Stephen Foley: Buried in a local paper: a glimpse of the future of journalism

US Outlook: There was a new byline on the business pages of the Daily Tribune in Michigan last Sunday. It was a little byline on a humdrum story ("Maytag recalling 1.7 million dishwashers"), buried deep inside a small local paper from the rust belt of the US. But it looked to me like a vision of the future of newspapers.

The story about dishwashers was by Mitch Lipka, a journalist for the business website, owned by AOL, where it had appeared earlier in the week. Its journey from the web to the inky hands of the Tribune's readers went via a "news exchange" set up by a tech company called Publish2. AOL put its free content up on the exchange, the business editors of the Tribune came in search of material that might interest their readers, and bingo.

Is this kind of exchange the key to reshaping the newspaper industry and putting it on a sounder footing? I think so. We are operating now in a world where the very best specialist coverage on any topic is available at the click of a mouse. Serious news consumers in the US, looking for serious information on serious topics, might flit between Politico for the goings-on on Capitol Hill and The Wall Street Journal for financial news and ESPN for sport. Print newspapers and their associated websites that try to be all things to all men could start to look as anachronistic as the Yahoo homepage.

Something big has to give. Surveying the landscape this week, the credit rating agency Moody's declared that the outlook for US newspaper company debt was stable this year, but it wasn't so sure that it could last. Advertising revenues will be down "only" 5-10 per cent this year, thanks to strong economic growth, but are likely to deteriorate faster in 2011.

The most common approach to newspaper management here appears to be the "trim and hope" approach, matching advertising and circulation declines with newsroom lay-offs and keeping one's fingers crossed that things will stabilise. News exchanges could enable a much more radical approach, a "focus and grow" approach.

The best local papers already focus their resources on the things that only they can do, community reporting and vital local investigations. For the rest, they take Associated Press content for many of their national and international stories and features (but they grumble about the fees charged by the AP, which is why Publish2 is setting itself up as a rival where they can find cheaper or free content).

News exchanges could provide a dramatic new way for the bigger, regional dailies to cut costs and redirect resources at exclusive content. This cadre of publication includes storied names such as the Chicago Tribune or the LA Times, who currently pride themselves on their "full-service" offerings for readers. They may have scaled back foreign bureaus in the face of the reality of declining revenues, but a truly radical vision of the future would see them also cut a lot of their other specialist coverage and replace it with content sourced from outside the newsroom. How many newspapers need a deep bench of technology writers, if content from TechCrunch and other tech bloggers or freelancers might be available for repackaging at much lower cost?

Content sharing agreements are emerging across the US on an ad hoc basis, but I like the model of a "news exchange" for a couple of reasons. First is the obvious benefit to the content providers. By hawking their wares to one and all via Publish2, TechCrunch, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, AOL's DailyFinance et al save the hassle of negotiating myriad distribution deals. I also think that an exchange might reveal some home truths that might otherwise take a long time to dawn, most notably that there are simply too many journalists writing slightly different versions of the same few stories. An exchange model will reveal what is truly valuable in journalism: educated writing, exclusive investigations, and stories that have a deep appeal to a distinct community – and set a price for it.

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