If Seattle suddenly found itself without any newspapers (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) and unemployed journalists decided get something going to fill the void, the most important early hire would be a database engineer.
The reasons for the demise of for-profit newspapers are many, and no one factor in isolation would have doomed the backbone of American journalism so suddenly. But one factor made it inevitable: changing technology. Once the writing was on the wall — say, in 1993 — the newspaper industry at large did a poor job of developing the Web as a platform, though there are notable exceptions.
The problem wasn't just the fact every piece of technology was devoted first and foremost to producing a printed newspaper. (In today's terms, the most important application would have been InDesign instead of Dreamweaver.) Failure to innovate was compounded by corporate ownership. Even if someone at the paper in, say, Portland wanted to do something novel with the Web, the locals were faced with ownership by, say, Advance Publications (Newhouse), to name the most egregious example of online screw-ups that for too long foisted the worst Web tools imaginable on its newspaper children. Throw in consolidation of chains and the mess was compounded. (I'm looking at you, McClatchy.) To do any real technological innovating at a newspaper, you had to be either in New York or Lawrence, Kan. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)
So given the opportunity to start from scratch, it's time to develop a journalism Web platform like no other, designed from the bottom up to accommodate the special needs of professional news editing and vetting. It must serve all the usual forms of content — articles, blogs, images, video, audio, commenting — as well as provide for the complicated interactivity of social networking, sharing, rating, and wiki collaboration. It needs to be the offspring of The New York Times and Facebook.
Oh, and it also needs to be scalable to accommodate any conceivable business model or combination thereof: standard display advertising, classified ads, revenue sharing with authors, micropayment-per-view, token-earning, free access, pay-for-access — and stuff we haven't thought of yet. This new platform also should be capable of selling and creating advertisements with little or no human intervention.
All of this starts with smart database planning. Figuring out early how data should relate to each other — bylines to advertisers to images to keywords — solves a lot of problems later and lets you be nimble as needs change.
There's a lot of talk about how bloggers are smarter than big media, and the implication is they are technologically more advanced. But bloggers aren't so smart about technology. Here I'm using TypePad, aka Movable Type, regarded by many to be the best blogging software out there. It's absolutely worth $8.95 a month, and for a little more money I could have a pretty sophisticated turnkey Web site based on this blogging software.
But blogging software is a tool focused primarily on a very linear form of expression. A socially advanced journalism Web site has greater needs if it is to fulfill the promise of a four-dimensional World Wide Web and accommodate various levels of scrutiny of content.
For the most part, journalistic blogs are technological crap. I'm talking about the difference between a poorly designed and photocopied newsletter and a beautifully printed edition of USA Today. Technology is the enabler of high standards of content and presentation, and journalists need to embrace it in the digital era just as they did in the era of ink.
So if we have to start from scratch, let's think it through carefully and get our software-engineering friends on board from the start. It doesn't need to be complicated at first, but it does need to be smart.
To be continued ...