Category Archives: newspaper

– Death to Newspapers

Horsey-02-15-09.pngPrint newspapers are dying. The evidence is everywhere and was recently highlighted on a Time Magazine cover.

Local government officials should be ecstatic about this event, right? Daily newspapers are much more likely to have negative coverage of local government’s activities. And if they do carry positive news, it is usually buried on page 16 of the “G” section.

David Horsey, wonderful cartoonist and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote an insightful February 15th column about the National Press Association’s recent awards dinner. That dinner was essentially a funeral dirge for newspapers. Note: Horsey himself may very well be out of a job at the end of March when his newspaper ceases printing.

Despite the plethora of negative coverage, I suspect most city and county officials are as quite upset about the difficulties of the daily papers. First, I do believe a lot of the daily newspapers’ coverage is negative, and I’ll cite some examples:
•   Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle’s long-time Police Chief, has been extraordinarily successful as chief. Seattle is adding cops to its force even now, in a serious recession. And our crime rate is at the lowest in memory. Kerlikowske is leaving for a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration. So what do the mainstream media write about when announcing his departure? The Mardi-Gras riots of 2001. An event which lies at the feet of a sleeping Mayor Paul Schell and his deputies.
•   Indeed, “crime” is the poster-child for negative reporting. Newspapers of all stripes regularly report the details of criminal acts and give neighborhood “activists” a forum to blast government about everything from failure to patrol the streets to accusations of racial profiling when such patrols are conducted too aggressively.
•   Streets and transportation are another favorite topic for reporting. Rarely (but sometimes) will you see an article about new sidewalks or bike paths or street paving projects which are finished, usually on time and under budget. Potholes, mistimed traffic lights, traffic delays are frequently highlighted however.
•   Although the City of Seattle invests at least $100 million annually in building and maintaining information technology systems, rarely are successful technology projects mentioned in a daily newspaper. Inaccurate reports about high electricity bills from a new computerized billing system helped Seattle City Light’s former superintendent Gary Zarker lose his job. And the one headline I’ve received in five years as CTO is about a botched e-mailing to 2000 cable television customers (which was, indeed, the fault of my department).

In contrast, coverage in community newspapers and in the trade press (e.g. for me, Government Technology Magazine, Network World, Computerworld) is considerably more positive. Perhaps that’s because those media outlets have small staffs who rely more on government for press releases and interviews to create their content. Perhaps they have a readership and advertising base which desires and reads news which is more informative, less “sensational”.

Given this, am I happy about the decline and impending death of many newspapers? Absolutely not. The investigative reporting which newspapers have funded has not only improved government, but also highlighted issues with private companies such as John Thain’s infamous $1.3 million office remodel while running his company Merrill Lynch into the ground. Newspapers have changed the direction of the nation from high-profile issues such as the Watergate Investigation and the botched war in Iraq to exposes such as toxic medicines and failed cancer drug trials. Just have a look at the past 20 years of Pulitzer prizes for more examples.

Is there a business model which will allow the local daily newspaper to survive? Time’s Walter Isaacson suggests a possibility in his February 5th article – essentially having readers pay for content on the web just as they pay for content today by subscription or at the newsstand. I agree with Isaacson that the “advertising” model is flawed. Not only does relying solely on advertising lead to ethical conflicts, but it also drives the need for sensational and negative reporting I mentioned above. I’m not sure that a micropayment model will work, and I have no other bright ideas to offer.

But I do hope newspaper reporters continue to be there to call me – and other local officials – even if they are writing a negative story!

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– Dead Dead-Tree News Arggh!

The Logo of the Seattle P-I

The Logo of the Seattle P-I

I’m saddened today, to hear of the potential demise of the Post-Intelligencer, one of the two daily dead-tree newspapers here in Seattle, and a paper which first published in 1863, six years before Seattle incorporated as a City. The PI’s owner, Hearst Corporation, plans to put it up for sale. If it is not sold, Hearst can close it down under terms of a joint operating agreement between the PI and the Times.

I’ve blogged in the past about how neighborhood blogs like our own West Seattle Blog may very well displace dead-tree papers simply because they have a massive reporter and photographer base – virtually anyone, anywhere with a cell phone, digital camera and Internet connection – and can report news and events in an “up front” rapid way unmatched by the traditional media.

I enjoy blogging and twittering (see http://twitter.com/billschrier) and social networking via Facebook. I’m helping to drive the City of Seattle to use such new technologies into making City government more efficient and effective – see our latest deployment, a vastly revamped version of “My Neighborhood Map”, just unveiled today.

But I mourn the end of old-style newsprint papers such as the PI.

Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older than the median age of a Seattlite (although still younger than the AARP median age). Maybe it is a “generation thing”, and “younger folks” get their news and information from Twitter and RSS and the Internet. I don’t think that’s true – there are many twenty-somethings vastly more conservative and less tech saavy than I.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always longed to be a journalist, hence my interest in writing this blog. That might stem from my college English professor, Father Daniel Rogers of Loras College, who said “I think you might be a writer someday”.

I’ve often told my wife, I’d love to own a small-town newspaper and attend/report upon/photograph events in a close-knit small City. She – an award-winning journalism teacher – laughs at that, knowing small-town newspapers are 80 hour weeks for a pittance of salary. And I, in my brain (not my heart), know that “beat reporting” such as the City Hall beat or the Boeing beat is probably a thing of the past.

And I also fear that true investigative reporting may end. Perhaps this sounds odd, coming from a government official. I’m proud of Seattle’s City government and I’m proud of public service. But I know there are the Richard Nixons and Dick Cheneys of government. We owe a lot to newspapers and reporters who dug deep inside issues and stories to expose Watergate, for example, as well as hundreds of other serious issues – just look at the Pulitzer Prize finalists/winners for great examples of such reporting.

Without newspapers to fund and support such long-term, labor-intensive investigative journalism, who will do it?

Pardon me, but I’m heading down to the Pike Place Market to get a copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I hope I can continue to do that … that copies of the P-I will continue to be there …

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– Everything Important is “Local”

West Seattle Blog

West Seattle Blog

Tip O’Neill, late and former speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, famously said “All politics is local”. He meant, of course, that no politician was ever elected or re-elected unless they listened to their local constituency and “delivered the goods” – that is, adequately reflected their voters’ views, opinions and needs*. Even if you are running for governor or President, you still need “feet on the street” in local neighborhoods to carry your message and translate it for voters – real people – neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block**.

Two relatively recent technology innovations underscore that more than “politics” is local: so are news, information, and government in general. And by “local”, here’s what I mean: certainly events like the Iraq war and the downturn in the economy are important and newsworthy and worthy of politician’s attention. But ordinary people don’t feel they have control over such monumental events. They feel they can control what happens in their neighborhood or on their block – building permits, helping the elderly, crime, condition of streets, what moves into their neighborhood (e.g. jails or halfway houses). Yet, while the Iraq war (or Georgian War) or the national housing slump grab the headlines, ordinary people often don’t have access to information about what is happening in their very own neighborhood – right down the block.

Here are a couple of developments which are, however, changing this paradigm:

The first development is the impending death of the paper newspaper. (Gosh I hope I’m wrong here, as I love getting ink on my fingers as I get information into my brain). Or rather than “death”, I mean the probable replacement of the paper-paper by the online-paper, the blog, and the Web.

The West Seattle Blog is a premier example of this. For almost a hundred years, the weekly West Seattle Herald has been the paper-paper for our neighborhood of about 40,000 people. Recently, the Blog is stealing the readers. Why? Because anyone can (and does) contribute news and information to the Blog. Sometimes the Blog reflects a bit of the ambulance-chasing and sensational-crime-reporting found in TV news or the paper-paper. But it also posts a ton of “come to the festival” and “photos of the parade” and “little league team wins” stories about neighborhoods. And Editor Tracy Record posts it almost immediately – morning, noon and night. It is timely, has a lot more information than the paper-paper (because it exists in cyberspace), and – more importantly – it is local – news about your neighborhood and even your block.

The Seattle Times – circulation 210,000 – and other urban newspapers face similar issues – see article here.

A second development is “Everyblock“. This is a fascinating mashup of publicly-available information. Information customized to within a few blocks of your home! In Seattle, at seattle.everyblock.com you can see 911 calls to the fire department, building permits and even restaurant inspections (I’ll never order from that Chinese food place five blocks from my house again!). In Chicago, where information on crimes is publicly available, you can even see a compendium of specific crimes committed in your neighborhood. The ultimate police blotter! “My Neighborhood Map” on the City of Seattle’s website has some similar information set up on a map.

Now, suddenly, the ordinary citizen has a ton of news and information available about their neighborhood and even their block. They can contribute to it (just ask Tracy Record) and will have better tools to shape their individual and neighborhood future.

Gives a whole new, and still developing, meaning to “all politics is local”, doesn’t it?

* Although sometimes a politician must also be a leader – taking people into the future – to where the nation or community must go, even if a majority of people don’t want to go there, e.g. the civil rights movement.
**These folks are called Precinct Committee Officers or PCOs, and they are elected officials themselves – at the most basic or lowest level of jurisdiction – elected for each party in each precinct.

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