Seattle Post Intelligencer is Leading the Charge

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The recent shuttering of the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the transference of that newspaper to an exclusively online version, is a first for a large daily newspaper in North America, if not the world. All eyes will be watching to see how the paper maintains its relevancy and viability in an exclusively electronic format.

Despite the loss of jobs at the S P-I and other publications that are downsizing or closing down, this is a pivotal time for the newspaper industry. I think we’re on the cusp of something new and innovative here, and I’m thrilled to be a spectator as this monumental shift unfolds.

One initial observation about the continuous layoffs of reporters at daily newspapers: There broadsheet blog are a lot more freelance writers plying their trade today than there were a year ago, and there will be a lot more in the years to come. If you’re looking to hire a freelance writer, you needn’t look very far.

Since newspapers began putting their content online 15 years ago, the business model has been to provide that content for free. Online viewers haven’t been willing to pay for news stories and columns over the Internet, as was proven by the New York Times, which tried to introduce a “paid” premium service a few years ago. The idea didn’t fly, and the Times soon reverted back to publishing the news online for free.

The most well-known exception to that has been the Wall Street Journal, which has charged a fee for its online edition since its web site was first launched. Rupert Murdock, the current owner of the WSJ, has hinted that the influential WSJ may move to a free online format some day, but it hasn’t happened yet (Note: I rarely have a problem accessing WSJ stories for free online).

As more newspapers begin to follow the Seattle Post-Intelligencer model, it will be interesting to see how news coverage is affected. Will investigative journalism lose sway to opinions and hearsay? Will the interests of ordinary citizens be less served with the loss of a daily newspaper?

It would appear, at first glance, that with fewer journalists covering the political and business beats, that the public will be deprived of the vigorous reporting that is necessary to keep citizens adequately informed.

But the old adage ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ comes to mind when I try to envisage the future of newspapers and journalism in a non-print, digitized, Internet-only world. I think that the news coverage vacuum in this case will be swiftly filled by bloggers, citizen journalists and other interested parties, some of whom will get paid for providing content and others who will report for the sheer pleasure of reporting.

This assumes a great deal. It assumes that anybody with a computer and an Internet connection can be a working journalist. It isn’t so. Writing – good writing – requires years of practice, dedication, and a measure of talent. Good journalism requires proper education, sharp interviewing skills, and years of practice.

But the law of averages will come into play here. With so many people writing and blogging, more voices will become part of the fray. From those many new voices will emerge a few talented and respected voices that will become the de facto authorities for their areas of coverage. In other words, the cream of the writing pool will rise to the top.

You’re already seeing some of that today. There are serious bloggers writing about business, politics, technology, sports, entertainment and lifestyle subjects. Some of the most popular bloggers writing today – such as technology writer Jeff Jarvis and political commentator Michelle Malkin – are widely followed, and their opinions are highly influential.

Whenever a major news story breaks, the bloggers and citizen journalists are sometimes the first on the scene, long before the print and TV journalists have arrived. Citizen journalists and bloggers are instantly taking pictures on their iPhones and sending pictures and stories to their friends and acquaintances, or posting their information on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.

It also assumes that online newspapers will find a revenue model that will allow them to pay their writers, editors, graphic designers and IT experts a decent wage. So far, most online newspapers don’t earn a profit, but that, too, will change as more newspapers move online. Once a major daily newspaper starts charging a fee to access its content – and demonstrates a successful business model for doing so – other papers will follow suit.

 

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