An experiment that would make Walter Lippmann cringe

There has been some pub recently about an experiment by Howard Owens and Ryan Sholin working with Gatehouse Media to launch a website in a place, Batavia, NY, where Gatehouse doesn’t publish a newspaper. You can read more about it here, here and here.

Here are the basics:

  • Set up an office on Main Street
  • Have one hired journalist/lead blogger in town everyday to connect with the community
  • Build a site around a blog
  • Allow any registered user to submit content, seek them out and promote them as much as possible
  • Offer all the standard community tools
  • Think about hiring a journalist to cover local sports
  • Link liberally to other local blogs and content
  • Post videos of events and breaking news
  • Pull in feed from several sources

Here are a few of the comments being circulated about this experiment.

. . . the strategy is to launch an innovative news and community site that will eat the lunch of an incumbent newspaper that has ignored the web.

The Batavian is an experiment in whether a new web-native journalism can better serve a community. Here’s Howard on “Exploring the complexity of community issues as a community

The Batavian lets any registered reader contribute posts, and it treats all registered readers as equals. One full-time reporter, and a couple of other Gatehouse employees who contribute occasionally, make sure The Batavian has new posts every day. The rest of The Batavian’s content comes from residents.

The company I work for, Gazette Communications, is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The company owns a TV station, a newspaper and a commercial print operation. We have a bureau with a few reporters in Iowa City which is about 20 or so miles to the south, and Iowa City also has its own newspaper, as does the University of Iowa.

All of these traditionally run media sites, including the one I have some influence on, operate on a print-centric workflow, philosophy and approach. The biggest argument for doing this experiment is that a digital-only operation will not operating under any rules or constraints.

A lot of people in the building at Gazette Communications believe there is tremendous opportunity in the Iowa City market. I feel those opportunities, however, go beyond entertainment and University of Iowa students.

Digital communication allows all members of the public – the press, the politicians, the government agents and the citizens – to discuss choices, consequences and conditions as equals. Reporters need no longer be bound by the limitations of print and present just the so-called objective report, but rather explore, examine, raise and answer questions, and start conversations.

So what do you think? Can this type of experiment work in Iowa City? Anyone willing to try it?

Note: Howard Owens on Walter Lippmann: Lippmann was an elitist. He believed that the modern world was too complex for the average citizen to grasp, and that Joe Public probably didn’t care anyway. Modern democracy worked best, he argued, if the governing class was comprised of experts and professionals who set the policy and then manufactured public consent. The role of the press in this model was to merely transmit the decisions and actions of the elitesĀ  in simple terms, with little questioning or interpretation, aiming to maximize emotional impact.

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7 thoughts on “An experiment that would make Walter Lippmann cringe

  1. Without getting into the merits, because I work for GateHouse, I can’t resist pointing out that a blogger ought to be able to come up with a reference that’s at least from the 20th century. Walter is a cliche and he’s been dead for 33 years. NOT HIP! (That should really hurt. I’m old enough to have read Lippman when he was alive.)

    Ken Johnson
    Online editor
    The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
    The Enterprise, Brockton, Mass.

  2. As a corridor dweller and otherwise interested party, I’d love to see someone try this. In particular, I’d like to see what it takes to get people in a place like I.C. to participate when there are so many other opportunities for them to get/share information and occupy their time and brains. I’m thinking that whoever is willing to empower citizens the most is going to win in this sort of enterprise. Coincidentally, I posted some questions about this concept just a few hours ago.

  3. I am moving back to Iowa in the next few months and have started some discussions about local news sites for Iowa. Though we haven’t talked about Iowa City yet, maybe we should start the conversation and see where it goes.

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  5. A question: Why would a digital-only operation “not operate under any rules or constraints”, regardless of the ownership? There are rules and constraints inherent in any system. Yes, in a digital system there are not the daily deadlines that must be met to put ink on paper and get it delivered; the product is so fluid there are no physical constraints or minimum requirements for story length or structure; there are not limits on contributors (all can be involved, in theory).

    Echoing BJ’s comment, there are constraints on how much text/commentary any audience will read ordigest (time/interest especially), on the audience itself, on access to the technology. And maybe it’s just me, but the annonymnity of screen names is a tad scary. That is not a constraint exactly, but is a barrier to participation for some, and a way of lowering the bar on discourse that could undercut the whole point of the experiment.

    Certainly this format could be a much more interesting job for reporters – to not be tied to the news hole, to engage directly with the community in new ways. And people do love to see themselves published… will that be enough to create the level of engagement needed to succeed?

    There is one more big question that needs to be answered – how does it make money? People would be far more likely to have an expectation of compensation for contributions than to have to pay for the privlidge of participation, yes? And even a couple of staffers and computers would need funding, and at some point would have a responsibility to become a contributor to EBITDA. We have a responsiblity to do more than just build it and hope they will come… how could a site like this serve the other, and equally important, constituency – local advertisers? The paper has been the meeting place for the community and local businesses for 125 years. We will need to be just as innovative in creating, er, fostering, the buyer/seller community as we are in creating new forms of journalism.

    What fun we are going to have in the next few years making these things happen!

  6. Pingback: How to make money on a digital-only community site « Jason Kristufek’s We Media blog

  7. This post was circulated back to me and I’ll offer some updates/responses.

    Since I last wrote about Lippmann in my blog, I’ve read two of his books (in the middle of a third now), and three books about him. My view of Lippmann has become much more nuanced.

    Yes, he was an elitist, possibly the first Eastern Media Liberal Elite.

    But he was also very concerned about the future of democracy when public opinion could be so easily swayed.

    He wanted to see a professionalized media not so much, however, that they might join the elites, but so they might be smarter about their work.

    He wanted a more objective media, but not objectivity as we know it today. He would be appalled at the idea that reporters can’t express opinions and all sides must be presented. To him, objectivity meant the scientific examination of facts and evidence and drawing educated conclusions.

    What I’ve learned about Lippmann, in fact, is that he would very much agree with our journalistic goals with The Batavian (I’ll leave it to others to judge how well we execute in that model).

    To my friend and colleague Ken Johnson’s point — Lippmann remains very much relevant to journalism today. He is profoundly the most influential thinker on modern journalism. While many blame/credit him for today’s objective journalism, and as I point out, what we have today isn’t what he meant at all, he is the one most responsible for raising journalism from a craft to a profession (for good or ill). His influence on political thinking in this country is so vast that it largely goes unnoticed today.

    As for the issue of making money: I’m optimistic about the plan and model we’re developing. I think we have a great chance to be profitable, but it’s going to take work to get there.

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