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14 Feb

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Could Crowdsourcing Help Save the New York Times?

February 14, 2009 | By |

New York TimesThe New York Times is in trouble, big-time. That’s about all everybody can agree on. (The opinions on consequences and options differ widely. Check out The Atlantic’s judgement and Jeff Jarvis’ comments, for example.) To get an idea of how bad the newspaper is hit, here’s the figures quoted in The Atlantic:

Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

Now that’s the NYTimes. For other papers the future looks even more bleak. After all, the NYTimes has some advantages over their competitors: A long-standing tradition and strong brand, national (rather: world-wide) distribution, and extremely high journalistic standards. Also, being the respected news organization the NYTimes is, they have a strong supporter community. (I’ll come back to the community at the end of this post.) That said, continuing business as usual surely isn’t an option. So what is?

Cutting costs has been proposed a great many times (and sadly led to mass layoffs). Micropayments have been discussed. Ditching print for online has been proposed and done. (The Christian Science Monitor will switch from print to online-only this April.)

A completely different way, and probably a much better one, is the one proposed by Janet L. Robinson, the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Instead of cutting down, Robinson proposes to aim at keeping up the major asset the NYTimes has over it’s competitors – high-quality journalism:

“As other newspapers cut back on international and national coverage, or cease operations, we believe there will be opportunities for The Times to fill that void,” she said, for both readers and advertisers.

This sounds like a plausible way to go. More importantly, though, it also just like a generally good idea, eh? The New York Times has proven over and over again, that they know how to work the web, and have experimented a good deal over the years. Just now, they launched a prototype of an experimental user interface, the Article Skimmer. (More prototypes.) Certainly not the next big thing, but a solid experiment in other ways of displaying news.

NYTimes Article Skimmer New York Times Article Skimmer Prototype (Screenshot)

But back to the community. The NYTimes clearly has a strong, and large, community of supporters. (And that’s both private readers and instituions of all sorts.) Couldn’t the paper go the way of many a web projects and give their community the chance to support them directly? We’re talking community support of all sorts: Fundraising, marketing, but also content. Why not adapt a citizen reporter segment of sorts, a strong online community site, all that kind of stuff? Surely there must be a way to crowdsource for effort and cash when one of the flagships of old-school quality journalism is at stake?

I would give a few bucks to rescue the NYTimes. And I’m not even based in the U.S.

Comments

  1. Three questions: 1. Do you think that would be enough to save an entity of that size and expense?

    1. Isn’t the idea of community reporters (a la CNN’s ireporter) directly contradicting their idea of “experienced journalism”?

    and 3. Isn’t that just asking their community to do what many do anyway -publish themselves (blogs etc)- which is what’s caused the demise of newspapers to start with?

    The article skimmer is all well and good, but it doesn’t seem to be anything more than a bit of plastic surgery on a career-flagging filmstar. Prettying up doesn’t change the fact that their roles are over. Robinson’s statement read to me more like they’re planning on becoming an agency employing journalists but not publishing – a bit like a paparazzi company.

  2. Dr J, thanks for the smart feedback, as always, and welcome back in Berlin!

    The size of it all could indeed be a major problem. But who knows, if you can run a campaign on micro donations, why not a newspaper? Berlin-based daily paper taz is owned by its readers. You kinda become a member, it’s like buying stock, only somewhat less business-y. It’s a collective ownership thing. So I have to admit, I’m not at all sure on this one.

    The contradiction between traditional, professional, paid journalism and citizen/user journalism – I don’t really think there needs to be one. Sure, on one hand you have the journalists droning on about the lack of quality in user-generated content, on the other hand you have bloggers bitching about journalists’ snobbish attitude. But think about how awesome a combination of the two could be: Citizen reporters & bloggers see everything because they are, collectively, everywhere. Paid journalists do the tedious, traditional journalistic stuff like fact-checking, copy-editing and all. (A close friend is writing his PhD about the very combination. I think I need to ask him for a brief overview of what’s going on and post it here.) How that could work for the NYTimes? Who knows ;)

    The third point you’re raising is also interesting, and crucial. Dunno – is it really blogs that are killing the newspapers? Or just the ad market? Both? Not sure, but I really hope there can be a mix of both user-generated and professional media. While I’m a sucker for blogs – and user-generated media, social media, community-driven media – all that kind of stuff, I have to admit I hate the idea of not having some traditional, old-school, hard-core journalists around. Not so say that blogs couldn’t potentially cover all the stuff media supposedly do. But it still feels good to know that someone, somewhere, is actually paid to keep digging even if everybody else feels like sleeping in.

    (100% agreed, the Article Skimmer is a mere toy, for looks, not substantial. I kinda like the idea of newspapers trying to reinvent themselves, though ;)

    So. Where does that leave us? ;)

  3. I still can’t access a ‘comments’ link in my RSS reader (THUNDERBIRD). Hmm. Anyway, another great aspect of the NYT is that they have such a good website! In fact I wanted to keep reading my major paper, The Washington Post, when I got to college, but the website was just so ugly I had to switch over. And I’ve never gone back!

  4. Oh i posted before I read your whole article. sometimes i get ahead of myself….