Does the AP know what it’s talking about?

Presenting: A small deconstruction of the Editors Weblog interview with the Associated Press’ Jim Kennedy. The interview (and reporting) left me confused.

“One is to start creating pages of aggregated content based around news stories and topics, which would allow readers to find the most authoritative local sources for the news they are searching for.”

So … these pages are going to be dedicated only to stories of local import — like “Mayor gives a speech”? There aren’t really “authoritative local sources” for anything on a national level — all the papers rely on the AP for their stories. But is it the case that users are having trouble knowing what the standard “local sources” are in their town?

Which leads to the next point:

“Also, he asserted, search engines “point people indiscriminately” towards sources, rather than towards the news’ local paper which should have the most authoritative article. The AP hopes instead to offer more of a guide to a topic, with sources that are more intelligently chosen.”

Again, the article doesn’t answer: Who are the enemies here? There are so few towns with multiple professional news outlets. A newspaper and some TV stations — all of which, I would think, count as “authoritative local sources,” especially considering that most are probably AP subscribers and would be a part of these incoming portals. And what if the most authoritative local source instead sends is stories out on, say, MCT?

So if not these outlets, then perhaps the target is bloggers — ones who grab AP copy from Google or Yahoo, post a link and offer a few comments?

“[The AP aggregation pages] will have URLs so that they can be ‘tweeted’ or linked to on social networking sites but they will not be a destination in themselves: “This is a distribution strategy, not a destination strategy,” Kennedy confirmed.”

This is confusing on so many levels. “They will have URLs.” Well, yeah, they’re Web pages. Should I expect otherwise? “They will not be a destination in themselves.” I understand, I think, that he’s saying that the pages will serve only to feed readers to the “authoritative local sources.” But (a) it still strikes me as contradictory for the AP to say they want to drag traffic currently going elsewhere to their own pages and to say they just want to pass readers along; and (b) does the AP think the same number of readers are going to follow through to the local site as go to the aggregated site? Most readers skim the headlines to begin with, right?

“The second aspect is the AP’s mission to “keep up the fight to protect content from misappropriation and protecting it from those who don’t pay.” He clarified that the he was not talking about “small time bloggers who post a link to a story,” rather “people and entities who come along and scrape content systematically and have no intention of licensing it.””

Hm. Well, that kills the blogger theory from a moment ago. So if the AP isn’t targeting bloggers but these big-time scrapers, then, well, who are they talking about? The story doesn’t provide links — did anyone ask him? Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. What sites is he talking about and how much traffic are they dragging away from the “authoritative local sources”?

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Where has all the paper gone?

A friend recently e-mailed me with a comment about the decline of newspapers that had never crossed my mind:

“We are disappearing from the archaeological record.”

How interesting! I wonder what concerns archaeologists have about the digital world?

What is the importance of physical artifacts to understanding ourselves, or our history? In what ways are physical artifacts distinct from digital ones?

Is it even true that digital records are less durable than physical ones?

I’m sure this topic has been on the minds of archaeologists for a little while, really, considering that digital archives of information are not entirely new. But no one seems to mention it, at least not that I’ve come across.

To the library!

::: Updates :::

March 31: Coincidentally, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo was wondering the same thing, only in the realm of books — arguably, a greater concern than newspapers.

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Seeing journalism as a niche product

One of the conclusions in Stealth Democracy is, to simplify, “some information is not necessarily better than no information.”

“Some information” means a few things, but one of them is the product of compromising on content to try to attract a wider audience. Think to when newspapers say “people are too busy to go to a jump page, so we’ll make it a ‘containable.’ That way they at least know something.” They at least know “some information.”

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue “some information” is harmful because, as they and others have argued, people make poor decisions in democracies when presented with incomplete information.1

“The conclusion “some information is not necessarily better than no information” has some potentially big implications for journalism.

For example, note the skepticism regarding the potential success of micropayment-funded journalism. Let’s say we’re right that many readers will run away if a news organization decided to start charging for content. To where will they run? If Stealth Democracy has anything to say about it, they will not run to the next site over to get news, or at least not news of much substance. They’ll run to someone who gives them TV listings and comics.

So, who’s left? To oversimplify (again2): People who care about what news journalists want to produce and who, hopefully, understand that producing that news comes with costs. These people understand that journalists (citizen, professional, extraterrestrial, whatever) need time to pursue the news and have to be willing to take on responsibilities to organize its delivery, presentation, etc.

I am not saying the community could not also help in all these processes (I would encourage it!), but I am saying this community may be made up primarily of like-minded people who, recognizing a social need and their having means to provide it, would be willing to compromise on a system of payment and responsibility necessary to provide that social need. If others outside of that circle wish to use it, fantastic. They’re welcome them into the group if they wish to join. But what interest would we, or should we, have in catering to them?

This could be a partnership. You have publication A for everyday, not-so-hard news, and publication B for people who want deeper coverage of events.

Publication B does not try to half-ass the news. It doesn’t offer “containables.” Because of its relatively small base of readers and funding, it can offer a deep relationship between reporters and readers/users (which can foster trust, also a good thing.) But publication A references publication B, saying “hey, someone wrote about this.” One line, one link to better coverage for people who want to know (do what you do best and link to the rest, right?).

How to monetize it? Good question. I haven’t a clue. I’m still not very good at thinking clearly about that.

:: late thought ::

The encouraging thing about the Internet is how easily this might — might — be possible. That’s why when I think about whether I’m too dismissive, I remind myself I also have an opportunity to overcome it with social networking tools and platforms.

:: related ::

Matt Thompson, of whom I’ve quickly become a fan, looks at this situation in a much more optimistic light. Worth a read.

:: notes ::

1. Lee Anne Peck has also argued against the mentality within journalism that praises act utilitarianism at the expense of asking “of what quality is the good created by our actions?” However, her argument addresses reporting practices, not necessarily output. You also could think of the times when newspapers name jurors, harming a good number of trials.

2. I keep saying I’m oversimplying because I want to stress I’m aware of when I’m doing so. The authors of Stealth Democracy make very clear their work is not conclusive, and I have no interest in trying to make it so. But I find the conclusions fascinating and, clearly, I’m interested in following them to see where they may lead when combined with more research.v

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That’s some consolation!

In a recent Pew Research Center report is the following:

As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.

Not unexpectedly, those who get local news regularly from newspapers are much more likely than those who read them less often to see the potential shutdown of a local paper as a significant loss. More than half of regular newspaper readers (56%) say that if the local newspaper they read most often no longer published — either in print or online — it would hurt the civic life of the community a lot; an almost identical percentage (55%) says they would personally miss reading the paper a lot if it were no longer available.

Is it somewhat telling that only 56% of regular newspaper readers think losing a newspaper would hurt civic life “a lot”? Only 56%? Just over half?

I admit that 56% is much higher than the 25% who thought it would hurt civic life “some.” But I have a hunch that had the survey asked reporters the same question, “a lot” would have totaled at least 90%. Pew’s results suggest to me that reporters and journalists have a disconnect of some kind with readers over how important their product is.

Some might say the source of that disconnect are people belittling the value of newspapers.1 Myself, I would blame apathy.

1. Parker is a perfect example of who those hypothetical 90%-plus of reporters might be. An example, from her column I linked to: “But the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic. “

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