3.21.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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what if struggling newspapers went non-profit?
an idea worth printing
by michael d. driscoll
pop culture

There is a certain irony when professionals of the Internet industry, the ones who worked diligently to create and meet the online demand for companion sites to printed newspapers, are now finding themselves huddled in conference rooms across the globe trying to fix the problem they created.

And I am no exception.

When newspapers moved to the online space it was heaven. No more inky fingers. No more guilt when the heavy Sunday paper went into the trash instead of the recycle bin. No more men shaking open newspapers in rapid succession to accentuate a point or deliver a non-verbal warning to an unruly child.

So now we all miss newspapers. While peripheral industries to the newspaper machine innovated the paper so the ink wouldn't rub off as easily, and the cities made recycling more accessible, and unruly children got their Ritalin prescriptions, we carefully entered our credit card numbers into well designed forms to pay for content or went with online newspapers that undercut the pay-for model, freeing content like it was a dove at a wedding. Oh it was so pretty (before it crapped on my taffeta).

And there has been so much commentary on the demise of the printed newspaper generated from industry leaders, professional bloggers, corporate behemoths and novice strategists to fill, well, a newspaper. Ladies and Gentlemen: we've officially entered the tizzy after years of forgetting our panties were in a wad.

So what can we do while the newspapers struggle to avoid writing their own obit?

According to an email that was forwarded around the office this week (sent by Open Source guru Ben Ramsey) with a link to Clay Shirky's article called "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" we find that the solution is nothing and yet everything. Well that saved us from scheduling a conference room and grabbing our Diet Cokes. No more strategy needed, let's head to the bar and toast to a new ad model.

And the ad models. If you think a lot of hard work went into the ad models now online, hold on to your harddrives. Printed papers still make their money from advertisers and sometimes even subscriptions if they're lucky. Online newspapers use the same model, but as we grow blind (banner blindness) to ads at the top and in the right rail, Internet companies are kicking into overdrive to compete for our focus. What's coming is more intrusive yet uniquely innovative. "I was blind but now I see" goes the song and newer ad models want to light the way.

So now we're shaking our heads at the companies who will spend millions to vie for our attention while we read the local buzz online, still wishing newspapers wouldn't die (but not buying them) and left wondering if our kids (OK, your kids) will ever be silenced by a terse ruffling of Section A when the Ritalin wears off. Ahem.

Hard to please? Oh, you betcha.

Let's make no apologies for what we want when we want it. Let the companies spend their millions creating new ad models. No, we won't look. We'll Twitter while they take up the screen for 15 seconds at 30 frames per second. And while we're at it, let the printing press manufacturers go out of business and then create legislation that old presses are required to be decommissioned in the most environmentally-friendly way. We'll recycle those old conveyor belts into purses and Halloween costumes (No, I'm a printing press. A PRINTING PRESS, gah!).

Hell, we won't just kill them, we'll wear them.

Now that we know nothing will work and anything might, why not investigate the non-profit approach? Of course, the shift from .com to .org may seem radical given the environment, but for hometown newspapers it could be worth booking a conference room and getting a six pack of Diet Coke for an afternoon.

My very own Atlanta Journal and Constitution could go from ajc.com to ajc.org and rely on reader support and a smidge of online advertising while saving printed papers for historic moments, like the first African-American president or the volcanic separation of California from North America (heaven forbid).

After the 3rd round of Diet Cokes they may also consider taking to the airwaves and distribute AJC.org (or similar URL) branded news to radio and cable companies, essentially taking the water to the horse, all in an effort to drive traffic to the sites we industry professionals have invented and reinvented over the last decade.

No, it's not as simple as this. NPR was never a newspaper, so why should their approach work for newspapers? For me, it's simple. If a groundswell of Internet tactics could keep the TV show Arrested Development on for another season why wouldn't newspapers attempt the same to keep their printing presses moving or the servers humming? American fascination with nostalgia coupled with good content could be the kernel to a larger idea.

The rest isn't so simple. My approach is possibly naive, yet I'm fascinated by the possibility of using the same tool being blamed for the demise of printed newspapers to keep it alive.

Want more? Check out MichaelDriscoll.com for other ideas on culture, the economy and social media.


Curious about everything, Michael plans to do it all. A ruffian by day and a lover by night he's managed to go where no one else has gone. His slight forgetfulness means he is curious about everything and plans to do it all. A ruffian by day and a lover by night he's managed...

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joe redden tigan
5.18.09 @ 11:03a

not to mention newspapers can still actually serve a purpose. the oft-maligned Chicago Sun-Times was WAY out ahead a long time ago when they overhauled the paper to suit commuters and a 3rd-grade mentality. the free-falling Tribune is trying the same just this year and looking worse than desperate while eating crow, and super-size that. but there are still places where people sit for extended periods without computer access and in need of amusement. find those places and sell quality newspapers.

michael driscoll
5.18.09 @ 3:29p

Things are heating up here in Atlanta, too. For the first time (in, like, forever) we have TV ads for our newspaper. It's disturbing because I think people rally around things that are dying more than things that are advertised as "a good idea." More grassroots, more something. Good feedback, Joe!

PASTE Magazine has been hit pretty hard and started their own save us campaign. I was at a Mashable event last week and the Mashable folks were trying to help raise awareness of the music rag's hard times.

I wonder if Rome stepped up advertising in the end...

russ carr
5.18.09 @ 11:18p

It's disturbing because I think people rally around things that are dying more than things that are advertised as "a good idea."

That's because there's no emotional sentimentality around good (new) ideas. The sudden rallying around the big city paper is hypocritical; if the people had bought the paper in the first place, there wouldn't be a problem like this, at least not to such a great extent.

Or to take the Rome analogy and run with it: it's like Brutus offering a band-aid and an apology as Caesar bleeds out.

joe redden tigan
11.19.09 @ 5:48p

an interesting hybrid to your discussion, Michael?


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