Matt Kettmann - the Senior Editor at the Independent - and I have been having an engaging ongoing conversation about the changing online media environment - especially with regards to 'competition' between City2, and the Indy (or any other local news oriented sites for that matter). While much of our talk has revolved around 'how to sustain investigative journalism' (which we both agree is of immense importance), it would inevitably come back to this idea of a 'shortage of eyeballs' for viewing online advertisements, which are the life-blood of nearly any online publication. This argument was at the root of why newspapers, like the Indy, might not warm to the idea of offering any in-depth analysis or coverage about a new project like City2. It's competition. Plain and simple.
Today, I stumbled across an article from TechDirt.com by Tim Lee, that unpacks the issue a little - at least with regards to 'news aggregators'. Here's an excerpt (my emphasis added):
"What aggregators do is make it a lot easier for readers to find new news sources. That's good for an up-and-coming site with a lot of great content, because aggregators enlarge the potential audience for the content. But it's not good for a mediocre site with a large readership based largely on inertia. The easier it is for readers to find news sources of news, the faster mediocre news sites will bleed readers. We tend to think of competition in terms of price, but competition is important even when a business is already giving its product away for free. More competition forces sites to create more and better content, have fewer and less intrusive ads, and offer content in formats that are convenient and appealing. The increased competition enabled by aggregators may be bad for some websites, but it's unambiguously good for consumers. " (more here)
As I've mentioned before, I see aggregators as being no different than one of many local 'news stands' in front of Cantwell's, or La Bamba Market. Visitors are able to choose which publication to read. The Independent considering City2 a competitor makes about as much sense to me as the Indy considering La Bamba a competitor. During our Poodle Radio podcast/interview, Matt graciously acknowledged this point. I acknowledged that the issue is complicated City2's forays into other online functionalities.
Though City2 does have other features that are very tasty, the Indy has very little to worry about for many reasons:
- We are aggregating, so we are absolutely generating additional traffic for all local news sites (we are pretty sure this won't mean a dip in anyones stats, though we'd be curious if it did).
- We offer locals the ability to write and send in their own locally themed content. Often this content winds up referencing (and therefore linking to) existing 'hard news' stories for context. This also equals more traffic.
- The Indy is pretty much the only big online game in town, and still manages to play reasonably fair and deliver great content. So the added 'stress' that aggregators provide (that weeds out the bad content), shouldn't really be stressful at all, for the reasons mentioned above. The only threat that we aggregators pose (as was mentioned above) is by keeping it on it's toes, and gently encouraging the paper to keep up the good work. Local news must keep on being relevant, sharp, interesting and useful to the community.
But this does bring up an interesting problem, which is really what's at the heart of the issue. Newspapers, are businesses. Businesses look out for their bottom line. The disconnect occurs when because newspapers have the additional cultural responsibility of reporting news, and creating content that benefits and informs the community - and they are understandably conflicted about their role in covering news that may mean a more challenging environment for them. My personal take (though it's easier for me to say this) is that the well-being of the community - which includes providing access to a rich and diverse ecosystem of information - should always come first.
Obviously, there is a lot more to discuss. I for one am looking forward to more out-in-the-open conversations about this issue. It benefits everyone.
* note: Matt Kettmann did give us a chance to talk a little bit about ourselves, and this specific issue in their 5th Poodle Radio podcast. We were grateful for the opportunity to have some attention, and hope that we will be able to develop this conversation further.
** note: I realize that this issue is now complicated by the recession. Maybe we'll focus more on the local online environment with regards to that challenge next time.