The Oregonian, in Portland, is one of the nation’s top regional newspapers. In size, ambition and statewide influence, it very much resembles the Star Tribune. But the resemblance ends with the news and business strategies currently playing out at the two papers.
Right now, the Oregonian and the Strib are betting their businesses on decidedly different visions of the future. And my bet’s on the home team.
The Oregonian is staking its future on the idea that news in today’s media marketplace is an endless digital stream of byte-sized nuggets. I call it the fire-hose model. In this setup, journalists function not so much as reporters and interpreters, but as tireless transmitters of raw, unfiltered information.
A staff memo recently circulated at the Oregonian gives a look at the life of a fire-hose journalist. The primary goal, reporters are told, is “what you can deliver for the web today.” Longer-form reporting is “desired” and “possible.” But it’s not the primary mission.
You can read the memo yourself, but the rundown of a typical day’s work includes:
- A barrage of tweets in the morning to set the table
- A dozen or so tweets throughout the day
- Posting three to 10 short news items throughout the day. Some might be updated and turned into longer items as the day goes on.
- Querying readers on what they’d like to see covered
- Putting up a reader poll on an issue of interest
- Posting raw material online: studies, reports, data
- Asking readers to cover events the reporter can’t attend
- Posting photos, audio files and videos online.
These are all desirable things. But I question whether any reporter, no matter how energetic, can do all this day after day — and still find time to report stories that look deeply into issues of concern for the community.
The Oregonian is owned by the ultra-wealthy Newhouse family, which is aggressively retreating from the daily print model at newspapers throughout its Advance chain. In New Orleans, in Alabama and elsewhere, Newhouse has cut back to three-day-a-week printing schedules.
Industry observers are betting that the Oregonian will soon follow suit.
The print cutbacks have been followed by staff cutbacks. More than half of the newsroom staffs at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and Newhouse’s three Alabama papers have been given their walking papers. So the ambitious digital reporting plans noted above will be carried out by far fewer bodies.
Now, let’s look at the Star Tribune. After five years of turmoil, including a bankruptcy, it’s become clear that the Strib has two of the smartest, most effective leaders in the newspaper industry today: Editor Nancy Barnes and Publisher Mike Klingensmith.
Under their leadership, the Strib has focused on giving readers in-depth news that they can’t find anywhere else. That’s been coupled with a business strategy that asks readers to pay more of the cost of the news operation, to make up for declines in advertising revenue.
The American Journalism Review just published a glowing article on the Strib and its strategy. It’s worth a read for anyone who cares about one of Minnesota’s most valuable community institutions.
Writes author Mark Lisheron: “The [Star Tribune’s] plan is so simple, so logical and for so long so widely discounted that it almost seems counterintuitive. It is based on principles followed by every industry in America that isn’t a monopoly — that you succeed by giving the customer more not less; better not worse — and you don’t give your product away.
“The Star Tribune is a newspaper worth paying for.”
I just got my subscription renewal notice in the mail today. And believe me, I’m paying it.