There was far more commentary than I could begin to digest, but it seemed like a worthwhile project to try to build a compendium, however incomplete, of the more trenchant takes on Gannett's Seven Desk Plan. I've split reactions into pro and con, with the latter running after the jump. If I missed you, and I won't be surprised to hear that did, email me or, better yet, post a comment expressing your views.
• Dan Gillmor calls the Gannett initiative "truly remarkable," but adds the world-wise observation that, "no doubt, a major part of this initiative is to save money. Gannett is famously careful with its spending, to put it mildly." Gannett execs didn't discuss the "local information centers" in those terms, but I've no reason to think Gillmor's wrong, and many reasons – from my experiencing looking at other companies putting user-generated content/crowdsourcing models to work – that he's right.
• The most lengthy consideration came, unsurprisingly, from NewAssignment.Net, where longtime Washington Post editor Steve Fox offers an enthusiastic endorsement for the Fort Myers News-Press' experiment with distributed investigatory journalism. Fox also contributes some excellent historical context, recalling reactions amongst journalists to the launch of USA Today and how papers rushed pell-mell to put up Web sites in 1996.
• Slashdot asks if Gannett "successfully duplicate what online communities have been doing for years?" which naturally has fueled discussion on the site's ever-active forum boards.
• I thought some of the most astute commentary came from Robb Montgomery at The Editors Weblog:
The key to me is recognizing that databases are the gold mines fueling the business models in this scenario and how well they are structured, mined and managed will be one of the keys to rolling this plan out. ... I like how the values are focused on investing in community participation in a never-ending feedback loop. ... Look, what Gannett is really trying to do here is build a new model around their key assets – customer data - deep, local customer data. News, community and marketing data.
That's spot on. In my discussions with Gannett reporters and executives there was a marked focus on how best to utilize little league scores (this came up with multiple, unrelated sources), neighborhood watch information and potholes. In other words, "deep, local customer data." Gannett calls this "hyper-local" news. Robb ends by noting that,
Managing structured data is the linchpin in executing a vision like this. I know that sounds like gibberish to some but, mark my words, getting real smart about managing all of your company's databases will be the key to making this work
Spot on again, and this is why reporters and editors might think about dusting off their CVs, or more to the point, begin thinking about retraining. As Gregory Korte, the Cincinnati Enquirer reporter noted in my Wired News piece, ""The newspaper of the future is going to need more programmers than copy editors, and we're going to have to figure out how to make that transition." The only change I'd make to that quote is to strike "programmers" and sub in "database managers." Gannett exec Michael Maness told me that newsrooms might discover that the folks in research library departments might find themselves well-suited to this new kind of newsroom.
• Rhetorica, the press blog written by Dr. Andrew R. Cline, a journalism prof at the Missouri State, proposes that Gannett owes us something because, " after all, it was Gannett that played a big role in damaging print journalism with the introduction of USA Today--the paper that convinced print it should be like TV."
• Doc Searls welcomes the news, then compares key numbers (circulation, positive vs. negative mentions on Google, et. al.) between the News-Press in my article (Ft. Myers), which has repeatedly experimented with ways to involve readers and make the operation more transparent, and the Santa Barbara News-Press, which is closed in virtually every way. It ain't pretty.
• I left Jeff Jarvis for last, as he gives us a nice bridge between Pro and Con. He applauds Gannett's move on Buzzmachine, but also notes that he's "seen plenty of newsroom reorganizations in my day and they haven’t changed the biorhythms of news yet. ... I fear that the culture of the newsroom will do everything it can to stop this." My own experience in the newsroom – a formative year as a general assignment reporter at the Columbus Dispatch right out of college – makes me share Jeff's fears. There were guys who couldn't adjust to women in the newsroom; can't imagine how they might cotton to amateurs conducting frontline research on stories. Jeff goes on to note, however, that Gannett tends to own smaller papers, filled with young reporters. This point was emphasized by Michael Maness, one of the architects of Gannett's plan, who told me that anymore, cub reporters come in already knowing how to shoot and edit their own video footage so need very little training to move to a multi-media, multi-platform operation.
Read past the jump to hear the critics:
Not everyone thought Gannett's move was a step in the direction. Grounds for objection varied, and I've tried to provide a decent representation below:
• A lot of bloggers worried whether Gannett isn't handing the power of the press to the tyranny of the majority. "It sounds like a great way for a clever person with a vendetta to screw somebody over in a most public way," wrote Eric at the Dunciad. Without delving into this concern too deeply (the hour is late, and this post is long) I'll just note that, by my lights, there's plenty of merit to this worry.
• Greg Yardley at Yardley.ca expands on this concern, spinning out a scenario in which:
My party, the Republicrats, want to dig up dirt on a politican for a rival party - let’s call them the Demolicans. I get ten of my friends together and start calling the paper, asking for an investigation into the local Demolican councilman. Can I influence the news? Now imagine the local Demolican party gets wind of this, and they start paying some inclined members to counteract this with their own stories and investigations. How much could they in turn influence the news?
Good question, Greg, and proof that checks and controls will need to be built into any such system.
• C.J. at The Loud Minority heralds "the dawning of corporate takeover. ... Not only does the media rip you off with the high costs of information access, but now they can rip off both the feeders and the fed, by getting their real-time information for next to nothing, and then sell it at 400% markup." I think Big Media wishes it were that efficient, CJ, but I think we're safe for the time being.
• In a surprisingly reductivist post Om Malik dismisses Gannett as giving up its core competency:
If that is being crowdsourced, what are they in the business for? Creating tomorrow’s fish wrap today. A senior executive says they got into the business because they were passionate about investigative and hard hitting journalism. Except they nickle and dimed that aspect to death, and this move is just another proof. Free investigative journalistic input from the readers! Right.
There's a lot of problems with this post, starting with a conflating
of the motivations of publishers and editors. The latter fought the
former to keep from investigative journalism getting nickel-and-dimed,
and to a large extent lost. I think a close reading of the Ft. Myers
News-Press experience with crowdsourcing, as Fox offers,
reveals a deep commitment to the difficult – and many of us would
argue, exceedingly important – task of reinventing public service
journalism to insure its continued viability.