Saturday, March 12, 2011

On-line news network: more news than you need

This afternoon I joined about 20 Portland “newsbloggers” at a meeting convened by The Oregonian at its downtown offices on SW Broadway.

A rag-tag crew, we assembled around the long news conference table where top editors routinely decide how the news of the day will be played on newsprint.

The big metro, which is fading as a print publication, is trying to find an on-line journalism model that will ensure its survival into the rest of the 21st Century.

The newsblogger meeting was the newspaper’s effort to pull together a one-year “pilot project” called “The Oregonian News Network.”

I was at the meeting to see whether my on-line publication, The Hillsdale News, might fit into the plan.

The Oregonian is using a grant from the J-Lab Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University in D.C. to pay for seven $2,500 grants to local newsbloggers.

In exchange, the chosen few will participate in a hyperlocal newsgathering effort.

Tellingly, the money does not come from The Oregonian or on-line advertising revenues. The bankrolling comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has paid for similar experiments in a few other cities, including Seattle.

I quickly concluded The Hillsdale News is not a candidate for the program, which calls for posting as many as five “hyper-local” news stories a week. I publish three to five stories every two or three weeks.

The Oregonian's working assumption is that small communities like ours really want to know about breaking, “hyperlocal” news, 24-7.

Do folks in Hillsdale really care about every fender bender, shoplifting or brush fire here?

Call me crazy, but I don’t think so.

And if they do, that’s someone else's problem. I’ve got other stories to write that won’t be hauled off by a wrecker, investigated by the police or drenched by the fire bureau.

By not applying for a grant, I’ll be missing out on technical advice, which I could use in the warp-speed change of the internet world.

But feeding the insatiable maw of the internet is too high a price to pay.

Thoreau’s comment about the newly invented telegraph applies equally to the web:

"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

I’ll venture that The Oregonian’s effort will burn out after a year. No representative of the paper had a clue as to how the “News Network” could be made self-sufficient after the Knight money runs out.

“We’re working on that,” said one lamely.

The other problem is that The Oregonian still doesn’t have control over its news web site, OregonLive. The on-line operation isn’t even in The Oregonian’s building. No one seemed quite sure where it is. OregonLive is some kind of organizational Frankenstein that only a corporate insider at Advance Publications back in New York could love — and apparently locate.

The Oregonian’s management has simply thrown up its hands in defeat and unveiled frustration at trying to wrest on-line control from “corporate.”

The meeting wasn’t a complete loss for me. It crystalized what The Hillsdale News is: an on-line news and news analysis magazine for in a hyperlocal market of 7,000 neighbors in Southwest Portland.

Until today, I’d never seen The News as a magazine with relatively leisurely deadlines. I variously and mistakenly referred to it as an on-line newspaper or newsletter.

The Oregonian’s presentation forced me to see my publication for what it isn’t and what it is.

I consider that two-hours well spent.

As for the “newsbloggers” in the room, I suspect some will take the J-Lab money and chase fire engines and patrol cars for the next year.

I wish them well.

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