Wikis to (re)build the news

It seems to be all of the rage these days (the first one I came across was created by Andrew Dunn).

Alexis Madrigal and Sarah Rich have started a wiki to design the next San Francisco Post-Chronicle, after hearing news that the Hearst Company could be shutting down the newspaper within weeks. With a potentially serious gap opening in Bay Area news production, they’ve begun brainstorming ways in which to bring the newspaper up to speed with the 21st century. The planning is broken into three arenas, two of which I have time to cover before my own flight to SF:

Distribution Model

Let’s go digital. It’s all about the internet, especially in early adopter central (i.e. San Francisco). Reporting should be web first, and the print edition could be cut to once a week. Publish a news magazine-style edition on Fridays and make it a compilation of the best content from all around town. I’d bet there’s a number of blogs that would like to see print readers for a cut of the revenue.

The focus needs to be on innovating with digital distribution and engagement, however. Alexis has ideas for an iPhone application, and there’s even a discussion about what the application should do. The critical point is that is has to be more than what Google Reader Mobile already offers me. I’d like to be able to comment on stories, see what my friends are reading and think interesting, and be able to interact with real world extensions of journalism. If I’m reading the weekly print edition, then I’d enjoy being able to take my phone out and see how other people have reacted to the information. It should support pull journalism too, allowing me to look up the ecological impact of restaurant choices, etc.

Let the homepage mimic an aggregator site like iGoogle, Netvibes, or the Facebook Newsfeed. I’d like it to take peripheral observations of what I’ve read, commented on, or shared, so that it can tune distribution based on my interests. If the site could store what I’ve read so I don’t have to skip through parallel reporting on Venture Beat, ReadWriteWeb, and TechCrunch, then I would visit it every day. Innovate with the formats of journalism too; start a topical wiki that aggregates and synthesizes information on any given subject.  If you create an account on the site, or sign in via OpenID, allows users to roll their own RSS feed (a la Yahoo Pipes but with a simpler interface) and customize it without resubscribing as time goes on.

Business Model

Another elephant in the room, but there are plenty of areas to innovate because there are oh so many ideas. It’s just a matter of making sure revenues exceed costs. 

The “freemium” model has many legs, in my opinion. With a strong enough feature set, the iPhone application could easily be sold in the App Store. On the web side, users might also be able to buy their way out of advertising on the site. Content would be freely accessible (don’t want to destroy your Google Juice) but there would be functionality that you would up sell.

One marketable skill of the journalist is the ability to synthesize information into varying degrees of presentable formats. News organizations should need to get into the business of selling this skill set as business consulting. If they’re covering their beats well, they should have the best market research into that community. Sell that service to local startup businesses, etc.

Last thought: Advertising, as much as I hate it, still has room for a lot more innovation. Build highly valuable information tools like the ideas above to empower communities to make decisions, and there will be opportunities to monetize against them.


Alexis Madrigal February 27, 2009 Reply

I know the idea about the iPhone *sounds* like me, but I just want to give credit for that idea to Robin Sloan, Current’s social media strategist. At least, I think he was the one who floated that idea.

Great points about the need for pull journalism. Perhaps the PostChron could partner with one of my favorite apps, GoodGuide.

John Lowe February 27, 2009 Reply

Your post makes clear there as many open, untapped areas for newspaper Internet revenue and expansion as there were open and untapped areas in the western U.S. when the Chronicle’s city was just getting started. That word synthesize really resonates because of Halberstam’s definition of the great reporter’s gifts: “A fine mind, limitless energy, total recall and an ability to synthesize material.”

Bryan Saxton March 6, 2009 Reply

The Internet has certainly changed the way we access media, but one of the things I’ve discovered is that there are a ton of people who still get their news from print. Focusing solely on online content at this stage in the game will alienate a significant portion of the population (we’re talking 60%-70% of readers). But, given the state of print media and the economy, there may be no alternative to focusing on online content.

One other problem is that an online paper is going to make much less money than print media used to. As a result (and as much as I hate to say it), we’re probably going to see a reduction in the quality of news reporting, at least in the short term.

Anyway, I’m sure the newspaper industry will survive in some form or another. They survived other crisis in the past (the introduction of radio and television), and I’ll be interested to see how it manifests itself in the near future.

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