls of edited journalism. I am talking a significant expansion beyond letters to the editor and op-ed columns (not quite a wiki, but that is a topic for another day.)
So, let's say that one or more pages of the Globe daily edition (and of course, the online version, too) were devoted to excerpts from blogs of people who had given permission to be excerpted. Let's say that the Globe paid those people a nominal fee every time an excerpt was used. (Uh oh, I hear the reporter's union raising objections! But hold on, folks, I am trying to save your jobs.)
Now, let's say that people would be paid in scrip -- let's call it "GlobeCash" -- that could be used for on-line purchasers with advertisers who had either advertised on the online or paper version of the newspaper. Or, let's say people could donate their payment to a charity of their choice. Or maybe advertisers announce that a portion of the proceeds received through GlobeCash will be donated to the Boys and Girls club or -- better yet, to the charity of your choice in your neighborhood. Maybe they announce, too, that any purchase made through their link on the Globe site will likewise produce a donation to the charity of your choice. Maybe we keep running totals of the thousands of dollars generated for local causes by traffic on the Globe's site. Maybe the Globe Foundation announces that, each calendar quarter, it will match the contributions made by its readers to the favorite causes as compiled through this mechanism.
As we all acknowledge, bloggers are narcissistic. Imagine the flow of bloggers who would vie to be seen by several hundred thousand viewers every day. Only the Globe has the potential to offer this exposure. Imagine the buzz when you pick my blog excerpt today. What do I do? I immediately post the fact that I have been excerpted, and I direct even more traffic to the Globe. Other bloggers try to write more and more interesting stuff so they can be chosen. An intensely powerful set of positive feedback loops is created. As a blogger, I'm happy. Readers are happy because they are getting the latest news and commentary from a variety of sources. Advertisers are happy because they are getting eyes, clicks, and feel-good PR because of their charitable contributions.
The managing editor is now getting nervous. "How do I ensure the quality and accuracy of the blog excerpts I have chosen?" "What if we get sued for libel?" So, yes, you need to assign an editor to this feature, just as you do for your letters and op-eds. Yes, that person would use judgment. Yes, you would post a disclaimer saying that these excerpts are not the product of trained reporters etc, etc. Please, just get over it. (If you let the lawyers run the newspaper, it will look like Lawyers Weekly. How many readers do they have?)
But what is really happening here? All of sudden, regardless of actual ownership, this is now our newspaper. You have given me a reason to check in, to participate, to feel pride, and to feel a sense that you are relevant to our community in a variety of ways.
This is just one set of ideas from a person on the street. I am not saying these are the be-all and end-all. There are certainly people with more expertise and better ideas out there. I am just saying that the Globe needs to give people a reason to be read -- so that advertisers believe that they can't afford not to be there. If people believe it is their paper they will read it. Use the forces and opportunities of technology to make it happen so your excellent reporters and columnists can earn a salary and work on the really important functions envisioned in the Constitution.