Not all newspaper acquisitions involve hedge funds that gobble up trusted titles with deep community roots. Sometimes quieter transactions take place outside major urban centers that augur well for the preservation of local journalism, or at least strike a faint chime of hope. One such deal: Ogden Newspapers, a family-owned company founded in 1890, is purchasing Swift Communications, which publishes community papers in western mountain resort towns as well as niche agricultural titles like the Goat Journal.
Robert Nutting, the CEO of Ogden (and the billionaire owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates), and Bill Waters, CEO and chairman of the board of Swift Communications, had nothing but positive things to say about the move, according to a report in Editor & Publisher – although the announcement came as a surprise to some staff members. Here’s Nutting: “We are particularly excited to be working with a team that has been recognized as an innovator in community journalism.” And here’s Waters: “We know the time has come to pass the baton of stewardship to new owners who can carry forward the important mission.” The sale is scheduled to close December 31. No purchase price was disclosed.
Just take a minute and mark those words: stewardship, mission, community journalism. They’re hopeful signals that Ogden does not intend to emulate vulture capital owners who have carpet-bombed local newsrooms across the nation. As my colleague Dan Kennedy writes, about half of us are likely reading a shadow paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, Alden Global Capital, Apollo Global Management or Chatham Asset Management. Even now, like Muncher in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” Alden is hungrily eyeing Lee Enterprises, which owns 77 daily papers.
The 20 publications that Ogden has just acquired convey the spice and tang of the communities they cover and are most likely the sorts of publications, bursting with news about local politics and personalities, that James Madison had in mind when crafting the First Amendment of the Constitution. Some 11 of them are in Colorado’s high country, according to Colorado Public Radio, with titles like the Steamboat Pilot & Today and The Aspen Times. Others are dedicated to raising goats and maintaining the family farm, endeavors which touch on crucial issues like climate change and the nation’s groaning supply chain. A recent headline in The Fence Post: “Biden administration extends trucking waiver.”
The Steamboat Pilot & Today, for example, is a daily print newspaper distributed throughout Routt County, Colorado, which has a population of 25,000. “Its police blotter section is the source of a very popular and somewhat hilarious little book called Ski Town Shenanigans, which recounts bear, moose and partying episodes common to the area. It is a lovely little local rag, which we all rely upon to know what is happening in our part of the Rockies,” says Janice Symchych, an attorney and a 10-year resident of the surrounding ranch country who says she aligns with those “who share a collective sense of the importance of grassroots news and communication.”
Marissa Ames, editor of the Goat Journal in Greeley, Colorado, says she’s optimistic: “Any time in journalism when we have stability and a promise of something bigger it’s really exciting.” The Journal, now in its 100th year, is published every other month and is broadening its coverage to include stories about goats raised for angora fiber, goats used as pack animals and goats raised for milk and meat. Ames says she hopes Ogden can help increase the Journal’s digital presence. The print edition has a circulation of about 3,000, she says, but the Facebook page has more than 12,000 followers. “This is very much community journalism,” she tells me in an interview. “No matter where you live, who you love, or how you look, if you’re kind to your goats, we represent you. That ties us together as a community.”
Assuming the sale goes through, as of January 1, Ogden Newspapers will publish 54 daily newspapers. Nutting promised to keep the focus on local content, and vowed those operations will remain largely unchanged, according to Colorado Public Radio.
A lawsuit filed by newspapers against Google and Facebook that claims the two tech giants violated antitrust laws is gaining momentum. Sara Fischer and Kristal Dixon of Axios report that more than 200 papers across the country have joined the effort, which is aimed at forcing Google and Facebook to compensate them for what they say are monopolistic practices that denied them advertising revenue.
I don’t see any New England newspapers on this list. But the papers that are involved in the lawsuits in some way represent about 30 different owners in dozens of states, according to Fischer and Dixon. About 150 papers owned by 17 different groups have actually filed suit so far.
What’s interesting about this is that it has nothing to do with the usual complaint about Google and Facebook — that they repurpose journalism from newspapers, and that the newspapers ought to be compensated. By contrast, the current lawsuits are aimed at practices that the plaintiffs claim are clearly illegal.
The Axios story doesn’t get into the weeds. But I did earlier this year shortly after the first lawsuit was filed by HD Media, a small chain based in West Virginia. Essentially, the argument is twofold:
Google is violating antitrust law by controlling every aspect of digital advertising. Paul Farrell, a lawyer for HD Media, put it this way in an interview with the trade magazine Editor & Publisher: “They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange.”
Facebook is complicit because, according to a lawsuit filed by several state attorneys general, Google and Facebook are colluding through an agreement that Google has code-named Jedi Blue. The AGs contend that Google provides Facebook with special considerations so that Facebook won’t set up a competing ad network.
The two companies have denied any wrongdoing. But if the case against them is correct, then Google is profiting from a perfect closed environment: It holds a near-monopoly on search and the programmatic advertising system through which most ads show up on news websites. And it has an agreement with Facebook aimed at staving off competition.
“The intellectual framework for this developed over the last three to four years,” Doug Reynolds, managing partner of HD Media, told Axios.
The lawsuit also comes at a time when the federal government is beginning to rethink antitrust law. A generation ago, a philosophy developed by Robert Bork — yes, that Robert Bork, and yes, everything really does go back to Richard Nixon — held that there can be no antitrust violations unless consumers are harmed in the form of higher prices.
President Joe Biden’s administration, by contrast, has been embracing a more progressive, older form of antitrust law holding that monopolies can be punished or even broken up if they “undermine economic fairness and American democracy,” as The New Yorker put it.
The newspapers’ lawsuit against Google and Facebook is grounded in the Biden version of antitrust — Google and Facebook are charged with leveraging their monopoly to harm newspapers economically while at the same time hurting democracy, which depends on reliable journalism.
It’s rather late in the game to ask whether hedge funds can be stopped from buying up every last one of our local newspapers. After all, about half of us are already stuck with a paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, the likes of Alden Global Capital (Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group), Apollo Global Management (Gannett) and Chatham Asset Management (McClatchy).
Still, with Alden having now set its sights on Lee Enterprises, a chain that owns 77 daily newspapers in 26 states, we need to take steps aimed at preventing what is already a debacle from devolving into a catastrophe.
Our faculty at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism recently voted unanimously to support two pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the local news crisis — a bill to make it easier for newspapers to become nonprofit organizations and a resolution that asks Congress to help reverse the decline of community journalism.
The bills were introduced in the House today by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., and co-sponsored by Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and David Cicilline, D-R.I.
“As local newspapers are being bought up and taken over by large corporations, it is incumbent on Congress to act to protect this public good,” said DeSaulnier in a press release. “My legislation would do just that and ensure newspapers in every community can continue to provide high-quality local coverage that millions of American rely on and deserve.”
Professor Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, said, “The hollowing-out and disappearance of local news organizations imperils journalism, communities and our democracy. These measures provide a financial lifeline and tools for the next generation of journalists to pursue new models and innovation that bring more local news to communities.”
The bills are not related to the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to subscribers, advertisers and publishers. The tax credit that would benefit publishers is part of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. DeSaulnier’s bills, by contrast, would address the problem that journalism is not among the activities that qualifies for nonprofit status, even though the IRS has approved such status for many news organizations over the years.
The full press release issued by Rep. DeSaulnier’s office follows.
Congressman DeSaulnier Introduces Legislative Package to Support and Preserve Local Journalism
Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), along with his colleagues Congressman Ed Perlmutter (CO-07), Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08), and Congressman David Cicilline (RI-01) introduced two pieces of legislation aimed at supporting and protecting local journalism, and honoring its role in bolstering our democracy, holding government accountable, and informing the electorate. The Saving Local News Act (H.R. 6068) would make it easier for newspapers to become non-profits, allowing them the flexibility to focus less on maximizing profits and more on producing quality content. The local news resolution (H.Res. 821) recognizes the importance of local media outlets to society and expresses the urgent need for Congress to help stop the decline of local media outlets.
“Local journalism has been the bedrock of American democracy for centuries. I have seen firsthand how journalists for local newspapers have kept our community informed, educated voters, and held power to account,” said Congressman DeSaulnier. “As local newspapers are being bought up and taken over by large corporations, it is incumbent on Congress to act to protect this public good. My legislation would do just that and ensure newspapers in every community can continue to provide high-quality local coverage that millions of American rely on and deserve.”
“Local and accurate sources of news are becoming more and more important for our community and our country. I believe Congress has a role to play to ensure legitimate media outlets are able to better adapt to the changing media landscape and continue to inform Americans in every community,” said Congressman Perlmutter.
“An informed American public is essential to strong democracy,” said Congressman Raskin. “We cannot allow worldwide propaganda and conspiracy theories to replace hard local news based on local reportage. I’m proud to join Rep. DeSaulnier in introducing this important legislation that will give local news the flexibility it needs to thrive in a dangerously toxic media environment.”
“Over the past 15 years, one in five newspapers have closed, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been slashed in half. We now live in a country in which at least 200 counties have no local newspapers at all,” said Congressman Cicilline. “This crisis in American journalism has led to the crises we are seeing today in our democracy and civic life. We cannot let this trend continue because if it does, we risk permanently compromising the news organizations that are essential to our communities, holding the government and powerful corporations accountable, and sustaining our democracy. I’m proud to support this resolution and the Saving Local News Act and thank Congressman DeSaulnier for his leadership and partnership in this work.”
“We commend Congressman DeSaulnier for introducing this important piece of legislation that recognizes the importance of nonprofit journalism to the American society. At a time when news deserts are a growing concern, we must ensure that we support all newsrooms in their efforts to provide high-quality journalism to their local communities. This journalism bill that would allow non-profit newsrooms to treat advertising revenue as nontaxable income could be helpful to a number of publishers,” said David Chavern, President and CEO, News Media Alliance.
“Community newspapers are exploring many new models for sustainability. Our newsrooms realize that without us, whole communities will lose their center of gravity. A nonprofit model is one that can work in some communities, but just establishing this status isn’t enough to keep the doors open and journalists at work. The need for revenue from a variety of sources, including local advertisers, remains acute. NNA supports the Saving Local News Act and thanks Congressman DeSaulnier for his work on behalf of local communities,” said Brett Wesner, Chair, National Newspaper Association and Publisher, Wesner Publications, Cordell, OK.
“Honest, truthful reporting is essential to informing our democracy at all levels. Without it, we won’t remain a nation of the people, by the people, for the people. Bills that help sustain local reporting that informs people about what their government representatives are up to, will help keep the citizens in charge of our country,” said George Stanley, President of the News Leaders Association.
“News organizations are looking at multiple ways to fund their organizations while continuing to deliver local journalism that is fundamental to a thriving Democracy. If news organizations want to pursue the nonprofit business model; it should be as accessible for established organizations as it is for news startups. Our members are known and trusted in the communities they serve and removing the hurdles to find philanthropic support would allow newsrooms to focus on serving their communities,” said Brandi Rivera, Publisher, Santa Barbara Independent and Board Member, Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
“Community newspapers are woven into the fabric of American society and provide accurate and trusted information that improves the lives of individuals in the communities they serve. It is no secret that newspapers face an increasing number of existential threats from online competitors which have left them with a decreasing number of revenue opportunities. This measure would provide news organizations with the means to better rise to these challenges and continue to play a vital role in their communities by holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and giving voice to the powerless,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel, California News Publishers Association.
“Free Press Action supports this important legislation and applauds Congressman DeSaulnier for recognizing the importance of building, supporting and sustaining local nonprofit news operations,” said Craig Aaron, President and co-CEO of Free Press Action. “In too many places, corporate media have shrunk newsrooms or abandoned communities entirely. Nonprofit news has emerged as the future of local journalism, and it’s our best hope for keeping reporters on the beat focused on the needs of local communities, serving communities of color, and reaching so many people who have never been well served by the media. This bill will remove obstacles to nonprofit journalism, help launch more of these outlets, encourage more existing outlets to go nonprofit, and create more of the kind of high-quality journalism we need to inform our communities and keep our democracy thriving.”
“The hollowing-out and disappearance of local news organizations imperils journalism, communities and our democracy. These measures provide a financial lifeline and tools for the next generation of journalists to pursue new models and innovation that bring more local news to communities,” said Professor Jonathan Kaufman, Director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism.
“The health of the news industry is so precarious, all efforts to strengthen an industry so instrumental to democracy are well received. Thanks to Rep. DeSaulnier for stepping up,” said Jody Brannon, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute.
“The U.S. tax code needs this important update to make it easier for nonprofit news organizations to grow across our country. We’ve lost tens of thousands of local journalists over the last decade. That’s meant fewer journalists covering local government meetings, local business and even high school sports. Journalists are essential to holding power to account, watching over our democracy and providing a voice to the voiceless. We applaud Rep. DeSaulnier’s support of journalism. Our country was founded under the principle that a free press was the best way to make sure we have a robust democracy by having an informed electorate. We all have to fight now to save local news,” said Jon Schleuss, President of NewsGuild-CWA.
“The newspaper business model is broken. At a time when local journalism has never been more essential, journalists are losing their jobs across the country, leaving important stories untold. Compelling, original journalism does continue to drive significant advertising revenue—just not for newspapers. Big Tech giants, like Google and Facebook, have used their monopoly power to capture huge swaths of the digital advertising market, making it nearly impossible for many papers to chart a path forward in the digital age. This has allowed hedge fund vulture capitalists to scoop up scores of newspapers across the country—all of whom have been reduced to shadows of their former glory by a short-sighted cut, cut, cut approach. We welcome and applaud efforts to help news outlets continue to cover of the communities they serve. This legislation will create a path that communities can use to save their local papers. Local news is a key piece of American democracy, and while addressing the underlying problems Big Tech has created for journalists is complex, we have to do everything we can to allow for news to thrive,” said the Save Journalism Project.
“PEN America applauds the introduction of the Saving Local News Act – and the accompanying resolution on the importance of local news – as a welcome and needed step to support America’s journalism ecosystem. By making it easier for news organizations to become nonprofits, Congressman DeSaulnier’s legislation will open up a sustainable financial pathway for quality local journalism, recognizing its value as a public good. Enacting this bill will strengthen a fundamental pillar of our democracy, encouraging diverse reporting, civic engagement, and access to essential community information,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, Washington director of PEN America.
Since 2017, estimated daily newspaper circulation fell 11 percent from the previous year (Pew Research Center). Congressman DeSaulnier established a working group of dedicated Members of Congress from areas affected by a drought of high-quality journalism. Together they have been working to highlight this crisis and bring attention to the need to promote local journalism, including by holding a Special Order on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and introducing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (H.R. 1735), a bill to create a temporary safe harbor from anti-trust laws to allow news organizations to join together and negotiate with dominant online platforms to get a fair share of advertising profits.
Congressman DeSaulnier’s bill and resolution are supported by: News Media Alliance, National Newspaper Association, News Leaders Association, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action, Faculty of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, Save Journalism Project, PEN America, Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute, and NewsGuild-CWA.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), which I’ve written about rather obsessively, is built upon the foundation of a three-legged stool: a tax write-off for individuals of up to $250 for subscription fees or donations to local news organizations; a tax credit for advertisers in local news outlets; and a payroll tax credit for publishers that hire or retain journalists.
Now the payroll credit has been carved out and added to the Build Back Better bill, which has passed the House and now faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that the provision would add up to nearly $1.7 billion over the next five years for newspapers, digital operations and broadcast operations.
Tracy notes — rather huffily, if I’m reading him accurately — that large newspapers like the Times would be excluded because they employ more than 1,500 in one location, but giant newspaper chains such as Gannett and those owned by Alden Global Capital would stand to benefit. As I’ve said before, I wish there were a way of restricting the benefits to independent owners; still, this strikes me as worth trying.
What I’m more concerned about is the political wisdom of adding just one part of the LJSA to Build Back Better, which — despite the optimism voiced by President Biden and other Democratic leaders — could be doomed given the seemingly endless demands made by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
There is at least some bipartisan support for the LJSA. Moreover, the tax write-off for subscriptions and donations strikes me as more interesting and creative than simply handing money to publishers for not laying people off. If Build Back Better passes, it will be with just 50 Democratic votes and Vice President Harris breaking the tie — and at that point it seems likely that the other two legs of the stool would disappear. If Build Back Better goes down to defeat, proponents of the LJSA will have to start from scratch.
Even so, the benefits that would be provided by the payroll tax credit are not insignificant. Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, tells The New York Times that the credit would mean $200,000 in just the first year for his struggling newspaper. “We’d be walking in tall cotton,” he’s quoted as saying. (Ellen and I spoke with Cullen recently on our podcast, What Works: The Future of Local News.)
Providing government assistance to journalism is fraught with concerns about the First Amendment and the need for an independent press. Yet journalism has always benefited from government help, starting with postal subsidies in the late 1700s. The LJSA is worth trying. I just hope that Democratic leaders haven’t outsmarted themselves by splitting up a bill that stood a decent chance of passing and grafting it onto a large package that they just can’t seem to get done.
Penelope “Penny” Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, arguably launched a movement with her path-breaking research on “news deserts” and the forces undermining community newspapers across the nation.
Abernathy, a former executive with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, was also Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina from 2008 to 2020. She talks about why this is a pivotal moment for community journalism, about her forthcoming research and about why her journalism students are still bullish on speaking truth to power at the local level.
In Quick Takes, Dan reports that the nonprofit strategy at The Salt Lake City Tribune is actually working out, and Ellen tunes us in to Heartland Signal, a new digital outlet with a Democratic spin that is setting up to cover the midterm congressional elections.
In the Boston Globe’s boxy old brick Dorchester plant, Damon Kiesow and his colleagues on the digital side sometimes seemed beamed in from the future. For starters, they occupied the innovation-focused “Globe Lab,” housed in an airy open space on the second floor where classified advertising salespeople had once reigned supreme. The fat classified sections that helped fund the Globe’s journalism for so long were a thing of the past. The lighted ticker tracking phone calls from people eager to buy a classified ad in the print edition had disappeared, along with most of those ads and a significant chunk of revenue. The midcentury industrial cubicles were gone, too, replaced by sleek tables and digital screens.
The irony was intentional. Instead of ad salespeople working the phones, Kiesow and his colleagues were working to develop and refine the Globe’s digital strategy for a new epoch. Kiesow, now the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com. Working with a team focused on emerging technologies in mobile, social and the internet of things, Kiesow immersed himself in research on human-centered design and mobile-first culture.
The seeds of that research are flourishing as Kiesow and fellow researchers in the academic world continue to contribute important new insights about readers and how they interact with a print newspaper versus a digital site. Now, he and his colleagues have published two papers that explore an essential fact: “[e]ach medium of news delivery has a unique set of attributes that facilitate or impede news consumption,” they write in a study in Digital Journalism entitled “Affordances for Sensemaking: Exploring Their Availability for Users of Online News Sites.” Kiesow is lead author of the paper; he’s joined by two other journalism professors, Shuhua Zhou at Mizzou and Lei Guo of the University of Nebraska.
At first, this premise may seem simplistic. But Kiesow and his co-authors conducted in-depth interviews with readers to understand their experience as they consumed news online and found a “complex relationship between people, processes, and technologies.” Kiesow notes that even though digital news subscriptions in the United States have doubled in the past four years (half of those gains went to the New York Times and the Washington Post), key questions remain: “What happened to the high hopes all news publishers first had when experimenting with digital platforms 25 years ago? We built it, why did they not come? Or more accurately, why did they not pay, especially in support of local newsrooms?”
A partial answer, the researchers find, is the fact that editors and news producers in the 1990s had a sense that print and online audiences might differ and diverge, but did not have a full understanding of the essential signposts that characterize each experience, signposts that help readers make sense of information.
The digital study comes about six months after a similar study of print readers, entitled “The Values of Print: Affordances and Sensemaking for Newspaper Consumers,” published in Journalism Practice. Kiesow and his colleagues talked extensively to long-time newspaper subscribers to understand how they perceived the physical characteristics of the print product and how their longtime experience with print affected the way they consumed news and made sense of the world. In both papers, the researchers analyzed reader responses in a novel way: They applied a concept from the field of perceptual psychology known as “affordances.”
Overall Kiesow finds reason for optimism about the industry’s capacity to change and adapt. “Journalists are not blindly resistant to change for-the-better,” he recently tweeted, “they are just busy and appropriately cynical about easy answers, trendy solutions and corporate jargon that often arrives in a box called ‘innovation.'”
In fact, he and his colleagues write, the constant predictions of the complete demise of the print newspaper “may blind us to some of the innovative efforts undertaken by newspaper companies. Those blinders also lead us to ignore some of the hard-earned lessons of the print past, leaving us with unanswered questions about the digital future.”
I recently caught up with Kiesow by phone. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, in Q&A form.
Q. What prompted you to look at news readership through the lens of perceptual psychology?
A. It depends on how far you want to go back! It started when we launched BostonGlobe.com in 2011. I came in as the project was already under way, all the basic stuff was done, we were building and testing. I was not working on the website specifically but I was working on the replica edition, and we were trying to build a tablet app and we were working on iPhone apps. As part of that, there was research going on about how to design BostonGlobe.com that [Globe research director] Sue Dimanno was leading. If I could oversimplify some of the findings, our quote-unquote print readers were really interested in knowing what’s in today’s paper. And our quote-unquote digital readers were interested in knowing what are the newest, latest updates.
That was fine because we had Boston.com, which was a digitally focused product that didn’t really highlight the Globe’s journalism in the same way. It wasn’t the centerpiece of it, so to speak. The challenge was, and it was a major discussion, was, “Well, when we have a site called BostonGlobe.com, it’s going to feature the quality journalism from the quote-unquote newspaper… how do you design and offer and present that material.” Because you’ve got two audiences who are not dissimilar demographically or geographically or psychographically. But they have a different psychological need to consume the news, to make sense of the news, by seeing it in a package. Which is the print or the replica edition. Versus readers who say, “No, I want to curate my own experience,” which is the firehose of digital.
In digital, if you put the same stories on the front page for 12 hours, people think your website is broken. So there was this tension between those two needs. Again, to oversimplify, how do we serve the print audience and the digital audience on a digital platform? How do you make both of these experiences accessible to different parts of the audience who want it but without making those two presentations interfere with each other because they are completely incompatible? This is still an ongoing struggle.
At McClatchy, we had a very popular replica edition and we developed this line of thinking there, in thinking about digital strategy, which was what I would call: edition versus firehose. The pond versus the stream. The pond is nice, calm and self-contained. You can swim to one side or the other. It’s accessible, you can see the end of it. Whereas the stream is always changing. You can swim upstream or downstream but you have to work the entire time. We began to think about it that way and assess it. It’s a psychological need, potentially more than something just like habit or digital comfort.
Q. Why did you start by looking at print?
A. We started with print not because print is better, or that print is the end goal of the study but because of the theory that print does a really good job in supporting the cognitive needs of readers to understand the news. But that did not necessarily happen intentionally. I think that happened over time through the evolution of the medium. Things we are all familiar with. We put things in sections because it made more sense. We labeled things clearly like opinion. The top of the page is more important. Bigger headlines are more important. Bigger photos. All these conventions evolved with the technology and with the audience. … if print developed these signals over time, and those signals were developed symbiotically to really support explanation and understanding of the news, then which of those were lost, enhanced, improved, degraded, ignored when we moved to digital?
Q. Can you tell us, in lay terms, what “affordances” are?
A. Affordances are just the opportunities or the actions that an object in the environment offers to you as an observer or a user. A rock has an affordance to throw it, or it has an affordance to build a foundation with it, or it has an affordance to put it on a piece of paper to hold down the paper. It has all these options that are not, in this case, designed into the rock. Because a rock is just a thing. But depending on your needs and your experience and your perception of the object, you’re going to perceive it to have different opportunities for use.
We argued that affordances offer a theoretical lens to understand print, or any other media, in how they facilitate the acquisition of information and how people make sense of the news.
There’s 10 or 12 affordances that we’ve identified between the two studies, things like timeliness, genre, retrievability, importance, immediacy. There are a couple that apply more to digital [than to print], like hypertextuality and interactivity.
Q. Is the reading experience different for print and digital?
A. Digital is great for finding and learning facts. I can look up any known sports score, election result, budget number etc. almost instantly. Print is better (we argue) at communicating narratives. Part of that is because the habit of getting/reading the paper daily enforces a very curated experience literally designed for relevance and continuity. Online, I may read on the same topic from five different sources over a week. Some coherence is lost in that process. Online is a sea of distractions and I may end up falling into a deep well of cat videos as easily as reading the latest city council update.
We have a psychological need for completeness. We start a task and finish a task. You want to start a book and finish the book. That’s a basic, we like to finish things. You open up a [print] edition, you start it, you finish it. You’re done. You can check the box. You open up a digital site, and you start it and you never, ever finish it. You don’t ever know if you know everything you need to know.
That’s cognitively taxing. We would theorize that it reduces your perceived value of the product, because you’ve learned something, but did you learn everything you needed to know? Or did you miss something more important? So there are all these… tradeoffs. You have an unlimited amount of information, but you don’t ever know if you’ve read the right information. You have an unlimited availability to see the latest update, so, you’ve got timeliness. But you have no way to know if the update changed two minutes after you closed the browser. It creates this huge tension, and we would argue that some of those key tensions that are created in that environment are directly related to sense-making of the news…
What is the actual goal of the reader? It’s not to sign up for a newsletter or read this sports story today. It’s to be informed, to understand. What are those deeper psychological needs that they are actually chasing? I would argue that the goal of news is to help people understand their world, their community.
Q. In your digital paper, you write: “The question facing local news publishers now is: ‘What do readers want, what do they value and what do they think is worth paying for?'” You conclude that answering that essential question “requires us to better understand how news is presented in print and on digital platforms and how those mediums support or neglect the reader’s need to make sense of the world.” Are you saying that we’re really just in the early stages of understanding digital?
A. It took print 150 years to develop the maturity of the storytelling model. And that storytelling model includes the moment from assigning the story to designing the story. To delivering the story. That’s all part of the storytelling model in print. It took 200 years for the ramifications of the printing press to shake itself out, right? We’re only 20 years in to digital news.
Q. What’s next?
A. There’s a level we haven’t gone into in the research yet, which is a level deeper in the newsroom process. This question eventually leads to: Do we have to write stories differently? Do we have to assign stories and write them and frame them [differently]? When we write our stories, we assume a physical relationship on a printed page between content blocks, so to speak, between articles. So you either need to figure out how to recreate that physical relationship in digital or you need to write stories differently in a way that doesn’t rely on that physical relationship as a cue to understanding. We’ve relied on that metaphor because we’ve always had it in print. It doesn’t translate.
We’ve set up all these false dichotomies between print and digital, between young and old, that kind of thing. It’s not relevant to the question of are you actually serving people news in the way that they need it in order to make sense of their lives. And the answer isn’t the same for every person. I think you can still identify clear gaps in any current product that could be improved to make it more valuable to them and therefore make them more likely to pay for it. Potentially.
We have two recommendations for you today. First, listen to our latest podcast, highlighted by our interview with Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times. Then, watch the documentary “Storm Lake,” which is on most PBS stations (including GBH-2 in Boston) at 10 p.m. Dan previewed “Storm Lake” for GBH News last week.
Dolores Cullen is scanning through photos she’d taken at a local elementary school where Abby Bean, the reigning Iowa Pork Producers Pork Queen, had enthused over the finer points of hog production. The kids were encouraged to oink. There was a piglet wearing a diaper. It was the sort of event that oozes cute.
Chris Lovett, longtime news director and anchor of the Boston Neighborhood Network News local cable access show, reflects on his career in community journalism, on camera and off. A Dorchester native, he’s interviewed local activists, politicos (including Tom Menino when he was a district city councilor) and neighborhood stalwarts. Lovett had a front-row seat as the changing media landscape shaped Boston, and he connects the dots between Menino’s early days as a frequent broadcast guest and Michelle Wu’s strategic use of social media. He has also shared his expertise with any number of Boston University students. And he’s not done with journalism yet, so stay tuned. Please give it a listen — and subscribe via Apple, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are heard.