Digital Guru Clay Shirky on a Newspaper Plan B

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First, the bad news: Print newspapers are in “mechanical hospice,” with 2011 revenues on a par with earnings from the last quarter of 2006.

Then, the, um,  good news (sort of):

It’s Plan B time.

Time for some come-to-Jesus innovation. Those of us who still believe in the power of newspapers to bring people together, enlighten and entertain need to face the fact that right now we have nowhere to go but up.

On Monday, staffers at The Roanoke Times were treated to some free, wholly solicited advice from the biggest brain in digital journalism, NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky. Turns out, Shirky’s sister and parents have lived in Roanoke for 10 years, not far from retired ace reporter Mary Bishop, who scored us the connection.

Lucky for us, Shirky, who was featured in the  documentary PAGE ONE — Inside The New York Times, has been following our paper for about that long — to the point where he recognized individual bylines and could even recite the number of hits on Dan Casey’s blog.

How to get the rest of our online products as energized as provocateur Casey’s blog? Here are some of Shirky’s ideas for building both engagement and that dirty word we were never supposed to worry about back in the day — revenues.

• We need to capitalize more on our role as interpreters of data. Pro Publica’s Dollars for Docs was a great example of a news organization partnering both with readers and other news organizations. That series allowed readers to type in the name of their own doctors to find out which ones were in pharmaceutical companies’ back pockets. (Our medical reporter Sarah Bruyn Jones used that data to write one such story.)

• All news stories should connect readers with action. Legislative updates, for instance, should help readers contact their reps, not just numb readers to death with statistics. Here, Shirky suggested we borrow a page from our Extra (features) section, by being more how-to friendly. “Newspapers don’t tell people how to do something,” he said. “When it comes to politics, it’s hands off. It’s like, well, ‘We hear you have the vote!’ ”

“We should be trying to plug citizens into the grid of politics as well as we plug consumers” into retail outlets and entertainment events.

• Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Here again he praised Pro Publica’s ventures with newspapers, NPR and other nonprofit organizations. (I was pretty happy to hear that, having pushed for collaboration in recent projects that made our newspaper a partner with the nonprofits Equal Voice, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Dart Society for Trauma and Journalism.)

“Until 2006, journalists were kinda like kept women: ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads about the money!’ ”

But no more. Shirky speculates that newspapers will have to become more like NPR, raising money and leveraging “the totebag factor” among the minority of readers who understand how important our watchdog role is (and will pony up for the membership totebag).

He advised us to think more strategically about putting up a paywall similar to those at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. We could maybe even take a page from The Grandin Theatre Foundation, a group of local do-gooders who kept the theater’s doors open by turning it into a nonprofit.

We should solicit supporters who understand that if The Roanoke Times closes up shop, citizens might as well go ahead and add a 2 percent corruption fee to their taxes, Shirky said. That’s the money readers will pay if there’s no press around to keep local governments honest. “You never had to make a case for yourself before because you had Best Buy” paying your way, he said.

But no more. “ ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ has never been a great business model,” he quipped.

Newspapers need to realize it’s Plan B time and experiment mightily to create new streams of digital revenue. Shirky suggests coming up with lots of “small ideas” rather than one or two big ones; that we learn to get comfortable with the idea of failure, even — as long as the failures are initiatives we can at least learn something from.

• Try to make up for every dollar lost on print with the digital operation, he said, praising John Paton’s efforts at the Journal Register and Digital First Media.

• Figure out ways to use social media to engage productive conversations without letting the wackos hijack our message boards. Rather than just solicit comments via Facebook, direct the conversation.

For example: We could ask readers, “What should the direction of the Taubman Museum be?” Or (referring to my recent story about Vaughan-Bassett Furniture in Galax), we could invite readers to share their own stories about manufacturing in the region.

Shirky loves the smart dialog he reads on Jezebel.com and said we need to figure out a happy medium between allowing  anonymity in comments and moderating them to insure the flamethrowers don’t take over.

“You throw things out to Facebook, but then what — trade comments for secret decoder rings?” he said. We’ve got to figure out how to turn the chatter into productive, citizenry-building conversation.

Shirky gave us loads to think about just as teams are working now to redesign Roanoke.com. The big brain was beyond generous with his time, spending two hours talking to us and shaking just about every reporter’s hand — and referring to many of the stories we wrote.

He said his students at NYU can’t fathom how much the news industry has changed since he was a kid — when the paper heaved onto his front lawn was the sole source of news. When he talks about the good-old old days, they look at him like “I’m talking about the Civil War!”

Editor Carole Tarrant expounded about Shirky’s talk and our emphasis on local coverage here.

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  1. Thinking about the future of news, with or without newspapers | Bob Stepno's Other Journalism

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