What's A Big City Without A Newspaper? Still A Big City Last I Checked

from the it-ain't-the-newspaper,-it's-the-news dept

A bunch of folks have been asking my opinion on this past weekend's NY Times Magazine article by Michael Sokolove entitled What's a Big City Without a Newspaper? To be honest, there's not much to say about it. The article itself sort of meanders around, and doesn't make much of a point. Sokolove is wistful for the "good old days" and hopes that there's a future for newspapers. He dips his toes into some of the new experiments out there to cover the news, and spends a lot of time with the guy who is currently CEO of the bankrupt big Philly newspapers. The article doesn't really break any new ground. There are a few times when it seems to falsely assume that only newspaper reporters are real reporters (though, at other times it doesn't make this mistake). About the only really noteworthy thing is that the guy who runs the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, Brian Tierney, seems to be a bit clueless about economics -- which doesn't bode well for the two papers:
As soon as possible, he wants to begin charging for online content. As he told me this, he banged a bagel on a conference table, which sounded like a rock as it hit. "You hear that?" This bagel stinks, he said. "It's got the same consistency inside and out, but if you went down to our cafeteria, it costs like $1.25. That's what people pay for stuff like this, so you mean to tell me I can't get them to pay that for online access to all the incredible stuff in The Inquirer and Daily News online? People who say that all this content wants to be free aren't paying talented people to create it."
As any first year econ student would tell Tierney, the reason people are willing to pay $1.25 for a stale bagel is because they really don't have another easy choice. To get a better bagel would mean having to leave the building and head out somewhere further away that isn't nearly as convenient. But online there are other options. Loads and loads and loads of other options -- all only a click away. If his cafeteria had 1,000 different bagel suppliers all competing to sell their bagels, he'd discover that the bagels would be both a lot cheaper and a lot better tasting. And those who thought they could get away with charging $1.25 for a crappy bagel would soon go out of business. Update: Ha! After writing this, I discovered that King Kaufman wrote basically the same thing.

Oh, and then he also seems to believe that there's something special about newsprint that makes it more suitable for reporting than the web, but he fails to explain what that is, other than "brawn."
"We do the brawny work," Tierney said, sounding like the C.E.O. of some smokestack industry. "The Web efforts, they add something. I congratulate them. Let a thousand flowers bloom. But if somebody thinks in any short term, or even medium term, that the answers are those things, they're kidding themselves. I know I sound like a heretic in that I won't come out and say, 'They're the future." But they're not. The brawny work is what we're doing, and the brawny vehicle to carry it is the printed product."
I'm not against newsprint -- if someone could come up with a way to make it really add more value. I've talked about magazines making their print product more valuable, and I'm sure a creative newspaper could do it too. But claiming that newsprint is better because it carries "brawny work" doesn't seem like a particularly compelling explanation. It sounds like someone pining for a past that isn't returning. There's no vision there. There's only someone insisting that things must be a certain way because that's the way it is. The world, unfortunately, doesn't work that way.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 5:24am

    "brawn" is an interesting word. He is using a term that most people wouldn't relate to. It is perhaps easier to say something like "heavy lifting", because that is what news organizations tend to do.

    Going out and getting the news, interviewing people, checking facts, getting the right picture, confirming rumors, checking documents, asking the right question at a press conference are all "heavy lifting" in reporting. It's the actual work of creating a story. It is the difference between a blog saying "this past weekend's NY Times Magazine" and actually writing the story.

    Mike, I have to ask you. If every newspaper in the country disappeared in the morning, what the heck would you talk about on your blog? What would your source material be? Would you be out interviewing people? Would you hire a staff to check facts, check your spelling, set up the interviews, transcribe tapes, and all those other things?

    Again, it's all the heavy lifting of reporting.

    In the end, many "online news sources" are entirely dependant on the dinosaurs for their source material. When the dinos go, where will they go for their source material? Some guy on the street corner who might have heard something? An unchecked fact? Perhaps the same place that made the fake Obama birth certificate from Kenya?

    It's easy to dismiss the newspapers as dinosaurs until you realize how important they are even to Techdirt. Mike, here is a challenge: Try to go 1 week without quoting a newspaper, or without linking or basing a story on your site on a newspaper report (so no AP, no Reuters, no other blogs talking about newspapers, etc). Try it. Then report back about the dinos and why their material has no market price.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Howard, Cowering, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 5:45am

    @ AC #1

    AC, I have to ask you, if the AP disappeared this afternoon, what would your newspaper print in tomorrow's edition? How many reporters does your paper employ? In Kurdistan? In China? In the Seychelles? In Somalia?

    Check the articles in today's paper. See how many have AP on the byline. Or Reuters, or any of the other news agglomerators serving the print news industry.

    Their material has no market price (note that value and price are different concepts and cannot be used interchangeably in educated discourse) because no one is willing to pay for it. Advertisers pay for the eyeballs that the news attracts, but neither you nor any other subscriber pays any significant portion of the cost of producing that paper you read. Does that make you a freeloader? Here's a challenge: Try to go 1 week covering the entire cost of delivering that paper to you - reporting, payroll, presses, ink, newsprint, fuel, insurance, taxes, utilities on the physical plant...

    Try it. Then report back about why Mike is so wrong about the market driving the price to zero.

     

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  3.  
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    Me, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:02am

    Re: @ AC #1

    You totally missed his point, bro.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:13am

    Re: @ AC #1

    "Try it. Then report back about why Mike is so wrong about the market driving the price to zero."

    Sigh

    This is sort of a hard discussion to have with someone with a mind already closed. Your decision is already made, so the rest of us who haven't taken the blue pill aren't on your level.

    One of the issues is the difference in value between online eyeballs and "print version" eyeballs. Does it help a local restaurant in Spokane that I happen to read a story online from their local newspaper, even if I am on the other side of the world? Unfocused eyeballs are all but useless in that market. Few people from India are going to run over to Boise to buy "men's shirts half off this week", but those unfocused eyeballs still cost to serve.

    Thus, one of the reasons that newspapers and other media have such a hard time online, because the online community is one planet wide blob, not a marketplace.

    As the market attempts to steal, borrow, or infringe on anything that isn't nailed down, the effects are driving the market price of many things to zero. That zero has been shown so far to be not sustainable for hardly anyone. SO it doesn't matter where the price is driven to, without income, the product will stop being produced. Thus my challenge to Mike, to operate a week without reference to the dinosaurs he thinks are first to die in this digital information ice age.

    "Check the articles in today's paper. See how many have AP on the byline. Or Reuters, or any of the other news agglomerators serving the print news industry."

    Who do you think wrote the articles to start with? A blogger? Some guy on the street corner? The girl working at McDonalds?

    ...and so on.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:13am

    Re:

    "Perhaps the same place that made the fake Obama birth certificate from Kenya?"

    We should point out that it was the bloggosphere that first identified the birth certificate as a forgery. The mainstream news media came in a distant second.

    In answer to your question regarding what would Techdirt do without print media doing all the heavy lifting? You are assuming that without newspapers there is no reporting and that no one would fill that void. That's a bad assumption. If there's a market someone will figure out how to profit from it.

     

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  6.  
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    A different me, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:27am

    Re: Re:

    I don't think the OP is assuming that - in fact they are asking for a simple experiment to see if it is true or not. Granted you could argue that just because the alternatives may or may not exist today, does not mean they never will.

     

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  7.  
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    NullOp, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:30am

    newz

    Brawny work? Basically the newz people get the news then rewrite it into the newz to sensationalize it and go to print. Journalism in the real world is almost dead!

     

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  8.  
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    R. Miles (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:33am

    Re: @ AC #1

    Then report back about why Mike is so wrong about the market driving the price to zero.
    Reading comprehension is your friend, but in this case, turns out to be your enemy.

    Mike's got nothing against the printed paper so long as there's a reason for its existence other than the bull of "news means money".

    Even in the "good ol' days", the subscription price didn't cover the things you wrote about. Or does economics escape you? Do you really think $0.50 (avg price) per paper covered those expenses you listed?

    You're correct to state advertising covered most of the expenses. So why can't they today?

    Oh, right. Because advertisers aren't going to throw their money away into a dying industry. Even television is facing this issue.

    For those that don't get it: THE INTERNET IS A DISTRIBUTION PLATFORM AND THUS, MAKES EXISTING DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS OBSOLETE.

    Newspapers are a distribution system of THE NEWS. Thus, we no longer need to pay for THE PAPER to get THE NEWS.

    That's where the price of $0 comes in.

    The mistake CEOs often make is this: THE INTERNET IS NOT A PLACE ONE CAN MONETIZE NO MATTER HOW HARD ATTEMPTS ARE MADE TO DO SO.

    Because this just means someone, who has a better way to generate revenue, will undercut the pay-to-read site and bring in the customers.

    It's Business 101 (as pointed out with the bagel).

    So why not tell the CEO he's wrong to keep a paper industry alive? If one looks at what it takes to deliver those massive rolls to the printing press...

    Then add in the ink, man power, electricity, and other associated costs.

    One would think the internet would be a blessing to this industry FOR GIVING THEM A PLATFORM TO REDUCE SO MUCH OVERHEAD.

    And shouldn't this reduction of overhead mean a savings to consumers? If there's no paper product, that price is... OMG... $ZERO FREAKIN' DOLLARS.

    Sorry, AC, but your "test" has failed and I didn't even need to try it to see it.

     

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  9.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 6:45am

    Re: Re: Re:

    That test could never happen and there is a vary large reason for that. As the AC you're replying to said "If there's a market someone will figure out how to profit from it." That's an important fact to remember. The print newspaper will always have a market, and, if the present one goes away, some enterprising person will come along and exploit it.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 7:06am

    A lot of people get heated about this. This is just a market adjustment and I think Mike may sensationalize it a bit... OK he does it ALOT however it comes down to adjustments.

    I see the same thing that happened to arcades happening to newspapers. I miss the 'good old days' of stand up arcades, but they are mostly dead. Only ones still around are in super dense populated areas and/or sell more on the social experience by offering alcohol and food. Am I sad that arcades of old are all but dead? Yes. But they are not all going away. Big city newspapers will always exist, there will probably just be less of them per big city.

    Besides real newspapers that do real reporting will always get real buisness. Many news agencies just rip whatever 'wacko bob' says on the street. If that is investigative reporting then it can go the way of the dodo.

     

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  11.  
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    fogbugzd, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 7:28am

    What scares me

    People can beat on their chests on both sides of this issue as much as they want. Eventually the market will decide, if it is given a chance.

    The thing that scares me is that someone will get a law passed that blocks the free market solution and lock in any inefficiencies of the current system. That solution will eventually lead to a situation where the old, locked in solution is so out of touch with the market demand that it will collapse, but not until there has been a great deal more pain and waste.

     

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  12.  
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    ferin (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 7:29am

    dailies aren't so great

    To be honest I couldn't care less about our city's one daily (Columbus Dispatch). If I want to see some local news I'll either check one of our 4(!) local stations r pull up the weekly rag (the other paper ftw). Breaking news comes faster on tv, and the other paper is a hell of a lot more objective and interesting to read.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 8:29am

    I happen to like newspapers, the ones you can "touch and feel, and not the ones you can "click and scroll". I shudder at the thought that the latter seem to be the preferred format for many "digital natives", and even more so when it comes to digital business models built around summaries of news reports, digital or physical, and to blogs that then towards specific subject matter.

    I do not want the quick and dirty summaries that it appears are satisfactory to so many using the internet. In but a few instances I do not view them as a substitute for the "real thing", i.e., a comprehensive statement of facts and in many instances thoughtful analysis of their relevance. They enable persons to become intellectually lazy. I do not like subject matter limited blogs because I have many, many varied interests, and have no desire to visit a plethora of blogs in order to capture the scope of news I happen to believe is of importance.

    As I have stated before, a distinct advantage of the "touch and feel" media is that it works within my home even with the loss if electricity. The same cannot be said of the "click and scroll" media.

    In a peculiar was this debate reminds me of the rise of digital cameras over tried and true film cameras that are manually controlled in all respects. With the former my photo taking abilities stop in their tracks when the batteries run out. No battery? No photo. With a manual film camera it keeps running and running even when the Energizer Bunny runs out of steam and stops playing its drums. Oh yes, I do lose in many instances light metering. Then again, we do have these things called selenium meters that are more than up to the task.

    Call be a dinosaur....

     

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  14.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 8:55am

    Re:

    Honestly? Get over yourself.

    I think just about EVERYONE enjoy the feel of the printed page, and we ALL know there are times when it is more convenient or just plain more pleasant than the web.

    But you do what print proponents always do - mix up your points. The joy of paper, the fact that it works without power, the tactile sensation -- these have NOTHING to do with your observations about content, about "comprehensive statements of facts" or "intellectual laziness". All those features of the content are entirely separate, and just because there has been a correlation between printed newspapers and good journalism for a couple centuries does not mean that the message is inextricably linked to the medium, the way you seem to think it is.

    But really - just get over yourself. I will enjoy picking up a paper in the morning for as long as they are still around, but I won't shed any tears as they start to disappear. Paper is great but its inefficient and expensive, and all the nostalgia in the world won't change that. I also enjoy cobblestone streets, solid brick houses, busy intersections directed by traffic cops instead of lights, vinyl records... the list goes on. But you know what? I'm over it.

     

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  15.  
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    Eskimo Heel (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 9:20am

    Papers are missing an opportunity...

    News - the details, the quotes, the facts - do require some 'heavy lifting', but that's a small part of why I had subscribed to my local paper, the San Jose Mercury News. The real meat I want from them is great coverage of local news, and opinion and analysis of the national news. The SJ Merc treats local as 'everything that might have happened in the San Francisco Bay area', which brings me shootings in San Francisco, 60 miles away. And they have their own damn newspaper. They first stopped running the 'Business Monday", a deep analysis of high tech news and information. They stopped running most of the comics the used to run; and now they ended their Sunday 'editorials and opinions' section. They've stopped producing value for me - and apparently many others - so I'm now a 'former subscriber'.

    A newspaper that gives me good editorial thinking on news stories and on how they will impact me; that gives me a cross-section of analysis by people I respect; and good local coverage will get me to subscribe. Until then, I have the web for raw news.

     

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  16.  
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    lancehassan (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 9:33am

    alternative arguments...

    From Kara Swishers post at all things digital...Mark Cuban's comments on the newspaper industry. worth tossing into the the discussion... http://blogmaverick.com/2009/08/08/my-advice-to-fox-myspace-on-selling-content-yes-you-can/

     

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  17.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 9:38am

    Re: Papers are missing an opportunity...

    And what if it's a *website* that gives you all those things?

    Don't get me wrong, I see your point. But I don't see why your vision of great editorial is tied to newspapers.

     

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  18.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 9:58am

    Re: alternative arguments...

    Mark's scheme is interesting but, where are the advertising dollars in it? Sure, the paid-subscriber base is a valuable community to sell to advertisers, since they have demonstrated their willingness to spend money online. But anyone who chooses to offer content for free will have access to a valuable advertising opportunity too. Mark's entire argument hinges on the idea that other major news outlets will all follow suit, thus choking off aggregators and many bloggers.

    But even in that case, some bloggers would pay for the necessary subscriptions to a few different outlets and continue doing what they do now, which is adding new value and insight to the news. Only now they would be linking to paywall pages instead of the articles. And they could begin reaping serious advertising dollars on their end of things and before you know it there would be a lot of lawsuits, I suspect.

    And then what of tech and gadget news? Major news outlets can kiss that entire crowd goodbye if they go behind paywalls, and valuable advertisers go with it. Blogs like CrunchGear and the like don't rely on major news outlets, and they will steal the entire market. I don't imagine Apple will spend much on iPhone ads that go behind paywalls.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 10:06am

    Re: Re:

    Insulting commentary directed at an individual is always a good conversation starter.

    By the tenor of your comment, to me is seems distinctly possible Dave Barry had persons such as you in mind when he said:

    "I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me."

     

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  20.  
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    King Kaufman, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 10:30am

    Re: Re: @ AC #1

    "Few people from India are going to run over to Boise to buy "men's shirts half off this week", but those unfocused eyeballs still cost to serve."

    Why can't the Spokane newspaper contract with an ad network that will serve a local ad to the reader in India? Or if not India, at least, say, Seattle or San Francisco or Miami?

    Masnick: You owe me a stale bagel!!

     

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  21.  
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    Crabby, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 10:36am

    "Brawny" makes it sound like he's comparing newsprint to a particular brand of paper towels.

     

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  22.  
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    Devil's Advocate, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 10:38am

    Re:

    "checking facts, getting the right picture, confirming rumors, checking documents,"

    Ah, but they don't actually do this anymore... and that's why newspapers are in trouble, because more often than not they don't offer anything of real value.

     

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  23.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 10:49am

    Re: Re: Re:

    The tone of the original comment was extremely derisive towards people who consume news online, accusing us of being "intellectually lazy" and "shuddering at the thought" of us settling for what is clearly implied to be an inferior format. How can these "quick and dirty" summaries be satisfactory to us? We must have NO appreciation of "comprehensive statements of facts" and "thoughtful analysis". And moreover we apparently lack some sort of admirable appreciation for the wonderful sensations of paper and mechanical cameras, and we all have some sort of allegiance to the Energizer Bunny and his steam-powered drums.

    Well, I take offense to that, and I think it shows you don't know what you're talking about. So I say: get over yourself.

     

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  24.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 10:58am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Also I'm not sure if you think we keep getting stranded by power-outages, lost and mystified, prodding at our monitors in confusion, but I think most of us are well-aware that electronic devices require electricity and, honestly, it hasn't been that big of an issue.

     

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  25.  
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    AC's long lost brother, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 11:01am

    From a resident of the Keystone State

    The reason the Philadelphia papers are in trouble is that they are TERRIBLE! And the online version is even worse! Now I am in the 'burbs, so I read a different paper for my 'local' news, but if I need news from philadelphia, I go to the websites for the TV stations, because they are timely and much more well informed generally than the dead tree folks.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 1:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Adjectives count, and it helps to take note of them. "Many" does not mean "all", nor does it imply "majority". It is, however, quite clear from many comments I read on sites such as this that far too many persons seem quite satisfied to limit their learning activities to mere "sound bites".

    It helps to read what I actually say before resorting to invective.

     

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  27.  
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    Alan Gerow (profile), Aug 10th, 2009 @ 2:41pm

    Re:

    "If every newspaper in the country disappeared in the morning, what the heck would you talk about on your blog?"

    How about:

    Newspapers all over the country disappear, unable to build 21st century business models. Bloggers of the world step-up and continue journalism torch. News keeps happening, people keep reporting on it. The world continues.

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 10th, 2009 @ 8:07pm

    Re: Re:

    All fine, except for one simple thing: What are bloggers using as source material? AP, Reuters, and news sites. Lose the news, the bloggers will just be virtual talking heads like the fools on faux news.

     

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  29.  
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    Alan Gerow (profile), Aug 11th, 2009 @ 9:01am

    Re: Re: Re:

    How about first hand accounts. I can look out of my window and blog about the news on my street.

     

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  30.  
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    Alan Gerow (profile), Aug 11th, 2009 @ 9:02am

    Re: Re: Re:

    pssssst: the AP doesn't make the news, it only reports on it. ANYONE with at least one sense organ can do that. Pass it on.

     

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