Nicco Mele on why papers like The Roanoke Times should thrive

On a good day, technology increases people’s engagement with each other.

On a bad day, it’s all about the digital me. “It’s narrow-minded and parochial, and people only read what they already agree with,” said Nicco Mele, the man Esquire magazine dubbed “one of America’s best and brightest.”

The technology guru and Harvard media professor spoke to a smallish group of Nieman fellows this week, thanks to Chilean Nieman Fellow Alejandra Matus (who was just named a 2011 Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; we’re so proud!)

Among Mele’s advice for journalists:

• Remember, it’s not about technology; it’s about people. “The Internet allows people to transact directly with each other and to bypass institutions.” Social media is king.

• How will newspapers fare? “I don’t see the large institutions existing in their current form in five, 10 years.” Accountability journalism — 80 percent of which has historically been done by newspapers, according Web guru Clay Shirkey — will instead be undertaken piecemeal, with no dominant model leading the charge. Damn the digital me.

Mele foresees enterprise journalism being funded by a cadre of foundations, old media, new media start-ups, and, gulp, corporations. “I think we’ll struggle with accountability journalism for 10, 25 years — but eventually it’ll get sorted out because hard news is important.”

• It’s 24-hour pajama time: Journalists should prepare to become freelancers mainly working on their own. “It’s the 1,000 true fans theory: the idea that if you have 1,000 fans who subscribe to you for $100 a year, you can live off that.” (See Paige Williams’ astonishing profile on Dolly Freed and her efforts to crowd-fund the story after it was killed by The New York Times Magazine.)

Mele told an interesting story about how he self-published the lesson plans of his grandmother, a retired middle school teacher — and sells 400-500 copies of it a year via amazon.com.

• Forget institutions; it’s all about people and social networks. “I don’t trust The New York Times. At the end of the day, the people I trust are my social network. They’re my old college roommates — the people whose faults and biases I already know!

“Large institutions to whom power is important will struggle and struggle and struggle with the Internet.

• • •

Just as I was beginning to get totally depressed (again) about the state of the print media, someone asked Mele to forecast the fortunes of medium- and smaller-market newspapers — and the picture brightened. Mele is a big fan of putting local news on the front page, even when there’s big news happening elsewhere.

Papers the size of The Roanoke Times should strive to become the “google groups” of their communities, offering hyperlocal news and connecting readers with one another in new and innovative ways. (Kevin Myatt’s fantastically popular weather blog came to mind here, as did the diehard followers of Doug Doughty and Randy King on all things sports. And I’d put Tad Dicken’s local music reporting up against anybody in the country’s; Tee-man has definitely helped turn our town into a happening music scene.)

In other words, forget trying to be sophisticated, big-city wannabe papers and embrace the local. “I don’t get the Boston Globe putting the Taliban on the front page instead of the major local story of the day,” he said. “They’re not going to be the international news source, and they shouldn’t even try.”

The Internet is about relationships — whether it be professional relationships via Linked In, or Facebook for socializing, or specialized networks that connect local chefs to local organic farms.

“The problem in the U.S. is that we’ve gone mass. And the Internet in my mind is lethal to anything mass.”

Get busy and get creative — not depressed, he added.

“I see lots of opportunity for hope, as long as you get back to the local and build it out from there.”