News 2.0: the Hybrid Future is Kicking Down the Door

The days of publishing pooh-bahs dictating what is important and what is not are over. And thank goodness.
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I recently went on vacation with a group of friends, all of whom are major users of the web. It's where we get most of our news and information. We were all fully locked and loaded, each of us sporting a bevy of devices allowing us instant access to the net: Blackberries and Helios and Sidekicks and laptops with wireless cards. And yet, every morning, when we gathered for breakfast, we all brought with us hard copies of our favorite newspapers, freshly-minted off a new machine that makes it possible to print an exact replica of hundreds of different newspapers anywhere in the world.

Looking around at an ink-and-newsprint tableau that could have come out of a 1930s movie or 1950s sitcom, I suddenly wondered, why aren't we all online surfing the net? What is it in our collective DNA that makes us want to sip our coffee, turn a page, look up from a story, say "Can you believe this?", and pass the paper to the person across the table? Sure, you could hand them your Blackberry or laptop...but the instinct is different (and, really, who wants to get butter or marmalade on your new PowerBook?).

At that moment, all the endless obituaries I've read about the death of newspapers struck me as rather ludicrous -- or, at the least, extremely premature. Until those of us who came of age before the Internet all die off, there will be a market for print versions of newspapers. It's one of the reasons two new companies, NewspaperDirect and Satellite Newspapers, have come up with remarkable systems that make it possible for you to print a full-sized edition of as many different papers as you like. So there we were, overlooking the Caribbean, and every morning we were able to order up hard copies of the latest edition of a huge selection of papers, including the New York Times, the London Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, even, I admit, the New York Post -- a guilty pleasure.

This is not to suggest that the newspaper business isn't changing in dramatic and painful ways. It clearly is. But, far from being the death knell of daily newspapers and the indispensable journalism they provide, these changes can serve as a wake-up call. A wake-up call the industry, after years of yawning and repeatedly hitting the snooze button, is finally starting to heed. And not a moment too soon.

Those papers that wake up in time will become a journalistic hybrid combining the best aspects of traditional print newspapers with the best of what the Web brings to the table. We're getting a glimpse into this hybrid future in so-called Old Media places like the Washington Post and the New York Times, and from New Media players like Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo sites. And, of course, that's exactly what we're trying to do with the Huffington Post.

All this is Topic A at the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors conference, which kicked off Tuesday in Washington, DC. I'll be appearing on a panel with Barry Diller and Don Graham, who is presiding over the explosion of online growth at the Washington Post. After pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into WaPo's digital operations, the Post is starting to reap the benefits. It's gone from being a largely local paper with a print circulation around 656,000, to an international paper attracting eight million unique online readers a month. The paper's digital efforts are now turning a profit, and online revenues will only continue to rise. Discussing the paper's digital future with Bob Kuttner, WaPo business reporter Steve Pearlstein couldn't have been clearer: "This is our salvation."

Although only 5.8% of current U.S. ad spending, online ad spending is expected to be $36.5 billion or 11% of total ad sales in 2011. Indeed, Internet ad revenue rose by 34% in 2006 to $16 billion. The Internet is expected to account for half of a newspaper's income and the majority of its readership by 2020.

Another old school behemoth that is embracing the digital future is the New York Times, despite its dunderheaded decision to hide Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, Bob Herbert, and co., behind TimesSelect (more on this in a moment). Drawing over 13 million unique users a month, the venerable Gray Lady is actually on the cutting edge of digital innovation, including Times Reader, which presents stories online in a format that approximates the experience of reading the paper's print edition (combined with the search and flexibility bells-and-whistles of the web), and MyTimes (currently in beta), which allows readers to aggregate their favorite news sources and blend them with content produced by the Times, creating a single, custom-made digital super-paper. How serious is the Times about pushing the innovation envelope? It's hired Michael Zimbalist, a former Disney imagineer, to oversee the company's online research and development. That's serious.

As for TimesSelect -- which runs so contrary to the first law of internet thermodynamics, according to which, unless you are offering financial news or porn, online content should always be free -- it hides no more than three percent of the paper's content behind its subscription wall. And this so-called "premium content" generates just under $10 million a year, a tiny slice of the company's $350 million digital revenue pie. Even the Times seems dubious about the wisdom of this business model because the paper recently made TimesSelect material free to all students and teachers who have a .edu email address. Can the rest of us be far behind?

And just as Old Media players are embracing the ways of the New Media, some in the New Media are beginning to perform some of the key functions formerly reserved for the media establishment -- namely breaking major news stories and offering original reporting.

The latest example of this is the U.S. attorneys scandal, a story that resulted from the efforts of Josh Marshall's team at Talking Point Memo and TPM Muckracker, with a massive assist from the TPM online community. Sparked by a small article in an Arkansas newspaper about the firing of that state's U.S. attorney, Marshall began stitching together the story, one thread at a time, and asking his readers for any information they might have about similar firings in the states they lived. The combination of journalistic doggedness and reader interactivity was explosive -- and has Alberto Gonzales teetering on the brink of unemployment, and Karl Rove facing a possible forced date with Congress.

As this showed, breaking a big story isn't always about getting the inside tip from a Deep Throat -- many times it's simply the piecing together of seemingly random bits of information there for everybody to see. But when they are assembled together, suddenly a big story can emerge. The blogosphere excels at this.

Besides taking pride in the excellent work of a fellow blogger, I relish that it is the work of Josh Marshall, whose efforts helped move the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond story out of the shadows and into the media spotlight -- marking the moment when I first recognized the potential power of the blogosphere. It was the spark that lit my blogging fire, and eventually led me to HuffPost.

Chomping down on a story and refusing to let go is what bloggers do best. And while the vast majority of material that ends up being blogged about still originates with a mainstream news source, more and more stories are being broken by online news sources -- a trend that will only continue with the growth of sites like TPM, Politico, TMZ (hey, the Mel Gibson and Michael Richards stories were big news), and HuffPost, where we are ratcheting up our commitment to original reporting, investigative reporting, and citizen journalism, in which our readers act as adjunct reporters -- additional eyes, ears, and boots, or stiletto heels, on the ground, ferreting out news and underreported stories all across the country.

At the same time, technology will continue to give readers more and more control over what kind of information they get, and how that information will be presented. The days of publishing pooh-bahs dictating what is important and what is not are over. And thank goodness. Because the big question has always been: what page will today's real front page story actually appear on?

So stop writing teary-eyed eulogies for newspapers. The only thing dead is the either/or nature of the musty print vs online debate. The shifting dynamic between those two forces is exactly like the relationship between Sarah Conner and the T-101 in the Terminator movies. At first, the visitor from the future (digital) seemed intent on killing Sarah (print). But as the relationship progressed and the sequels unspooled, the Terminator became Sarah and her son's one hope for salvation. Today, you can almost hear digital media (which for some reason has a thick Austrian accent) saying to print: "Come with me if you want to live!"

The hybrid future is kicking down the door. It's time to let it in and fully embrace it.

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