Over the weekend, I attended a day-long workshop in Santa Barbara, California, where several dozen people got together to discuss what organizers called “Newspaper 2.0” — the next version of a venerable, and valuable, part of the traditional media ecosystem.
The gathering’s subtext was the rapid decline of the main local daily newspaper. That reality lent a sense of urgency, and opportunity, to the session.
Several days before the workshop, the Santa Barbara News-Press all but completed might be termed a self-immolation with a round of firings of the professional journalism staff. These terminations weren’t the first, but the casualties included a sportswriter who’d been at the paper for decades and had a major following around the city.
The firings — and some resignations by staffers who couldn’t abide the actions of the paper’s owner, Wendy McCaw — have been accompanied by behavior that I find bizarre. McCaw’s lawyers have been launching threats and lawsuits at critics and former employees, and even one libel suit at a writer for the American Journalism Review. (The LA Times has a good story about the incredible antics.)
PR professors and their students will be studying McCaw and her operations for decades to come. They’ll have a case study in how to poison opinion — against your own interests.
Now, there’s a long tradition in America of local newspaper owners acting in high-handed ways, or worse. But where they could once do what they pleased and lose no influence in the local journalism scene, that’s no longer necessarily the case.
Even as secular shifts in the advertising business take away classifieds and other once-solid revenue streams, and circulation drops steadily as older readers die and younger people don’t bother to pick up newspapers, new voices are appearing at the edges to fill in the gaps.
The urgency at the Newspaper 2.0 gathering was worry by local people who care about their community and the necessity of quality journalism in a democracy. There were lots of ideas, no firm conclusions, about what do do.
The newspaper’s implosion, I’d argue, presents a phenomenal opportunity in Santa Barbara. The News-Press can no longer be considered even remotely the city’s “paper of record” — a term once reserved for news organizations that covered all of the major news in a community.
What can replace it? In an opening workshop session with JD Lasica, I suggested that the people in the room should consider whether they want to build a single competitor or aggregate all the ideas and products now being created as an alternative. Aggregation is valuable, if it’s done right.
I’m skeptical of a single entity that takes the place of the paper. At least two of Saturday’s meeting participants are creating products that will inevitably compete with each other as they try to carve out a piece of the local media scene. Independent media already exists in the city, meanwhile.
And there are several excellent bloggers keeping track of the goings-on. I’ve been following Craig Smith’s blog, for example. His coverage of this situation — what I told the group I’d been watching with “morbid fascination” from afar these past weeks — has been incisive, witty and thorough.
Keep an eye on Santa Barbara. The future is under way in a city that only looks idyllic.
(Kudos to Doc Searls for organizing the workshop. JD Lasica did several interviews with participants, including this with William MacFadyen, who’s building a citizen media site, and this one with Smith.)