What will be the future of newspapers and local journalism?

I’ve helped organize a discussion and unconconference having to do with the future of local journalism since the economics that supported it for the past 100 years have been blown apart in the wake of the web and the empowerment it gives consumers to not just consume – but create (blogs/myspace/citizen journalism/craigslist/livejournal/mp3s/you tube) , syndicate (rss/bloglines/my yahoo/podcasting) and aggregate (tagging/vertical search/social bookmarking).

These same economics are pressuring a diverse array of media industries – music, TV, movies, and others – any industry where distribution/delivery/bundling are main means of revenue to cover costs of creation.

Nick Carr summarizes the quandary well:

Traditional newspapers sold bundles of content. Subscribers paid to get the bundle, and advertisers paid to have their ads in the bundle, where those readers would see them. In effect, investigative and other hard journalism was subsidized by the softer stuff – but you couldn’t really see the subsidization, so in a way it didn’t really exist. And, besides, the hard stuff contributed to the value of the overall bundle. That whole model has been slowly unraveling for some time, but the web tears it into tiny little pieces. Literally. The web unbundles the bundle – each story becomes a separate entity that lives or dies, economically, on its own. It’s naked in the marketplace, its commercial existence meticulously measured, click by click. Advertisers, for their part, pay not to be seen by a big group of readers, but to have their ads clicked on by individual readers. They’ll go where the clickthroughs are. Clickthroughs themselves are priced individually, depending on the content they’re associated with. As for readers, they’re not exactly trained or motivated to pay to read anything online. The economic incentives created by the web model are very different from those of the old print model – and it’s economic incentives that ultimately determine business decisions.

Sure, this is how markets should work, but let’s not kid ourselves: the precise nature of the correlation between efficient markets and good journalism remains to be seen, and so far the indicators are less than encouraging. The result may leave a lot of people disappointed – or out of work.

These new realities are driving what the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in it’s annual report on the state of the news media, calls “the paradox of journalism”:

The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories. As the number of places delivering news proliferates, the audience for each tends to shrink and the number of journalists in each organization is reduced. At the national level, those organizations still have to cover the big events. Thus we tend to see more accounts of the same handful of stories each day. And when big stories break, they are often covered in a similar fashion by general-assignment reporters working with a limited list of sources and a tight time-frame. Such concentration of personnel around a few stories, in turn, has aided the efforts of newsmakers to control what the public knows. One of the first things to happen is that the authorities quickly corral the growing throng of correspondents, crews and paparazzi into press areas away from the news.

The effects on journalism as a practice have been especially severe these past few weeks.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are up for sale. There are some writing off the Daily News as a goner.

This maybe a stretch – but I think not – these papers are as much a glue to Philadelphia as our sports teams.

I think this is especially the case with the Daily News and its focus on our home town. I’m not sure of any big city paper that has such an intimate relationship with its subject matter. One so willing to speak truth to local power, and truth of our local experience.

Yes, as Dan Gillmor has said, no industry should have a right to exist, and I submit that in order to save the Daily News, might mean losing the paper itself. However, the folks at the Daily News, believe it or not, are well aware of this. Read Will Bunch. It was his powerful, forward thinking request for conversation that got this discussion rolling. He’s proof in black, white and pixels that they are more than willing to face the future if given the opportunity.

Having been blessed with not only experimenting with my own efforts (Philly Future), but also with working in the online/social media industry since 1999, I’ve had contact with many terrific online publishing and journalism leaders. I figured the one way I could help is to bring as many of them together as possible to build bridges, share perspectives, and discuss the future. The ongoing conversation includes folks like Scott Rosenberg (Salon), Ed Cone, Lex Alexander, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gillmor, David Weinberger, Scott Karp, Dave Winer, along with members of our local press, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, Calkins Media, and the Philadelphia Weekly, along with some of the brightest stars in our local blogosphere. As the conversation goes on, it has expanded far beyond my small email list, indeed, we now have 50 people (and climbing) involved. The talk has sometimes been heated, sometimes been difficult, and lately has took an urgent tone considering the dire straights PNI is in. I’m a firm believer the discussion is worth having. Email me at kmartino at pobox dot com if you want to take part.

I am doing this as a “hobby” – outside the context of my work – as concerned citizen/technologist/resident of Philadelphia interested in the future. For our communities – for our democracy – I believe it is a question that effects our health, safety and function. But for folks at PNI and at other threatened organizations across the country, it is a question of survival.

Numerous members from the discussion will be at a related unconference being held March 25th at Annenberg in Philadelphia. If you would like to attend please let me know. It would be terrific to have you there.

More at Attytood, and Blinq.