In Defense of Jim Romenesko

Who would ever have believed that Jim Romenesko, the ace chronicler of journalism's foibles, would himself wind up the topic of a post in his own blog alleging malfeasance on his part. But incredibly, it's happened.

Problem is, the alleged misdeeds being attributed to Romenesko are, not to put too fine a point on it, horseshit.

If I understand the convoluted, garment-rending, self-flagellating post about the situation by Poynter Online Director Julie Moos correctly (no mean feat), Poynter has suddenly decided, after 12 years of running Romenesko's invaluable blog, that Romenesko has been lifting material from sources he cites without properly attributing it. Or, what Moos calls "incomplete attribution." Here's her allegation, in quotes, of course:

Though information sources have always been displayed prominently in Jim’s posts and are always linked at least once (often multiple times), too many of those posts also included the original author’s verbatim language without containing his or her words in quotation marks, as they should have.

Okaaaay. This is the Web, of course, and information is posted on blogs without quotation marks all the time. It appears Romenesko may have occasionally grabbed a few words here and there and incorporated them in his summaries of articles he linked to, but HELLO! They were summaries, credited to the source and linked to the originating site. Every reader understood that. Indeed, Romenesko all but invented the aggregated, curated blog, and drew enormous amounts of traffic to Poynter in the process. It's only now that his efforts and ethics are being questioned? C'mon.

But wait, it gets better. Moos again:

To our knowledge no writer or publication has ever told us their words were being co-opted. That raises some questions of its own. Surely many writers whose words appeared in Jim’s posts have read them there.

Nobody complained? Nobody? Wow, helluva problem you've got there, Poynter. And I'll speak from firsthand experience: Not only have I read Romenesko's blog daily, nay, hourly, since its inception, I've been lucky enough to have been cited and linked to in it more than a few times. Not once did it occur to me that Romenesko was improperly lifting my words, or anybody else's. As Moos admits, he always attributed his sources—sometimes to a fault—and I understood, as I thought everybody did, that he was providing a summary of my work, and others. I have zero problem with that—it's how the Web works, for chrissakes. And Poynter should have zero problem with it.

It's unfortunate, with Romenesko about to retire from his eponymous blog and move on from Poynter, that Poynter officials have chosen to besmirch his reputation and raise questions about his work in this way. It's a tempest in a teapot, one that could have easily have been handled internally. There was no need to make Jim Romenesko the subject of his own blog, especially after what he's meant to Poynter over the years. He deserves far better. Poynter officials should be ashamed of themselves.

 PS: Choire Sicha's take on this non-story is superb. Ditto Felix Salmon's.

The Instant iPad App

For publishers, iPad apps are all the rage these days. Everybody's developing whizbang apps to take advantage of Apple's popular tablet—even though, when you get right down to it, most of the apps aren't huge improvements over the publications' existing Web sites, which are just a touch away on an iPad screen. Still every newspaper and magazine wants to have its own iPad app, so they're spending zillions to develop them, business models be damned.

But do you really need to build your own app? It turns out there are other tools out there that can create good-looking apps, from publisher's feeds, at minimal cost. Three of the best-known ones are Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, which create slick, high-quality iPad publications from various combinations of users' Twitter and RSS feeds. Good stuff, and I'm surprised we haven't seen publishers license private-label versions of these platforms to create cheap, easy iPad apps for themselves.

And now WordPress has made creating a news app—or at least an iPad-compatible blog—even easier. Got an iPad? Got a WordPress blog? Check out your blog in Safari on the iPad, and prepare to be amazed. (If you don't have a WordPress blog handy, here's a good hyperlocal one, by my friend Dan Woog, from whom I first heard about this trick. Sorry, I can't help you if you don't have an iPad!)

Blog-ipad1
Very quietly, WordPress has rolled out a nice iPad "Onswipe" theme for all 18 million of its blogs, automatically making them iPad-friendly. You get a nice title page, an iPad-like layout of posts, and the ability to swipe across the screen to change pages—all requisite features of any good iPad app, all automatic for any WordPress blog. The popular blogging platform has had a similarly good-looking, simplified mobile version for smartphones for a while now. No muss, no fuss—instant compatibility with the latest in mobile computing.

The point is, you don't need a team of developers to create a good-looking iPad app or iPad-friendly site for your publication. Why waste the money building a custom app? WordPress, like Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, is proving that a simple, universal iPad-in-a-box solution may be a much better way to bring publications quickly and easily into the tablet age. 

 

My New Front Page—And Tina Brown’s

I've been noticing something about my news consumption over the past few months: While I've all but given up print newspapers over the past few years, rarely look at newspaper Web site home pages and consume a huge amount of my news via RSS feeds and Twitter, one site has emerged as my go-to "front page" for a smart overview of what's going on in the world: Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog.

Apparently I'm not alone: Sullivan's blog has been the biggest traffic draw on The Atlantic's Web site, accounting for fully a quarter of its traffic—and now Tina Brown has stolen Sullivan to be an anchor for her every-more-interesting Daily Beast/Newsweek hybrid.

Sullivan's blog, like any well-put-together, old-school front page, is an engaging smorgasbord of news (plus commentary) that provides readers with a guide to a wide range of topics. No, Sullivan doesn't create original copy, in the traditional sense. There's no original reporting going on here. Rather, The Dish is a well-curated, continually updated snapshot of the world, through the eyes of a polymath with a broad range of serious interests and his own set of personal hobbyhorses—which is pretty good description of just about any good front-page editor.

Sullivan and his small staff span the globe and the Web to bring readers dozens of short posts a day pointing to the best reporting and commentary on world events (the blog's coverage of the Egyptian uprising, from multiple angles, was superb, for instance), economics, society, culture and even humor. More often than not, the links are couched in a bit of commentary on the subject or the link's author. It's all good reading, and meat of each item is just a click away, on its originating site.

This is Web curation at its best, starring Sullivan as omnivorous, authoritative editor. Is it idiosyncratic at times? Sure—but all good front pages are. But it's also wildly readable, and an excellent way to keep up with a wide variety of important and/or interesting topics, with the ability to dive deeper at the click of a link.

This approach isn't necessarily as objective or "newsy" as a traditional front page, because of its heavy use of commentary. But it's bursting with personality, passion and wit, in ways many most front pages have long been missing. It's both informative and entertaining, and that makes it a must read—even if I don't always agree with Sullivan's opinions. 

The Daily Dish (like Jim Romenesko's indispensable Poynter journalism roundup) is why some of us get so excited about the Web's ability to remix a wide variety of news and commentary sources into aggregated, curated collections. They provide invaluable guides to the firehose of news and information we're all facing, picking out the best stuff and pointing us to it. That seems pretty obvious, but sites like Sullivan's and Romenesko's do it so well that they stand out. It's like having a smart friend constantly roaming the Web and sending you interesting links.

Tina Brown apparently recognizes the importance of this approach—and Sullivan's enormous following—and has annexed The Daily Dish for the Beast/Newsweek combo. Guess I'll have to redirect my bookmarks and RSS feeds to Sullivan's new digs. Like a great front page, it's become an essential part of my daily navigation of the flood of news.

 

Why TBD is Important

First, the disclaimers: Jim Brady, president of TBD.com, is a good friend. So are his top editors, Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry. And my company, GrowthSpur, is working with TBD to build local ad-sales networks for bloggers in the Washington area (contrary to one report, there is absolutely no financial relationship between GrowthSpur and TBD, btw; they certainly aren't paying us). So I may be a bit biased.

But I think TBD, just launched this week, is an incredibly important development for the future of local news, for many reasons. Let's tick off a few:

  • It's laser-focused on local news and information, not wasting any resources on non-local content that's available elsewhere. 
  • It's Web-focused, but also smartly incorporates traditional media—in this case, a local TV station and local cable-news station—as key elements. But make no mistake, the Web site is first and foremost, not playing a supporting role. 
  • It's aggressively curating and linking to every source of local news in sight (more on that in a bit)—even links to WashingtonPost.com and rival TV stations Web sites have already appeared on its home page. (Linking to competitors! What a concept!)
  • It's taking a smart approach to the all-important mobile space, with apps that don't paste the Web site onto a phone screen, but offer the kinds of things—traffic, weather, headlines—that people really want and need when they're on the go. 
  • It's doing some very sexy things with geocoding, putting a relevant, hyperlocal face on content in a metropolitan area whose sprawling geographical diversity makes local relevance essential. (I don't want news and info and listings about a suburb 40 miles away, in another state. I want to read about my neighborhood.)
  • Its leadership is convinced that TBD can make money covering local news and information. With $100 billion spent a year on local advertising in the U.S., and more and more of that moving to the Web, that's a very canny bet. Brady and the TBD gang are focused on making local online advertising work—not on protecting a print product or chasing dreams of subscription revenue. That focus makes a big difference.

All great things. But I think the most important thing about TBD is its approach to covering the Washington area: aggressively and adroitly mixing professional and blogger content. Finally, a well-funded, big-time local effort is taking to heart Jeff Jarvis' infamous "do what you do best and link to the rest" maxim.

That allows TBD to look like a big-time news organization with a very small staff. Indeed, it's got just 12 reporters roaming the vast DC area—a fraction of what The Washington Post deploys locally. But TBD's secret weapon is that it avidly supplements its staff reporting with content from more than 125 local bloggers (and counting), covering everything from neighborhood politics to food to allergies to parenting to living green.

In doing so, TBD is taking advantage of a powerful phenomenon that also underlies what's driving GrowthSpur: the enormous explosion in local blogging around the country over the past couple of years. Everywhere you look, every town, every nook and cranny, on all sorts of odd—and not so odd—local subjects, somebody's blogging, and they're often doing it passionately and well. 

Fed by cheap blogging tools, an increasing perception of the need for micro local coverage, and, frankly, a surplus of underemployed journalists (though not all of these practitioners are journalists, of course) the local blogosphere has turned into a hothouse of coverage–tens of thousands of little local journalism startups.

And that's what TBD is taking advantage of. I hesitate to even type the words "taking advantage," because it sounds pejorative, and TBD is doing anything but exploiting its blog partners. Indeed, contrary to a lot of arrogant, not-invented-here journalism organizations (Washington Post, I'm looking at you), TBD is bending over backwards to be a good partner to these blogs, giving them home-page credit, pushing them traffic and providing them with a cut of advertising (and GrowthSpur is helping with the latter, too). TBD is treating its blog partners with respect, and that counts for a lot. They deserve respect—these bloggers are working their butts off to cover things that are important to their community, and TBD is giving them recognition, traffic and revenue. Nice.

What does TBD get in exchange? Breadth and depth. TBD is going to be able to cover a huge percentage of what The Washington Post covers locally with less than one-tenth the staff. Not a bad equation—but the reality is that TBD may wind up covering much more than the Post. That's because TBD is going to link to Ellie Ashford's blog covering Annandale, Va., (a suburban town the Post barely knows exists, even though it's less than a dozen miles from the paper's newsroom), and to Lisa Rowan's D.C. vintage clothing blog (not exactly a Post beat), and to Mark Zuckerman's blog about the Washington Nationals (hands-down better than the Post's coverage of the team, and one of several Nats baseball blogs in TBD's stable) and to Jessica Sidman's blog about ice cream and other frozen treats (not generally part of the Post's mainstream food coverage). Multiply those examples by 125-plus blogs and you see that TBD is giving its readers one-stop access to a breadth of local content the Post can't even imagine.

To be sure, TBD is hardly the first site with an aggressive linking strategy and blog network–the "ist" sites (Gothamist, DCist, etc.) do a great job aggregating and expanding on urban blog content in several markets; NBC's owned and operated stations have quietly built strong (though a bit clumsy–they don't share credit well) local aggregation sites; Examiner.com is mixing staff (well, "examiner" reporting with aggregation to build city sites) and there are countless smaller local curation and aggregation experiments going on. 

In addition, TBD is very much still in its infancy, and working out the kinks—at first blush, I'm not sure its priorities and beat structure are quite right (it seems to be catering too much to hip downtown 20-somethings and too thin on the suburbs), and Brady concedes that many planned innovative features are still sort of TBD themselves. So it will be interesting to see how the site evolves and better serves the Washington market.

But TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area. To paraphrase Cory Bergman on LostRemote, TBD isn't just talking about a theory of a new kind of coverage—it's walking the walk. It's building the future. 

As it develops, I think TBD is going to prove a model for other local efforts around the country. It understands something very fundamental, something that once upon a time, a group of us referred to it as the Tom Sawyer strategy: when you're working with limited resources, use them to the maximum–and turn to the rest of the Web for help with filling in the blanks.

A Snow News Week

My Sunday Washington Post still hasn't been delivered. It's been four days now. But I'm not complaining.

Washington has been buried his week in a snowfall of biblical proportions. You may have heard about it—it's been in all the papers. (Or so I hear!) Here in the Washington area, we refer to it as Snowmageddon, or Snowpocalypse or—as the third storm in a week hit us—Snoverkill.

A fast-moving story of this magnitude just isn't particularly well-suited to the "aged" news of print. With conditions changing hourly, cancellations coming fast and furious and a pressing need for real-time coverage and information, this was a major story best told online (or via broadcast). The medium was a perfect fit for the message.

So forget the print edition of the Post: It was WashingtonPost.com that I relied on this week for news of the storm. And the site did a very good job of keeping up with developments and using a wide variety of Web tools to tell the story and to keep readers informed.

Foremost among these was the Post's Breaking News Blog, which provided a running account of the latest developments, updated almost 24 hours a day (other Post.com services, including its Twitter feeds, tended to dry up outside of normal newsroom hours). The blog smartly carried a prominent list of emergency phone numbers, plus a link to a comprehensive list of area cancellations and delays. Another blog tracked road and transit conditions as the storm snarled local transportation.

Post.com's most unique resource in the storm was the Capital Weather Gang, a group of local meteorology buffs—many of them pros—who provide spot-on weather forecasts and analysis for the site through a blog, Twitter feed and page of live maps. Great stuff. (I'm a particular fan of the Weather Gang because in their early days they were stalwart contributors to Backfence, and it's great to see them so successful in the Big Show.)

That's not all. The Post's usually lousy local home page was revived as a catch-all for just about all of the site's snow coverage and information (though it weirdly is thin on links to the Capital Weather Gang's work). Twitter feeds provided constant streams of info, though they needed to be updated more, and the site created some key hashtags, including one tracking local power outages. The site's excellent and underrated live discussion area was put to good use providing experts to answer reader questions about the storm and related topics. Even Post.com's usually erratic text-messaging service was a generally reliable provider of the latest storm news to cell phones—critical with power out in many areas.

Best of all: The Post site published a handy schedule of local mass snowball fights on the first day of the storm. Excellent! (Unfortunately, it wasn't really updated after that, and Twitter and Facebook took the lead.)

Post.com's coverage of the snow wasn't perfect. It could have used a lot more reader contributions. Beyond the usual user-submitted photo galleries (more than 2,800 photos strong), it would have been great to see reader vignettes about the storm (hint: start by mining the story comments). There were many missed opportunities for crowdsourcing, including maps of things like plowed and unplowed streets (the Capital Weather Gang did crowdsource a map of snowfall totals). There wasn't nearly enough aggregation and curation of reports from other local media (though a mashup of key local Twitter feeds was good). More video (with fewer damn preroll ads!) would have been nice—alas, the Post laid off most of its superb video team, including Emmy-winner Travis Fox, a few months ago. And there were storm stories that showed up on local TV—including an epidemic of roof collapses—that the Post didn't really seem to cover well (though there was a map on the site showing some of the collapses).

Still, WashingtonPost.com did an admirable job covering a big, complicated, fast-moving local story, using a lot of different tools, and its work should be a model for other news organizations in similar situations. I certainly didn't miss my printed paper (though I hope I get a credit for it on my next bill).

Excuse me now: I need to go shovel three feet of snow off my driveway. And the Capital Weather Gang is hinting that there's yet another storm coming Monday…

World Wide Whoops

Tip for media sites: If you start a new feature, be sure to lock up the URL for it before you launch it. That prevents domain squatters from grabbing away the newly named feature's Web address, and that in turn makes it harder to defend a trademark or to promote the feature under its own domain name. 

Pretty elementary stuff, and this sort of thing is standard operating procedure at most Web companies (who also know to grab the xxxsucks.com variant of any trademark or URL). But media sites, always casual about trademarking new features, often seem to miss this little detail.

Case in point: WashingtonPost.com, which started a new feature this week called WorldWideWilbon, to showcase the blog, columns, chats and other content around its star sports personality, Michael Wilbon. The page is a great idea—in fact, media sites should be creating such collection pages for every star personality. 

But it looks like the Post missed the boat on locking up the obvious URL (even with such a Web-evocative name). Judging from a WhoIs lookup, somebody else grabbed www.worldwidewilbon.com just about as soon as the feature launched on the Post site this week. It appears to have been registered on Monday by a direct-mail outfit called Production Plus, in Olney, Md.—within the Post's print circulation area, no less. Smart move by Production Plus. Very dumb move by the folks at WashingtonPost.com.

Get It Right the First Time

Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon said something in an online chat a few months ago that has stuck with me:

Since I'm just about to start a new project that some will call a "blog" … I want to work with an editor just the way I have for 28 years…It's a new world we're moving into, a world I'm clearly not entirely comfortable with but excited about. 

Wilbon's a terrific columnist and writer, and I'm as excited as he is about his purported blog (which still hasn't launched). But there's an implication in that statement that's troubling: That he's worried that without the protection of an editor, the quality of his work will suffer. Shouldn't he be confident enough to stand on his own and produce first-rate work without help?

That question reoccurred recurred to me when I read New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt's scarifying dissection of chronically error-prone TV critic Alessandra Stanley's trainwreck of an appraisal of Walter Cronkite. By failing to check some of the most basic facts, and having several layers of the Times' vaunted editing apparently fall asleep on the job, Stanley managed to bungle everything from well-known historical dates to the nature of Cronkite's participation in D-Day—and set some sort of record for a Times correction in the process.

That's stunningly sloppy work, but it points to a broader issue: Have (some) reporters, consistently bailed out by their editors, gotten terminally lazy about the quality of their work? In a time of thinning newsrooms, with people fighting for their jobs, you have to wonder how somebody like Stanley (who at one point was assigned a personal copy editor!) still is employed by the Times over somebody who, say, actually knew when man walked on the moon. (A note to people who don't know how newspapers work: Contrary to common misconception, newspapers don't employ fact-checkers, as some magazines do. Reporters are directly responsible for the facts in their stories.)

There's is a bit of a journalism dirty secret at work here: Everybody who's worked as an editor knows that there are certain reporters whose copy needs to be carefully checked and/or essentially translated into English on a regular basis. I edited a reporter who had little or no concept of how to use commas; another who would submit long stories with gaps labeled "insert transitions here;" and a third who infamously spelled a type of citrus fruit as "greatfruit." And these were experienced reporters at major papers, not rookies at the Podunk Press.

I suppose that sort of editorial backstopping was an acceptable luxury when newsrooms were fat and happy, but in today's budget-conscious world, it's unacceptable. (At least a spellchecker would catch "greatfruit." I hope.) Reporters turning in work that's got factual problems or is laden with spelling errors, in hopes that the desk will cover for them, are like an autoworker who puts a car door on crooked and hopes that the quality-control folks further down the assembly line will correct the mistake. It's just wrong, and unprofessional. And as a smart editor I worked with once wondered out loud, you always have to worry a bit more about the factual skills of a reporter who's careless about things like spelling.

Blogs, chats and other new forms that expose writers' raw copy only highlight the problem. I've cringed reading some blogs by respected reporters who apparently can't take the time to be sure that words are spelled correctly or that their syntax isn't tortured. We all make mistakes, but the writer's goal should be perfection, the first time. It's not that hard to, at minimum, backread a post or story for errors before pressing "Send" or "Save." Have some pride in your work, for God's sake.

Journalism may be the rough draft of history, but that doesn't mean that rough draft should be rife with factual errors and misspellings. As in other industries, the standard for errors should be zero tolerance. And a consistently sloppy worker like Stanley should lose her job in favor of somebody who can produce something much closer to error-free work. 

Choices in Charm City

What happens in a city when its newspaper dies? I've written about this question before, and it's a topic that more and more people are starting to discuss openly as big papers struggle. I continue to think the answer is something that would greatly surprise those who think newspapers are practically the only source of local news. There already are plenty of alternatives—and many more to come.

I spoke this week on a panel in Baltimore called "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" sponsored by the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It was a particularly timely panel in Baltimore: The Baltimore Sun is pretty emaciated these days after multiple layoffs and cutbacks, and unfortunately it's one of those papers that shows up near the top of newspaper-watchers' private lists of big-city papers that appear to be particularly endangered. Baltimore could very well be a test case for questions posed in the panel's title, perhaps sooner rather than later. 

The other participants were an impressive bunch: Baltimore Sun Editor Monty Cook, former Editor Tim Franklin, WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller and Baltimore African-American Publisher Jake Oliver. The moderator was Merrill College Dean Kevin Klose, former head of NPR (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post.) For the most part, not surprisingly, this august crowd with deep local roots couldn't even imagine a Baltimore without its Sun, and as a result there was a bit too much of the usual printie breastbeating about how only large metro newspapers can provide real local coverage.

Hogwash. And when my turn came to speak, I set out to prove it. For my presentation, I played show and tell: I cued up a couple dozen Web sites that already are providing coverage of Baltimore, right under the Sun's nose, and took the panel and audience on a rapid-fire tour of Baltimore's media ecosystem, circa 2009. It was hardly a comprehensive list—I'm sure I missed dozens if not hundreds of other blogs, hyperlocal sites, verticals and others that are already–and that's a key point—replacing the Sun as key sources of local information. Back to the panel's title: "Who will fill the void?" It's already being filled.

I've gotten some requests for the list of sites I showed, so I'll go straight to the examples and, as I did on the panel, let them do the talking, along with a bit of commentary about why I picked them:

I started with the Sun's site. It's your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site. Then I talked about other traditional media that have always provided local competition to the Sun, in print and broadcast: Miller's WBAL-TV, Oliver's Afro-American, the alt-weekly City Paper and Baltimore's excellent business and legal paper, the Daily Record. All cover communities, beats and stories the Sun doesn't get to—and have done so for years. Of course, I didn't even mention the other local TV and radio sites, ethnic papers, community weeklies, college papers, etc. These are longstanding members of the local media ecosystem in Baltimore that belie the notion that the metro daily is the only news and info source in town.

But that doesn't even begin to get to the newer players. I started with a handful of local news sites and blogs: Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Crime, Investigative Voice, BmoreNews, BlogBaltimore, InsideCharmCity. All of these are providing a window into Baltimore life; many are doing the kind of deep-dive local reporting that traditionalists seem to think is the exclusive province of metro newspapers. 

Then I pointed out some local vertical sites whose coverage areas map to (or go beyond) sections of the newspaper and serve specific local interests: Baltimore Real Estate Investing, Baltimore Injury Lawyer (whose "What's an Ear Worth?" headline got a big laugh), Gannett's MomsLikeMe and KidBaltimore. Local entertainment, nightlife and city guide sites: 600 Block, What's to Eat Baltimore? and Yelp, of course (which I think is now quietly doing the same sort of fundamental damage to local newspapers' entertainment, calendar and review franchises that craigslist did to classifieds a few years ago). And a couple from the endless list of local sports sites: CamdenChat, one of at least a dozen local fan blogs that covers and opines about the Orioles; and Baltimore Ravens, which I picked because it's a news and information site run by the NFL team, without any sort of journalistic filters. That's another new kind of competition for reader eyeballs the Web has made possible: direct publishing by the sources of news themselves. 

I showed some sites that aggregate local info: Localist; Examiner.com's local site, which pulls together bloggers and "examiners" writing about subjects inside and outside Baltimore (one of 60 such sites Examiner has built around the country, with so-so results, but uniquely positioned to move in with established sites if newspapers start to fail); Twitter, to show people talking about everything Baltimore (Twitter coverage of the panel is here, btw); and Outside.In, compiling content from myriad local blogs.

I also wanted to show the Baltimore audience that there's other interesting local work being done elsewhere: the terrific VoiceofSanDiego, which is doing the kind of local watchdog reporting that many journalists—including some on the Baltimore panel—somehow think can only come from newspapers, and its big-city counterparts around the country, like MinnPost, ChiTown Daily News. and the New Haven Independent. To show local community coverage on a smaller scale,  I trotted out Baristanet and WestportNow, two of the longest-running examples of the hundreds of hyperlocal sites now providing news and information for small towns. For a glimpse of what happens when technology is brought to bear on local information, I showed Everyblock and Fwix, with their unique ways of mapping voluminous local data and news.

As I said, this whirlwhind tour just scratched the surface—it literally took me only about 15 minutes on
Google and Outside.in to find my local Baltimore examples, and I know that I missed many, many others (apologies to proprietors of those sites for the omission; hell, the list of blogs started by ex-Sun staffers is a whole category unto itself!). And there are plenty more examples to come—after the panel I spoke to an experienced local entrepreneur who's planning an ambitious Baltimore online news effort, and I'm sure he's hardly unique.

The point is that the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point. The replacements already are serving the audience the paper used to have to itself, and there are more in the wings. Are there business models to support all of this new media? Not yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information. And besides—and this really befuddles traditionalists—some of the people who run these upstarts sites aren't even in it for the money. They're providing coverage of their city and specific topics because they love the place where they live and the specific subjects they cover, not because they're motivated by profit. That's a very interesting turn of events, and especially tough for big-iron, expensive legacy media to compete with.  

Baltimore is hardly unique—the demonstration I did can be done effectively in any city. I strongly suggest that traditional media executives—and anybody who doubts that newspapers be replaced—spend some time trying to find and understand this new competition. It's out there, no question. There's more to come. The big-city daily newspaper, already on its heels, is hardly the only game in town. If and when it disappears, there will be plenty of replacements.

PS: Writing on Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor makes a clever point that the Baltimore symposium proved that events get covered even when newspapers don't cover them.

The Future is ChicagoNow

It's been eminently fashionable to bash Sam Zell for his gutting of Tribune Co., and with good reason—a copy of the Baltimore Sun I saw recently looked about as substantial as a cocktail napkin, and that was before the Sun's latest newsroom layoffs. The chain's other papers aren't much better, by all reports.

But Zell's minions have also been doing more innovation than a lot of their counterparts in the industry, fiddling with everything from radical redesigns to ambitious hyperlocal networks. And now Tribune seems ready to unleash its most interesting experiment in reinvention yet: ChicagoNow.

It's a little hard to see exactly what ChicagoNow is up to—the beta site is still very much a work in progress, with a launch promised in a few weeks. But there are strong hints available if you click around the site, and a very promising—even thrilling—description of what's coming in a promotional video here. The ChicagoNow staff is blogging about its progress, too.

At its core, ChicagoNow appears to be an effort to create a new kind of local site by aggregating and curating local bloggers, staff material and other content, with a heavy sprinkling of social features, mobile options and other goodies. The video called it "HuffingtonPost meets Facebook for Chicago," which may be a bit strong, but it's a healthy ambition. This is the sort of source-neutral, smartly curated, aggregation-heavy, social-savvy, distribution-prolific local site that every news organization should be doing. It's what Web-centric companies like HuffingtonPost (which already has its own local Chicago blog/aggregation site) do naturally. 

In other words, it's the obvious way to go, the kind of thing people like Jeff Jarvis and I have advocated for years—do what you do best and link to the rest, as Jeff aptly puts it. Phil Anschutz's Examiner.com is quietly building cookie-cutter curated, aggregated sites around the country, and the NBC-owned TV stations are doing the same. But as far as I know, Tribune is the first major newspaper company to take this overdue leap into the future in a major way in its home market—the market it knows best and in which it can bring its expertise and power to bear for readers (and advertisers). Kudos to them. 

Chicagonow_mock-thumb-380x300-763 
It remains to be seen how ChicagoNow will grow from its sketchy beta—the initial hints of content are good, but it needs an interface, and a good one is shown in a teaser graphic on the home page, reproduced here—but the Zellots are taking a huge step in the right direction. Finally, at long last, something very different than just pasting the newspaper on a screen. (It sure beats weird, timid, token efforts like the NY Times' new "social media editor." Wow. Bold.)

ChicagoNow is probably too late to the game to really help Tribune, alas, given the crappy economics of the newspaper business these days. But at least one of the big publishers is trying something radical, visionary and out of the box. It's about damn time. Everybody else in the industry should be following the development of ChicagoNow closely—and scrambling like crazy to get their own curated, aggregated, social sites ready for their markets.

A Couple of Good Reads

It's hard to keep up with everything worth reading about the state of the journalism business, but here are a couple of good ones I found today. 

First, veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, writing in CJR, surfaces some unpleasant truths about what's wrong with journalism today (he gets fuzzier when he talks about the Web and the future of news, but his basic diagnosis is very good).

Second, Ryan Tate on Gawker eviscerates journalist-turned-Hollywood-auteur David Simon's ridiculous testimony before the Senate's grandstanding hearing yesterday on the future of newspapers. Splendid stuff.