After the bilious newspaper tribe dies, journalism will thrive

A few months after the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, another western paper bites the dust. Last week, Gannett shuttered the Tucson Citizen, which hobbled along under bad management for years.

The Citizen’s closing edition has already become an ignominious artifact of the end of the newspaper era, mostly for the classy middle-finger salute it raised to the Internet and online journalism:

To all those bloggers and “citizen journalists” who, if you believe the Internet, are this close to reinventing the industry, here’s your opportunity.

Now is your chance to cover never-ending board meetings, make Freedom of Information Act requests to dislodge facts from public officials, call sources – you have cultivated sources, right? – and otherwise do what we in our dying industry like to call “reporting.”

To do it right, you’ll have to work eight to 10 hours a day, five to six days a week. If it sounds like a job, not a hobby, it is. But don’t expect to get paid; apparently, that business model has been discredited.

We’re rooting for you. Public officials need vigilant scrutiny if our dollars are to be wisely spent and public policies are to be sane and progressive. So good luck with that.

Why the bile? Maybe because the Tucson Citizen is being replaced by Gannett with an online citizen-journalism and local-blog site based on the operating model of that dreaded newspaper killer, the Huffington Post. As Assistant City Editor Mark Evans explains, the goal is to bring in the best local bloggers under one roof and “offer them the economy and power of scale.”

Tuscon-area bloggers beware. Get a contract. When Gannet says it wants to run the new venture like the Huffington Post, it means it wants to draw lots of readers to content that Gannett would like to pay little or nothing to produce. Arianna doesn’t pay Mia Farrow and Alec Baldwin to blog. She pays a few editors to run the site and even fewer staff writers to hone the brand and fill in gaps — and the revenue to do that came only after years of friendly venture-funded experimentation, where she and her crew learned to work the web like crazy and succeeded in building unprecedented traffic.

In Denver, the second-wave project being assembled by the former Rocky Mountain News staff is taking a different tack. After INDenver Times, the first post-Rocky experiment, failed to garner sufficient subscribers this spring, some of the INDenver team, minus the financial backers, announced their plans to produce a new online “daily news magazine” called the Rocky Mountain Independent, which is set to launch this summer.

The RMI is not looking for citizen journalists. It won’t be a “content aggregator.” It is attempting to combine revenue streams to fund staff reporters and editors as well as freelance writers to create daily original content. It also hopes to attract and promote independent partner blogs. The founders describe it as a “general interest publication offering news, analysis, commentary and discussion about issues important to Denver and the Rocky Mountains.”

The business model doesn’t inspire confidence; it’s something that could have been written five years ago. According to the founders, the new publication “will be supported by advertising and members who pay for benefits like premium content and live chats…”

So far, the feature partner blog is IWantMyRocky, the site Rocky Mountain News staffers created in the last few months of the paper’s life. It draws from the same pool of local under-employed journos that will be producing material for The Rocky Mountain Independent.

But IWantMyRocky is not a great advertisement for the Rocky Mountain Independent. IWantMyRocky has positioned itself for now as a source of information and analysis about the news industry. But the information is paltry and the analysis is weak.

Take the piece posted this week by Joe Hanel of the Durango Herald on the thinning ranks of the Capitol press corps. Although Hanel’s piece — part tribute, part lament– has won local fans, it is built on what have become the major cliches of the genre. We are reminded of the noble public service provided by newspapers; we are informed that the camaraderie of the quirky news “tribe” is a crucial part of that service; and we are warned about the bad things to come as a result of the end of traditional newspaper publishing:

The coverage in The Durango Herald will suffer from the loss of [Capitol reporters.] I can’t tell you how yet, but I know that sometime next year, I’m going to have a question on the Department of Agriculture, I’ll turn to ask [freelance reporter K.C. Mason], and she won’t be there. I’ll spend hours finding an answer I could have gotten in minutes, and meanwhile, other reporting will just go undone.

Every reporter pulled off the island disrupts the workings of the whole tribe. Meanwhile, the Capitol will go on running. The various tribes of politicians and lobbyists are doing just fine, as populous and healthy as ever.

But the end of newspapers is not the end of journalism. We are in a transition phase. Some observers believe with good reason that journalism is changing for the better, that we’ll come out on the other side of the contemporary crisis with a more critical and participatory news, a journalism product better suited to democracy.

Note that there are no links in Hanel’s piece to any other stories anywhere on the web, which is on fire these days with material on the declining newspaper industry and the future of news. Hanel’s is not a “networked” post. He hasn’t provided readers with any resources. He hasn’t identified himself with a school of thought on the topic. On the contrary, he has written a newspaper op-ed about the end of newspapers. Does anyone else see an irony there?

As to the value of the “tribe” or the end of newspaper people talking to other newspaper people as sources and as a shortcut to hit deadlines… Sorry, that also fails to impress as a great loss. Don’t talk to the tribe in writing your stories and in the end your stories will likely benefit and your readers will come to appreciate your hard-won knowledge. You might also find something radically different to say on a topic than your colleague K.C. Mason would say– and that’s a good thing.

On the veiled threat that the “populous and healthy” tribe of lobbyists is about to devour our democracy, I would like to know: Are there any major recent investigative stories or series of stories Hanel can point to produced by the Capitol Press tribe that targeted the pernicious effects of any of the state’s lobbyists? Any stories that nailed Capitol corruption? To be clear, that’s not me arguing that lobbyists aren’t always up to perniciousness. I just don’t think the press tribe is doing the work they keep telling us they’re doing.

Hanel’s lament is really a confession. Let’s hope the The Rocky Mountain Independent is intent on doing journalism a lot better than newspapers do it at the end of the newspaper era.

Disclosure note: I worked for the Huffington Post citizen-journalism project OffTheBus last year.