When I had an internship at The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, my life was turned upside down: Jeopardy was on at 6:00 p.m., and Wheel of Fortune was on at 6:30 p.m. Back home in Pennsylvania it was the other way around: Wheel of Fortune was on first, then Jeopardy.
They were the same two episodes countrywide, just presented in a different order. This presented a rare opportunity for my friend back home: I could tell her the answers before they aired in her time zone, and she’d look much smarter to her roommates.
I know you want to call it cheating, but I’m going to go ahead and call it resourcefulness.
AND NOW, THE AWFUL ANALOGY
I picture a similar scene when I look at what’s happening to journalism in cities bigger than mine.
I see people – they were formerly called an audience – who are so fractured that their thousands of niches will almost certainly never again be assembled into one. I see mobile news as the lifeline in commuter cultures. I see tech-savvy crowds feeling empowered by tools like Ning, WordPress and their own start-up sites.
Then I look back at Harrisburg, my own city. We have comparatively lower broadband penetration and a smaller population, so print still unites us all. Few people use public transportation, a big reason why mobile news isn’t in high demand. We have a spattering of bloggers and phpBB message boards, but you can’t find many active communities built around them.
The temptation is to look at those facts and decide our market has different demands than the bigger cities. But I think they’re just showing Jeopardy a half-hour earlier in the bigger cities – and it’s about to come on here.
We’d be foolish if we didn’t listen to the answers ahead of time.
OUR LUCKY PREVIEW
Outside of the bigger cities, we’ve been handed an opportunity they never had.
We’re seeing exactly what’s coming our way. We’re getting a step-by-step guide to what will happen should we choose a path of inaction. First, your audience will fragment. Second, they will expand their demands for news delivery. Third, they will take it upon themselves to meet those demands. This is already happening, but not to the extent we’ve seen elsewhere.
It need not be that way. And though the purely grassroots model has its virtues, I’m a believer that the community is best off if an organization of talented professionals is at the center of the local news ecosystem, and I say that not just as the employee of one of those organizations. The expanding and necessary role of bloggers and independent organizations can continue, but they’d prefer to work in tandem with a resource-heavy news organization that excels at its investigative role. Few readers or non-readers actually wish for our destruction; everyone applauds when we do our job right, and everyone in the community is better served when that happens.
I don’t think it’s too late for a nimble news organization in a small- to mid-sized city to place itself at the center of that ecosystem. Don’t let the audience fragment itself away from you – become the platform where their niche exists. As rail, buses and carpooling find more riders – and there’s a lot of evidence that says it will – have a scannable, feature-rich mobile site already running.
When readers realize their news demand is changing, they shouldn’t have reason to create the solution themselves. We can have it ready for them.
SHOWING DIGITAL LEADERSHIP
Digital leadership is about getting ahead of future demand, and it’s not something news organizations have been known for. That can change now.
My favorite compliment as a journalist came when Josh Karns, a local blogger, traced to me the initial tipping point in local Twitter use. He argued it was my use of it, and my blogging that followed, that gained the attention of others in the area and prompted a wave of sign-ups.
So if a single journalist with a sparsely-read blog can launch a small-scale movement, what could a large news organization with tens of thousands of readers accomplish? I think it could change the news consumption habits of an entire region. I think it could shape those habits in a way that encourages productive participation, involves every reader in the news process and ensures that those readers still value the professional product.
But that’s only if they get out ahead, using the lessons of the bigger cities. If they lag, the same story will play out over and over again.