01:33 AM

12.4.06: Gannett radically remaking newspapers into something bloggy

The feeling is palpable this year that the newspaper just might not make it after all. Ink on paper, distributed through city kiosks, change boxes and home delivery, is the technology that worked for 300 years but that tradition makes it all the more susceptible to the cruelty of the digital age. Newspapering is slow (today's news tomorrow), impersonal (inverted pyramid with references to the author reduced to "a reporter" or boldy "this reporter"), expensive (those presses run in the $10 million range, delivery requires a fleet of trucks, reporters, production people and press operators are unionized with stultifying effect) and anachronistic (it's a mass market business, delivering only text and low-res imagery in a multimedia time.)

Newspapers have websites of course with audio and video, and reporters blog, but the cost structures continue to be unwieldly and papers are singularly unable to turn their benefits into online advertising dollars. Thus they have outsourced - at a high cost - advertising sales to Google and Yahoo. With hard costs fixed, some companies like the Tribune Co. have acted to gut the newsroom.

But as Foremski points out, if newspapers fail to figure out the new media business model before they gut themselves out of any relevance, we're all be worse off. While few newspapers still do it, papers are the institution best-positioned to do investigatory reporting, to follow the money, work leads, build contacts and have enough visibility to attract leaks and smoking gun documents.

And so to Fort Myers, Fla., where, The Washington Post reports, Gannett is pushing the envelope on digital newspapering in an attempt to build relevance in the digital age.

Darkness falls on a chilly Winn-Dixie parking lot in a dodgy part of North Fort Myers just before Thanksgiving. Chuck Myron sits in his little gray Nissan and types on an IBM ThinkPad laptop plugged into the car's cigarette lighter. The glow of the screen illuminates his face.

Myron, 27, is a reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press and one of its fleet of mobile journalists, or "mojos." The mojos have high-tech tools -- ThinkPads, digital audio recorders, digital still and video cameras -- but no desk, no chair, no nameplate, no land line, no office. They spend their time on the road looking for stories, filing several a day for the newspaper's Web site, and often for the print edition, too. Their guiding principle: A constantly updated stream of intensely local, fresh Web content -- regardless of its traditional news value -- is key to building online and newspaper readership.

Gannett, of course, reinvented newspapers in the early 80s with USA Today and the company's philosophy is "news you can use." But this is radical even for the leading-edge Gannett. That's just how badly broken the old system is.

The chain's papers are redirecting their newsrooms to focus on the Web first, paper second. Papers are slashing national and foreign coverage and beefing up "hyper-local," street-by-street news. They are creating reader-searchable databases on traffic flows and school class sizes. Web sites are fed with reader-generated content, such as pictures of their kids with Santa. In short, Gannett -- at its 90 papers, including USA Today -- is trying everything it can think of to create Web sites that will attract more readers.

"We're trying a lot of things. Some will work; others won't," said Kate Marymont, 53, the energetic News-Press executive editor for the past six years and a Gannett lifer. "It's like play."

What if you were creating a news organization today? Would you hire J-school grads or youngsters who lived and breathed blogs, digcams, text messaging and video? Would you open a Washington bureau or decide that there's no point in replicating the work of the major media? Would you invest in investigative reporting or focus on the super-local?

For the News-Press the direction is clear. Their ideas are cutting-edge for the newspaper business but have mostly been thought of and tried by bloggers and startups. Gannett is the biggest operation to make blogging, Digg-like voting, and user contributions the core of the news operation. Here are some of the paper's innovations:

  • The creation of 14 full- and part-time mojos. By the end of next year, the paper's 30 other news reporters also will be mojos to one extent or another. The News-Press is nonunion.

  • "Crowdsourcing" or enlisting expert readers to review documents and work on investigations. For instance, the News-Press enlisted retired engineers, accountants and government insiders to look at docs and data to uncover why new sewer and water hookups were so expensive. The resulting investigative report resulted in fees lowered by 30 percent and an official ousted.

    The News-Press and other Gannett papers also are building searchable online databases on as many topics as they can think of, in part to "enable people to do digging themselves and maybe find conclusions we won't," said Michael Maness, Gannett's vice president of strategic planning. "It's having thousands of investigative reporters instead of three."

  • A managing editor for audience building who monitors traffic data and steers editorial towards the most popular topics.

  • Online message boards that sounds like Craigslist.

And most radically of all:

Next spring, the paper plans to run a large story on a topic it would not identify. It did, however, say that the reporter on the article will accompany News-Press ad salespeople on trips to advertisers as the paper seeks a sponsor for the article. The logic: The reporter understands the project and can explain it best to potential advertisers. Though the reporter will be in sales meetings, he or she will not be part of the sales pitch. Nevertheless, the practice violates one of journalism's fundamentals -- maintaining a leakproof wall between the news and business sides of a newspaper.