Knight New Media Center workshop: future of newspapers

I am absolutely thrilled to have been asked to be a discussion leader at a workshop on Monday put together by the Knight New Media Center at USC (the Knight New Media Center is a partnership of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism). The overall workshop is “Transforming News Organizations for the Digital Future,” and my particular session is “The Next Wave of Technological Change.” (apologies for the lack of links — nothing online to link to yet!)

Twenty top editors and online news leaders from ten different metro newspapers across the country will be there (Denver, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Des Moines, Miami, Newark, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego), along with a host of experts to guide the workshop discussions. The goal of the workshop is to give the editors both innovative and practical ideas for changing the culture and the operational focus of their newsrooms to embrace change in the new media landscape.

NandoLand BBSI started my career working for newspapers, mainly because for as long as I could remember, I really wanted to work at a newspaper. I started out at the News & Observer in Raleigh, NC (where we were the first daily newspaper on the web in July 1994 and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time) and then as the first webmaster at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, where my primary task was taking all of the information flowing to AccessAtlanta, their Prodigy-based service (think banks of QBasic-powered parsers running on DOS machines) and re-routing it to the web (yes, there were Perl scripts involved, and lots of them).

Access AtlantaI officially left the newspaper world in the summer of 1996, but I still have great affection for newspapers and their role as watchdogs. Watching All the President’s Men, the story of Woodward, Bernstein and Watergate, still gives me chills. Back at the News and Observer in Raleigh, I was fortunate to have an inside glimpse of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism, all driven by savvy work with databases. When I wasn’t learning how to code, one of my occasional tasks was running to state government agencies to pick up 9 track tapes with government data. Reporter Pat Stith tells the story of what they did with some of that data for the series of stories that ultimately won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Though this was eleven years ago now, I think Pat’s data-driven approach with journalism still points the way to the future for newspapers (see Adrian Holovaty’s post about structured data), only now we have RSS, Atom, and other standard data formats that didn’t exist then (along with loads of tools to parse them), we have blogs, we have significant broadband penetration into homes, and database software is a commodity (I get unlimited MySQL databases on my dreamhost account for less than $1/day). Where are the data-crunching citizen journalists, and what could newspapers do to enable them? What if all the raw structured data that newspapers gather was syndicated out to the readers? (some government agencies are already ahead of the game). I’ll have more on those trains of thought after the workshop, I’m sure.

I’m going into this workshop hoping to offer some useful advice, not to deliver the usual Silicon Valley “newspapers are screwed, prepare to be disintermediated” spiel (that’s been done before, many times.) Despite some serious challenges, I think newspapers can have a bright future if they have the courage to make some adjustments. We’re in an era where anyone can play — including newspapers.

I’ll post some thoughts from the workshop sometime next week.

(Screenshots: original News and Observer BBS, NandOLand, along with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Access Atlanta service from Prodigy, both pulled from David Carlson’s Online Timeline. Click to enlarge.)

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