Thursday, March 23, 2006

Competition and its alternatives

(Cross-posted from Xark!)

I offer this as proof that even really cool ideas can take a while to find their audiences, particularly when that audience is saturated by media in the first place. Anyway, thanks to the few Charleston bloggers I have found and added to my reading list, I've finally encountered something I should have been tracking for weeks: a Charleston City Paper guy named Jay Stecher. Apparently, Stecher has been doing a thing since Feb. 1 called "The Weekly Geekly" -- great name, eh? -- in which he rounds up local blogs and podcasts, etc.

The Weekly Geekly isn't a blog -- though it would make a natural one, hint-hint -- but it's already doing one of the things I hope to convince my bosses to do: draw attention to the work of people who are making their own media in the city we share. This is hardly a cutting-edge idea, but it's alien to the competitive-media-mind until you wrap your brain around some of the related concepts. In case you haven't noticed, newspapers traditionally hate citing the work of their competitors.

And this is one of those related concepts: in blogging, you don't deal with competition by trying to freeze out your competitors.

One of my favorite stories from ConvergeSouth was someone (I forget who) talking about how The (Greensboro) News and Record had improved its relationship with the local blogosphere by changing the way it dealt with staff-written stories that were developed from independent blog posts. The first N&R stories that were "inspired" by information originally reported on blogs routinely made zero mention of that fact. Bloggers cried foul.

What those bloggers probably didn't know was this: reinventing someone else's wheel so that you can say "Look! I made a wheel!" is a longstanding and truly stupid tradition in traditional media. Every paper I've ever worked for has done it, and as city editor, I used to tell people to do it.

Anyway, here's the thinking (or rationalization, take your pick): Readers want local news. Readers will define "local" as "staff written." So if the Associated Press or one of our wire services moves a story that is local to our market or touches on a local issue, we will "localize" the story. For you. The reader.

At a minimum, localization means that I'll take a story that deals with a national or regional trend or issue and make sure that there is information in that story that places the local situation in that larger context. The AP moves a story on freedom of information compliance, so I add some paragraphs that tell local readers what the rules are here. I don't have any problem with that.

Where I go off the reservation is when it comes to the second level of localization, which I like to call "theft." A wire service writes a story about something in our state, and we don't have it. So we assign a reporter to call all the same sources from the original story, then write the same thing using different words. When that story appears in print, there's no mention the original article.

And it's even worse if the source for the story is a direct competitor instead of a mutual wire service. Yikes! We've been scooped! We need to do this story right now!

We rationalize this by saying "Well, we need to verify the story independently," but this just isn't a meaningful response. Yes, independent verification is a good thing. But we run wire stories that we don't verify every day. We couldn't possibly meet such a standard.

The truth is, news organizations recreate existing news stories when they're caught flatfooted by other news organizations and don't want to admit it. I think it's dishonest, wasteful of precious reporting resources and disrepectful of our readers -- not to mention the originator of the story.

So when you hear that the Greensboro reporters weren't citing the work of local bloggers, you can understand why. The N&R reporters and editors were doing what we've always done as an industry. They were applying "traditional newspaper values" to their relationship with the blogosphere. And those values just didn't work in the new medium.

The N&R made peace with its local bloggers by changing the way it looked at them. Competitors? Maybe. But nature suggests that there are viable relationships between species that are something other than competitive. A better word is symbiosis. And a symbiosis between Big Local Media and independent local bloggers is a much more productive relationship for everyone concerned.

Greensboro solution? When an N&R reporter finds a legitimate story in a local blog, the reporter does all the necessary reporting as if he or she was starting from scratch. But when the story appears, the blog is cited. The blogger gets traffic, credibility and juice. The honoring of that work then reflects back on the N&R, building its brand within the local blogosphere. Everyone benefits.

As frequent Xark commenter Pam Morris (a brilliant and witty microbiologist) described it to me once, not every bacteria colony succeeds by out-competing its rivals for available resources. Some get along by handicapping their rivals' ability to compete. "They're really kind of evil. It's like a really bad corporate environment," she said (I'm quoting from memory).

I don't think that attitude has a long-term future with online media. If you base your product on claims of fairness, openness, transparency, whatever, then you just can't go around acting like evil bacteria. You can't see bloggers who write about your local market as enemies to be crushed. You can't even view your critics this way.

Read this carefully: I'm not talking about a future in which there is no competition. I'm suggesting instead that we start developing new attitudes and relationships. It is possible to be both competitive and cooperative. Think I'm just an unrealistic hippie selling psuedo-socialist Kool-Aid? Allow me to introduce you to The NFL.

My bosses crossed the first of these bridges in May 2005, when my posts at our Spoletoblog routinely cited the work of bloggers for The Charleston City Paper. Some people in the building were disturbed, but my boss wasn't.

"I told 'em that's just the way this new world works," he said.