McGuire on Media

Newspapers may need to outgoogle Google

The challenges of the spring have kept me away from the blog, not a lack of something to say. I have been bursting with thoughts and frustrations lately, but I am going to save them for yet another day.

I often fret I could easily turn this into a blog of my students’ work. I resist that frequently. It is time for another exception. One of my Business and Future of Journalism students had some pretty profound observations recently. I think it is important to share them.

Michelle Price is a sophomore focusing on print.  She did a report on Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail.

Her assignment was to find and discuss media implications of the book. When she discussed filters Michelle wrote this: ” If I want to look something up, say the recent rises in metal thefts in the Valley, I should be able to search on my local news web site and get the same kind of feedback I get from Google: relevant, timely, source-approved. The information I get from my news organization should offer me not only links to other articles or sites to give me more background or history, but offer categories of lists that may take me down my particular interests, such as “metal sculpture,” “overseas development,” “Drug-related crimes,” “high-profile thefts,” etc. Notice how I said, “I should be able,” not “Wouldn’t that be neat?”

With that thumping left hook, Michelle delivered a severe blow to web sites, but she didn’t stop. She followed up with another roundhouse. “Media needs to incorporate all of the post-filters (or their equivalents) into their organizations. I say equivalents because “playlists” would translate to “most-viewed articles,” “most-commented articles,” “related articles.” I can’t tell you how often I read an article on a web site, want more information or a link to a related article and can’t find it. What do I do? Google it! That’s a problem!”

Yes, kind student, that’s a problem. There is a lot of talk about redesigning newspaper web sites. Until readers can find the same utility they find on Google, newspaper web sites will languish. That probably means paid archives have to die, and it definitely means newspaper search has to become far more sophisticated.

Michelle may have unwittingly answered a mystery for me.

My students often confuse me. I find a very odd loyalty to newspapers in my classes. Many want newspapers to flourish. They despair when I quote thinkers who claim newspapers are dead. One student worried that “my grandma in Cleveland” would miss the newspaper.” One student hates the idea of newspaper content becoming vertical and exploring just a few subjects. She fears readers would have to bounce from newspaper to newspaper to find what they need.  Another student made a plaintive  plea for more coverage of the Middle East on the front pages of newspapers.

Those comments forced me from behind the desk. I carefully sat on the table at the front of the class. I feigned great thoughtfulness. Then I screamed, “But none of you buy newspapers!”  They laughed at the funny old man, but I think they truly understood the conundrum. There is a remarkable loyalty to the IDEA of newspapers despite the fact that many, if not most, of my students are not regular newspaper readers. They definitely don’t buy them and their readership seems to be hit and miss at best.  

Michelle’s thoughtful comments on the difficulty of searching a newspaper web site for knowledge as opposed to past newspaper articles is a revelation.  An idea that is well represented in the NAA Imagining the Future Blog is that newspapers cannot be mere storehouses for their own information.  They have to be networks of “stuff.”  That “stuff” has to be deeply linked and deeply researchable.  That is exactly the function Michelle says she should be able to find on a newspaper web site.

If newspapers want to compete in the new world they have to listen to the dreams of people like Michelle who love newspapers, but don’t need them in their current form.