Entertainment or news? The CNN/YouTube GOP 'Debate'

I was a YouTube “vlogger” at the St. Petersburg Republican CNN/YouTube debate, where questions for the candidates were chosen from over 5000 video clips submitted by YouTube users. I was not allowed to use my video camera during the show itself, but I was in the fourth row, right down front, in an aisle seat directly behind action-actor Chuck Norris and in front of candidate Fred Thompson’s wife, Jeri, so I had a pretty good view of the event. Later, I wandered freely around the “Spin Room” where TV personalities and print reporters surrounded candidates and their spokespeople and shouted questions at them. It was in the noise and heat of the Spin Room that I realized none of the candidates on stage had “won.” The real winner was Chuck Norris, with fellow vlogger Chris ‘Pudge’ Nandor (who wrote the debate’s theme song) and Hillary Clinton tied for second place.

In the Spin Room, Chuck Norris attracted the largest crowd of reporters and TV people. During the debate itself, CNN’s cameras focused on him repeatedly, to the point where he was on home viewers’ TV screens nearly as many minutes as any candidate. Chris Nandor, too, got lots of TV face time during the debate, partly because he was one row behind and one seat left of Chuck Norris so it was easy for CNN’s roving cams to pick up both of them in the same shot.

I was in most of those shots, too, because of where I was sitting, and after the 10th or 12th time a CNN guy hunkered down next to us and stuck a video cam in our faces from less than three feet away, I realized what Chris, Chuck, and I had that none of the candidates had: Beards!

My reportorial instincts kicked in at that point, and I asked Chuck why he thought none of the candidates had beards. “I don’t know,” he said. Chris didn’t know, either. Jeri, wife of Fred Thompson, leaned over my shoulder and confided that she liked beards and Fred had once tried to grow one, but it came in “too wispy” to look good. (“Where is Abraham Lincoln when you need him?” I thought to myself.)

On stage, while our section of the audience was whispering like like bored high school students, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney were attacking each other for being too soft on illegal immigrants. If I recall the exchange correctly, it went something like this:

Mitt: “Nyah, nyah, you ran a sanctuary city, nyah nyah nyah.”

Rudy: “Did not, and you’re nothing but a big old boobie-head.”

Tom Tancredo: “I’m meaner to illegal immigrants than both of you put together, yuck, yuck, yuck.”

Rudy: “Mitt hires illegals to work on his house. He has a sanctuary mansion, heh, heh, heh.”

John McCain: “Hey, kids, isn’t this a nuanced issue that deserves serious consideration, not silly yammer?”

Maybe these weren’t the exact words, but I believe I caught the substance of the conversation correctly: it was flat-out, grade-school name-calling — until mean old Mr. McCain, the playground monitor, broke up the argument.

This nonsense is supposed to help us choose a president? Oy!

Meanwhile, glowering over all the Republican candidates was the spirit of Hillary Clinton, who got mentioned (unfavorably) by almost every candidate on stage at least once. The only real point of agreement among the debaters seemed to be, “I may suck, and you may suck, but none of us suck as bad as Hillary Clinton.”

Oh, that evil Hillary! She’s so powerful that she managed to infiltrate a Republican debate without even being there! Not even Osama bin Laden is as nasty as Hillary; in fact, I don’t remember him being mentioned at all.

The debate’s TV reality was not really real

The first thing that struck me when I, along with the other YouTubers, entered the “lounge” area set aside for us on a mezzanine overlookng the Spin Room, two hours before the debate began, was the number of theater-style lights focused on the TV people doing their pre-debate standup schticks, each one under his or her own pool of high-intensity light, each one nattier-dressed than the next, and every one of them caked with as much makeup as a corpse in an open casket.

While watching the TVers do their warmups, I suddenly flashed on last year’s Reuters picture-altering scandal, in which a freelance photographer was fired for using digital image-morphing software to make a bombing raid on Beirut look twice as destructive as it really was.

“Isn’t altering reality through the use of makeup and artful lighting the same as using software to alter images after the fact?” I asked myself. When the candidates came on stage for the debate, I had the same thought again. Chuck Norris wasn’t wearing makeup. Chris Nandor wasn’t wearing makeup. I wasn’t wearing makeup. And I thought we all looked just fine. When I interviewed the “Gay General,” Keith Kerr, he wasn’t wearing any, either. But the candidates were layered with the stuff, and CNN personality Anderson Cooper looked like he was wearing so much face-paint that his eyes would fall out if he wiped it all off.

The stage was lit like crazy, too, with millions of lumens pouring down on the made-up candidates. If any of them had warts or pimples or bags under their eyes or facial discolorations or any of the other little appearance defects most normal humans have, they were totally hidden. It was as if we were watching cardboard cutouts of the candidates — or perhaps stage actors playing the candidates, instead of seeing the candidates themselves.

That was the moment I realized this event — the so-called debate — was entertainment, not news, and figured out a new way to tell whether someone we see on TV is (or is not) an actual, working reporter: Anyone who wears more makeup on-camera than to go to the supermarket is an entertainer, not a reporter.

This thought had been creeping around in the back of my mind for many years, but this was the first time it surfaced full-blown — and it surfaced in a flash of light almost as brilliant as the many spots focused on the debate stage.

Maybe some of the made-up entertainers who play reporters on TV are reporters in real life but, for some reason, have decided to hide this fact from us. If so, they need to stop acting like entertainers and start acting and looking like real reporters. I suspect that the appearance alterations we have come to accept as normal on TV are a major reason Americans distrust TV news, much of which — especially political news — now consists of made-up “personalities” interviewing people who are just as made-up as they are. Grrr!

The man behind the curtain and other out-takes

While reporters and TV people mobbed Chuck Norris, hardly any video cameras were pointed at David Bohrman, the CNN senior vice president who produced the show. I didn’t ask him some of the hard questions a traditional reporter might, because most of the ones I had in mind were already asked and answered in a Wired interview that ran the day before the debate. Instead, I just chatted casually with him, as did my friend and coworker Chris ‘Pudge’ Nandor, the guy who wrote the song Bohrman used to open the show.

Now it’s time for a little disclosure: Besides being a heavy YouTube uploader and a talented singer/songwriter, Chris works on the famously geeky discussion website, Slashdot, which has been doing email interviews using reader-generated (and reader-selected) questions since 1999. I work on Slashdot, too, as well as other sites owned by its parent company, SourceForge, Inc., so we’re both aware of the perils and joys of soliciting and using reader input.

We’re also well aware of the unreality that often surrounds what I call “manufactured news” events such as press conferences and punditfests — and the GOP/YouTube GOP debate — that typically offer at least as much entertainment as substance.

Another example of unreality here: Chris didn’t write and humbly submit that song. They asked him to write it. No pay was involved, but it has already led to more media coverage for Pudge than many full-time songwriters get in their entire lives. I wish I’d been allowed to turn on my video camera during the broadcast, just to catch Chris’s blushing face live, contrasted with the huge ‘Chris’ on the giant screen next to the stage, and the candidate’s smiles (in some cases a bit forced-looking) when he mentioned each of their names in turn. But all that is available elsewhere, so my inability to capture that moment (due to a strict rule prohibiting non-CNN still or video camera use during the broadcast) is no loss to the world.

You see, Chris didn’t know in advance that they were really going to use his song. He was as surprised as anyone else to see and hear it used as the kickoff for the whole thing. At the same time, I think he was a little disappointed that none of the questions he submitted were asked. Chris is serious about his politics; he’s a Republican Party chairperson in Snohomish County, Washington, and spent quite a bit of time coming up with serious questions for the candidates. No question: He deserves every bit of the attention he’s getting as a result of the CNN/YouTube debate, possibly more than Chuck Norris or Hillary Clinton deserve theirs. But in a way, I think he’d rather get that attention for serious political reasons rather than as an entertainer.

One thing (besides Chris’s blush) I wish I had been able to videotape during the debate was the rows of empty seats in the back of the room. The Mahaffey Theater, where the debate was held, has a stated capacity of 2030. I’d say at a guess, without counting, that between 15% and 20% of those seats were empty. Does this mean the Florida Republican Party, which was the group that handed out tickets, couldn’t find enough Republicans to fill the place, here in the middle of a heavily Republican area? Or was there some other worthiness test given besides Republican registration? There were hundreds of Ron Paul supporters outside; I’m sure many of them would have been happy to come inside and cheer for their candidate.

What’s a “vlogger’s” role at a heavily-covered event?

Since there were mainstream media types all over the place, I obviously wasn’t covering something the “MSM” had overlooked. Instead, with my hand-held Sony A1U video camera, mostly using nothing but a shotgun (on-camera) microphone. I was part of a gigantic media scrum, going elbow-to-elbow with reporter and TV people from all over the world.

Since it seemed pointless to shoot the same people and ask the same questions as everyone else, I decided to make a series of super-short videos that gave an “insider’s eye view” that wouldn’t come through on CNN or other cable or TV outlets. Did I succeed? Got me. Here are some of the videos I shot at the CNN/You GOP debate. Please take a look at them and let me know.

TV Personalities, Reporters, and ‘Vloggers’ – A Study in Contrasts

A YouTube “vlogger” who doesn’t want to be a news pro…

…but still made the best Chuck Norris video of all

CNN producer talks with Chris Nandor

‘Gay General’ Keith Kerr endorses Giuliani

How I saved hundreds of newspapers… and won $2000

It all began when I entered a Prototype Newspaper of the Future contest, sponsored by the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. (Grand prize: $2,000!) Okay, I haven’t exactly won it yet, but my ideas are so cool and innovative that I am sure to win. I doubt that other entries will combine sex, computer-controlled newspaper delivery robots, drugs, and rock and roll. Why, I have so much confidence in my entry, fellow OJR readers, that I am daring you — even double-daring you — to come up with something better.

Idea #1: Sex! Also, cover the future, not just the past and present

Any idiot can write stories about events that have already happened, and even the dumbest, most makeup-wearing TV reporter can bring you “live, on the scene” coverage of events that are happening right now, but only visionaries and psychics can bring you news of events that haven’t happened yet and that, indeed, may never happen at all.

(The contest ad said, “Think big. Think radical.” So I am!)

We all know that the average age of Americans is going up. And recent studies have shown that Americans no longer give up sex once they turn 30. So we already know that one of the hottest job fields in coming years is going to be Geriatric Sex Counseling.

Armed with this knowledge, a smart newspaper will want to have at least two or three certified gerontological orgasmentarianists on staff by the end of this year, in anticipation of this employment trend, instead of waiting for it to happen. Some of the more forward-looking newspapers will probably have entire sections devoted to orgasmentarianism before long, complete with online video instructions in full color made both by staff professionals and volunteer readers with their webcams and camcorders.

A few sticks-in-the mud will no doubt say this is nothing but a way to sell sex. What’s the matter with these people? Haven’t they been watching TV lately? Especially cable? I swear, the tube is full of sex, sex, sex, all the time. Newspapers have fallen behind and need to catch up. Pitching their prurience toward older folks, and cloaking it (and uncloaking it once you click the “I am over 18” box on the Web site) in educational robes, will allow newspaper publishers to claim they are taking the high road instead of catering to the Lower Classes like that boorish Murdoch person and his soon-to-be-launched weekly “Bare Banking Babes” feature in his latest acquisition, the Wall Street Journal.

Note that what I have done here, in this very article, is write about events that have not yet happened. This is proof that it can be done. And if I — a former cab driver, soldier, electronics technican, and limousine owner — can do it, people with enough degrees to work for modern newspaper chains ought to be able to do it even better.

So go forth, newspaper futurists, and tell us tales not only of what is, but of what will (or at least might) be. We will be waiting to read your words of wisdom with bated breath (or possibly baited breath, if we rely on spellcheckers more than we really should).

Idea #2: Decentralized, customized newspaper printing

This one is simple, and really should be happening already. Imagine small printing units near subscribers homes or even mounted in trucks instead of huge, centralized printing plants. Also imagine newspaper vending boxes that carry paper stock and a two-sided printing head instead of pre-printed newspapers.

Voila! Print-on-demand newspapers. No returns. No waste.

Even better, any reader who thinks Mallard Fillmore is the only funny comic, and complains that all MSM writers and editors (except maybe the ones at Faux News) are libral soshulists, can now have a newspaper exactly to his taste.

I’m presenting this idea in a light-hearted way, but it is not a laughing matter. A truck-mounted, GPS-equipped, computer-controlled newspaper delivery “robot” that printed each subscriber’s newspaper as an individual piece would not be hard to build. It will still need a human driver until motor vehicle laws are changed to allow fully-automated vehicles, and it might be more practical to have small, fixed-base printing units spread throughout a newspaper’s circulation area than to make mobile ones, but the result would still be huge savings in transportation, paper stock and printing waste — and the ability to produce an individually-customized print product would be… dare we say it?… priceless.

Idea #3: Drugs + Rock ‘n Roll = Profit

I have a total of seven prescriptions, five of which are for drugs I take daily to control my Type 2 Diabetes and high blood pressure. The other two are semi-optional pain relief and mood alteration meds that help me cope with neuropathy and the stress of nicotine withdrawal I am currently enduring due to my recent decision to stop smoking after nearly 40 years of cigarette use.

I can get all kinds of dry, physician-type information about these drugs with a few search engine clicks. But if I want to know how they’ll make me feel…. nada.

Newspapers run movie reviews, book reviews, concert reviews, and theater reviews. I often rely on The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter for movie-watching decisions. I don’t always follow his recommendations. But after reading his reviews for many years, I know his tastes well enough to know which movies he likes that I will like, too, and — just as important — which ones he doesn’t like that I will.

Why don’t newspapers review drugs the same way they review books and movies? It might be a little hard to have one reviewer test everything from Xanax to chemotherapy treatments, so this is a perfect place for community interaction. My wife, a mild hypochondriac, is not much of a newspaper reader, but if our local paper started running pharmaceutical reviews I’ll bet she’d check that page religiously. She might even contribute to it. So would many of her friends. Wow! A whole new newspaper audience niche! And a whole new set of advertising sales opportunities, too, since the pharma companies would be all over this in a heartbeat.

Add reviews of local doctors, hospitals, clinics, chiropractors, faith healers, and other health care providers, and you’ll have a whole daily section so full of high-value ads that newspaper company shareholders will weep with joy.

Then add free music downloads from local rock bands — and hip hop and grunt rock and reggae and classical and jazz and other kinds of groups and performers — and there would be yet another new audience segment a forward-looking newspaper could glom on to. The Washington Post has an online area where local musicians can upload their work and readers can download it for free, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated since September, 2006. It was a very cool thing that was way ahead of its time when I first saw it in 2002.

Now, of course, local radio has been all but merged out of existence, leaving only Murky Channel-type junk in most media markets, which means newspapers have a golden opportunity to become the primary source of new local music for the local masses. Many papers already sponsor local musical events. This is just a more sophsticated way to do it. In fact, musc downloads could help publicize concerts, and concerts could tout the download service. Synergy to the max!

The 2017 Prototype Newspaper of the Future Contest

In the year 2017, if newspapers are still alive, they’ll be robot-delivered, custom-printed, and Web based. And they will face competition and challenges we can’t even imagine today.

Well, maybe we can imagine some of those challenges…

  • Implanted RFIDs with direct neural conductivity will be all the rage. Tomorrow’s digerati will sneer at old fogies (who are today’s young hotshots) and say, “You mean you still get your news from the Internet? On a computer? Eww!”
  • With direct neural connections, Smell-O-Vision will finally become reality. So will Feel-O-Vision. Instead of just watching a football game, you’ll be hooked directly to the players’ own nervous systems. You’ll be right there in the huddle, smelling the Quarterback’s sweat. And when the player you’re hooked to gets tackled, “I feel your pain” will no longer be something funny the first President Clinton once said. Instead, you’ll feel pain so real that you’ll be curled up on the floor, sobbing, as you clutch your broken ankle.
  • Porn is going to be amazing in the world of Feel-O-Vision. Teledildonics will be one of America’s hottest growth industries. Progressive newspapers will start hiring porn reviewers. But they will no longer have book reviewers because hardly anyone will still read anything except tech manuals — and by 2017 most tech manuals will be videos on disc, produced in Vietnam or Alabama (India will be way too expensive by then), not old-style paper books.
  • It will be no problem outsourcing virtually all reporting to lower-cost countries because we’ll have security cameras everywhere so remote reporters can see everything. (They’ll use remote-controlled reporter robots to cover places where there are no permanently-mounted cameras).
  • At some point, there will be a scandal over “altered” feelings in a Feel-O-Vision newscast. The Online News Association will hold many roundtable discussions about the ethics of modifying FeelFeeds (which is what I think we’ll call direct neurological hookups) and whether audiences should be linked to soldiers as they die in the Endless War that will still be going on in Iraq.

The one bright spot in all this is that beginning journalists will no longer need to send resumes to thousands of newspapers, TV stations, and FeelFeed outlets in order to break into the field. There will only be one news company, and an artificial intelligence based on the (by then) late Rupert Murdoch’s brain will control it. Journalists will either work for this company or will be forced to find another line of work, which will make life simpler and easier for almost everyone.

– 30 –

Copyright 2017 by the Online Journalism and FeelFeed Review, published by the USC Murdoch School of Journalism. All rights are held by the Murdoch School of Journalism. No one — not even the author — may reprint, retransmit, FeelFeed, quote or even discuss this article without express permission from the copyright holder.

How newspapers can thrive on the World Wide Web

Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller is Editor in Chief for OSTG, owner of Slashdot, NewsForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, SourceForge.net, and the ecommerce site ThinkGeek.

I live in Bradenton, Florida, where we have two local newspapers, the Bradenton Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Neither one has a very good website. Both are steadily losing print subscribers and advertisers, just like most newspapers around the country. [Editor’s note: See the comments below for a response from an editor at the Herald-Tribune.] Still, newspapers are usually the most recoginizable media brands in their communities, and should be able to translate that brand recognition into local online information dominance. Here’s how they can do it.

Where’s the calendar?

One of the most useful services a local information medium can provide is a comprehensive events calander. My local newspapers list many events but in scattershot fashion, with political events here, city council meetings and other official gatherings over there, sports in their own corner, and other social and business events in their own sections or mentioned in little articles published in no particular order, in no particular place.

In a world of free databases and simple PHP Web-building tools, it is no big trick to put together a comprehensive online calander that can be searched in many ways, including type of event (high school sports, zoning board, musical performance), date (all events on Febtober 38, 2101), and location (within X miles of Zip Code XXXXX).

A website that can tell me about every upcoming meeting of the Bradenton City Council and every upcoming appearance of my favorite local bands and alert me to the next meeting of the Tamiami Trail Business Association is going to get a lot of visits from me — and from a lot of other people, too.

Maintaining a comprehensive local calendar takes work, but it is not highly-skilled work that requires a journalism degree or other specialized education. Anyone with good typing skills, the ability to send and receive faxes and emails, and enough self-discipline to call organizations and government agencies regularly to check the accuracy of their listings ought to be able to handle it.

Many years ago, when I wrote freelance for Baltimore’s weekly City Paper, I learned that even if my name and story were on the cover, more people picked up City Paper to read the events calendar, produced by two anonymous people in City Paper’s office, than to read my work. Events calendars may not feed journalists’ egos, but a good one is probably more important to more people’s lives, day in and day out, than an endless series of hard-hitting investigative pieces — and costs a lot less, too.

I suspect that two or at most three people could maintain a comprehensive online calendar for all of Southwest Florida or any other medium-sized metropolitan area. Add one or two aggressive salespeople who understand ad targeting (and a targeted ad-delivery system), and you not only have a valuable local resource, but one that ought to bring in substantial profits.

Beat local TV at its own game

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune carries lots of video news clips these days, but it’s all just like TV news, because that’s what is is: pickups from the associated (Comcast cable) SSN6 news channel. Most of their video clips are anchor-read items, very short, with 10-second pre-roll ads and post-roll ads that are often longer than the news items themselves.

Experienced H-T site users soon learn to close their video pages as soon as the actual stories are over to avoid the overly long post-roll ads, so they probably don’t do much good for the businesses that pay for them. Worse, they are repeated endlessly; the same old ads run over and over instead of fresh ones constantly being plugged into the rotation.

It’s almost as if someone in an executive capacity at the Herald-Tribune took a course in how to deliver TV-style news as badly as possible, then came home and put everything he or she learned into practice on the paper’s website.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post and New York Times run interesting and engaging news videos, made by print reporters who often do their own camerawork. Post and Times news videos don’t look like TV news at all. For one thing, the average story length is minutes, not seconds. For another, they have better and more probing interviews, and use more ordinary people and fewer official sources on-camera than most TV news shows. Sometimes the camera movements are a little more casual than what you see on big-city or network TV news, and the reporters aren’t nearly as dolled-up as TV reporters, but that’s okay. It helps give these newspaper-based videos a “take you there” quality that formulaic TV news lacks.

It is now possible to outfit a reporter with a “backpack video” newsgathering rig, including a high-definition digital camcorder, all necessary sound equipment, and a compact tripod, for less than $3000. This equipment is nearly 100% “point and shoot,” too. It doesn’t take any great technical skill to operate.

Print reporters moving to video still need to learn how to frame shots correctly, to be aware of lighting conditions, and how to set up and check sound gear, but all of this can be learned through hands-on practice augmented by regular critiques and advice from peers and, possibly, independent filmmakers called in as trainers and consultants.

Indeed, the way I would organize a newspaper’s video news efforts would be to hire at least one experienced TV documentary director to lead the effort, who would also do most of the video editing until reporters learned enough of this arcane art to handle most of it on their own. I would also recruit a group of video stringers who might or might not be experienced journalists. Local TV stations large and medium-sized markets all seem to have helicopters these days. For a fraction of the cost of running a single news helicopter, a newspaper could field a veritable army of “backpack videographers” who could provide intense, close-up coverage of events that now get overlooked by TV news operations — or that are covered only from 1000 feet in the air instead of from ground-level.

“Boots on the ground” is Army-talk for how you win wars. Air power is nice, but if you really want to take and hold a piece of territory, you need infantry to occupy it. Newspapers have always been the infantry of the news business. They should take this same attitude as they move into video.

They should be careful not to overwhelm their video viewers with advertising, too. My rule would be to hold pre-roll and post-roll video ads to a maximum total of 15% of the length of any given video clip. The only reason to brak this rule is with a videos less than 60 seconds long, which can legimately carry a simple “sponsored by” message — preferably at the end, not the beginning.

Stringers everywhere

In a world where citizen journalism is becoming ever more popular, newspapers can either fight the trend — and lose — or go along with it and adopt it. Jay Rosen, of New York University, put together an experiment in “pro-am” journalism called Assignment Zero that has shown some of the joys and problems associated with mobilizing volunteer citizen journalists and teaming them up with professional reporters and editors. I don’t see Assignment Zero as a model for building a stringer-based local news-gathering operation, but as learning tool that can teach us both how to do it and how not to do it.

For one thing, newspapers cannot rely on volunteers. They must pay their stringers because they, themselves, are almost all for-profit operations, and if they don’t pay people who write for them, the people they want most will post their stories on their own sites and blogs instead of giving them to their local newspaper — or even to a hyper-local news site.

A stunning reality newspaper people and other publishers are just starting to figure out is that the financial barrier to entry for independent news disseminators is now close to zero, and that it is no longer hard for an independent to gather his or her own audience.

As an example, let’s use a Google search for Bradenton video. You’d expect that search to be dominated by TV station websites, but it’s not. My personal site dominates, interspersed with ads from local wedding videographers. Stories and videos on my site, and that I have posted elsewher, also come up at or near the top of many other local searches. If a local newspaper offers me a chance to “get published” I am going to laugh. I am published, and popular, without any help from other local media. And I can put ads on my site (I have none at this time) and generate income from it, too.

The thing is, I am not special. A retiree who compulsively covers city council, county commission, and zoning board meetings and writes about them consistently for a year or more will also place well in search engine rankings, often higher in many searches than the local newspapers’ own (inconsistent) coverage of government meetings.

Net-hip readers will also subscribe to our retiree’s RSS feed, which boosts his or her readership even more.

Other ordinary people can (and often do) run sites and blogs that cover topics ranging from real estate to punk rock. And every one of them can easily sign up for paid ad programs with Google or dozens of smaller (and often more lucrative) context-based online ad networks.

Newspapers should be out scouting for successful local bloggers — not the ones who do two-sentence links to stories published elsewhere, but those who do original reporting — and offering them a chance to put their material on the newspapers’ sites instead of their own. For pay.

The next stage is to team the paper’s staff reporters and editors with the stringers. A majority of breaking news will probably still be covered by staff reporters, with stringers working on longer-fuse pieces, although there will certainly be cases where a stringer who is on call — perhaps one equipped with a video rig — will be able to get to a breaking story’s scene faster than a staffer.

Following the Assignment Zero model, while hopefully avoiding Assignment Zero’s problems, can lead to a situation where professional reporters spend a significant amount of their time as team leaders and organizers. Some will dislike thier “coach” role, but others will thrive in an environment where they have the luxury of essentially being in two places (or more) at once. Instead of deciding which one of several important events to attend, a team-leading reporter will decide which team member attends which one.

Reporter-led newsgathering teams will not only be able to be in more places, gathering more information, than any single reporter, but will have more and deeper ties to the community they cover than any individual reporter. A well-chosen reporting team will be able to get more and more accurate quotes from ordinary citizens, patrol cops, and even from criminals than a reporter who is not part of the community he or she covers. And even a locally-bred reporter doesn’t know everyone and everything. Diversity of experience in a reporting team will lead to more and more-balanced coverage than we see now, which will bring a new level of public trust to newspapers that employ this newsgathering method.

Meanwhile, on the ad sales side…

When I wrote freelance for Time Life Media (now Time Digital) in the early days of the commercial, ad-supported Web, a staff editor told me their main problem with ad sales was that their sales force’s commission structure made it unprofitable for a sales rep to go after contracts smaller than $100,000 per quarter. At the time, there were nowhere near enough online readers, even on Time’s mighty group of sites, to justify ad buys at that level, so their sites were notably free of income-producing ads.

A newspaper that dedicates itself to becoming a major Internet-based force in its community needs to have an ad sales force that shares that mission, staffed by people who understand both the advantages and disadvantages of online advertising as opposed to print advertising. Those salespeople must have a more innovative attitude than a print salesperson. Online ads are no longer just banners stuck at the tops and bottoms of pages. You have inline ads, interstitials, the possibility of entire (clearly marked) advertorial sections, video advertising, and so on.

Traditional classifieds may be lost to Craiglist, so lost that when the Bradenton Herald wanted to find a Director of Interactive Media, they placed this ad — on Craigslist. But what about premium listings in the events calendar? Or making sure that calendar has plenty of free garage sale listings and other reasons for shoppers to turn to it, then marketing text ads in it to local businesses for special sales and events at classified-like rates?

Search-based ads help you shop for something you already want or need, but they can’t create a desire for a new product or service, so there is still plenty of room for creative advertising, especially online, and most especially for newspapers and other media that can sell clients not only ads or links but also work with them to build landing pages that actually sell, not the blah things we usually click through to once, but never again.

Another online advertising area I haven’t yet seen exploited well is coupon distribution. For many years, newspapers have boasted that their Sunday editions carried $XXX worth of coupons. Where is the online equivalent? There is no printing cost associated with an online coupon. Organizing online coupons so they are easy to find is no big trick. It’s another database job, just like the calendar.

Coupons can make great ads on a newspaper website’s pages, but a whole section devoted to coupons (possibly with an accompanying stringer-generated blog pointing to special deals noticed by readers) could become a reader draw on its own, not to mention a decent income-generator.

This is only a beginning

A newspaper that took all of these suggestions about how to run its website, and put the same amount of energy and budget into promoting it as it does into drumming up print subscribers, ought to be able to run its site at a profit within a year or two, and with enough diligence and energy may eventually be able to make its website replace profits lost as its print edition loses steam.

My suggestions here are a starting place. Astute, Web-hip publishers and editors will not only implement my suggestions (or do similar things), but will also find or develop other, possibly better ideas to make their online publications attractive to both readers and advertisers.

The real question is not whether we will see the development of dominant local online news operations run by Web-hip publishers and editors, but whether those Web-hip publishers and editors will work for existing local newspapers or for new, Web-only publications that eventually replace newspapers as the dominant source of local news.

With newspapers typically owning the most-recognizable local news brands, they would seem to be the logical ones to dominate local online news, but they can’t rely only on their branding to make it work. Their new competition is not only other established media companies — notably local broadcast and cable TV — but nearly anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, writing or video production skills, and enough time on their hands to consistently post new stories on a homemade website.

And with constant newspaper layoffs, some of the people running their own websites are likely to be just as skileld as the people running the newspapers they compete against, so the competition for local online news dominance is going to be… let’s just say “interesting”… to watch over the next decade or so.