Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated

This is adapted from a Twitter thread.

There are many parallels between early newspapers and today. Like then, today big tech platforms are vilified for taking creative destruction to a more harmful end to civic discourse.

Then partisanship and misinformation gave rise to the modern concept of editing. Perhaps something akin is happening again.

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Three emerging approaches to local journalism

It’s no longer quite right to say journalism as a whole is imperiled by the internet-age. In the last decade, powerhouse national outlets have made the business model leaps. Other important and influential national and global organizations gather and produce valuable information for the civic good. Their concerns are now with truth and partisanship and objectivity. These are heady issues but they’re not directly revenue problems.

This is different from publishers with a geographic focus; previous business models don’t comport simply with web-powered scale. Local journalism is very much in crisis. I know this personally and professionally, so I follow trends closely with an applied viewpoint

I’ve long thought that we at the news organization I cofounded a decade ago are something of an outlier, trying to approach local reporting through a for-profit, multi-local strategy. (I wrote here about why Technically Media is not a nonprofit). Recently though I’ve noticed that we may fit into one of three broad approaches I see tackling local news.

This is made clear by the strengthening of the country’s superstar national commercial journalism providers as the collapse of the dominant local forms continues apace. Web-powered scale has laid bare that national and local outlets are in entirely different categories. 

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Media Funders: Value the difference between Creation and Distribution

This post will draw a very bright line between the Creation and Distribution of verified information for communities, and argue for that distinction’s importance for understanding today’s news-gathering and journalism climate.

One of my favorite pieces of business-reporting conventional wisdom is that everything in the economy is cyclical. It just depends on how big the circle is this time.

That goes for business building. As early web entrepreneur Jim Barksdale famously put it, “there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.”

Information gathering (what we roughly call “journalism” today) has been a strategy for businesses for half a millennia. In its early commercial forms, the act of gathering that information and the act of distributing it were essentially two different businesses. In Barksdale’s parlance, they were “unbundled.”

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What the Committee of Seventy should teach other nonprofits about publishing

The Committee of Seventy is a 110-year-old local good government activist group known best in Philadelphia for its oversight of city elections. With the retirement of their popular newsman-turned-leader, the nonpartisan nonprofit is seeking a new Executive Director. This is also a unique opportunity for the group to update how it can best serve its mission to combat corruption. It has a clear alignment with public affairs journalism — something other mission groups should learn from.

For my undergraduate academic year 2004-2005, I was a policy intern at Seventy, spanning outgoing director Zack Stalberg and his predecessor Fred Voigt, whom I also interviewed for a college thesis project. From then through to my Election Day volunteering, I’ve long been inspired by their work.

But like Stalberg was meant to do when he replaced Voigt, Seventy is again in need of an updated look at how it can best accomplish their goals. If I were to launch an organization with the goals Seventy has today, in an era with newfound opportunities to build civic-orientated coalitions, web publishing for audience building would certainly be part of the strategy.

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The difference between a beat reporter and a features writer

Producing acts of journalism to inform a community can get done with different approaches. There are those who follow one community closely and those who offer the broader narrative to a wider audience.

In news parlance, it’s the beat reporter and the features writer, and it’s tied to the idea of choosing deeper impact or larger scale. I’ve developed a better understanding of the differences in these specialties over the last few years, in both hiring, following and familiarizing myself with the work of my peers.

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Journalism isn’t what we should try to save: Philly example

A couple times a year, someone in Philadelphia technology will say to me, what that community really needs to broaden its prominence is “its own Tech Crunch,” a reference to the established and influential tech business blog with Silicon Valley roots. The implication is, with all due respect to the maturity of Technical.ly Philly (relative to our newer, smaller markets) and its readership and regular events, that Philadelphia needs a megaphone to a global audience of investors and talent.

When someone says this, I hide my cringe and instead I politely nod, before changing the subject.

Of course, a statement like that shows a profound lack of understanding of audience, goals and impact in online media. Tech Crunch is established and influential because it covers big, well-funded tech business nationally, not a fledgling community in a non-traditional hub. Technical.ly Philly looks the way it does because of where it is. It doesn’t have national readership because it isn’t national in focus. The people who say “we need a Tech Crunch,” are confusing outcomes and solutions (Silicon Valley was the global tech leader first, then it spawned Tech Crunch, not the other way around).

Put another way: Media is a Mirror. This is a problem that happens elsewhere.

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Journalism DNA: Is Technical.ly a journalism outlet?

Acts of journalism are challenging and at times infrequent things for local news organizations. Pushing a community and seeking to find outcomes through difficult questions is the best of what media can do. Balancing that with the work tied to creating a sustainable news venture is a consuming one. Here’s where I am in my thinking about that process.

When we launched in 2009 what has since become Technical.ly, we always prepared for a content mixture that would include information and community journalism. We were trained in a newspaper worldview that put a type of ethical paradigm and professional standards that we embraced, even as we challenged its traditions.

Along the way, I found out that I want to build something that could have an impact. Pessimists are nothing but spectators and reporters are almost always pessimists.

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How many ‘civic-minded’ residents do you really have?

If journalism is going to evolve to a savvier appreciation for ‘impact,’ its makers need to have a clearer idea of their target audience.

Like you would for any business, you need to know how big your market is, and you need to understand how hard (and necessary) it is to create that audience by acquiring new users — in this case, civic-minded residents.

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A note of thanks to all the editors of the world

For much of the 20th century, the newspaper industry had this curious role filled by “rewrite men” — though, of course, women, too, served these positions. For breaking on-the-scene news, when telegraphs and then faxes couldn’t do the trick, a reporter would get on the phone with a rewrite man and assemble a story live, using notes and standard formatting.

The reporter would speak his story — an impressive feat, actually, having heard a few veterans do this and often trying it to keep up the old tradition — and the rewrite man would record it, transcribe it, clean it up and run it. If you talk to a newspaper reporter of a certain age, she might have stories about the good rewrite men and bad rewrite men. The good ones would take your rough story and turn it into a gem (with the help of other editors too). A rewrite man might go years without ever seeing his byline in a newspaper, never getting any official acknowledgement of his work to put out a finished piece of copy.

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Open city data in Philadelphia: the obstacles and triumphs of the L&I example

A screenshot of a draft of the License to Inspect tool, built by Azavea for PlanPhilly using the new L&I app. Click to enlarge.

A feature story covering the as-yet unreleased Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections API-based online tool ‘License to Inspect,’ its inspiration and hope was published on Technically Philly Monday, a story I reported and wrote during the last couple months.

It is the last major feature of the Transparencity grant project I’ve been leading, and one of the more detailed investigative reports I’ve done in my journalism career. The feature, which details the nearly two-year struggle to go public with a project with internal support, is meant to show the lessons learned and obstacles faced in the hopes that future city agencies can more efficiently release their data publicly for development and citizen use.

Give it a read, for lessons to be taken for any local government. and then find some of what didn’t make it into the piece below.

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