It's time for the newspaper industry to die

My wife pointed me to a recent Chicago Tribune profile of violinist Rachel Barton Pine. The story itself is amazing, that of a promising solo artist whose career was jeopardized in a freak commuter train accident but who fought back to continue her career. Beyond that, though, the article’s play on the Tribune’s website illustrated, for me, some of the challenges that continue to frustrate so many people and companies in the newspaper business.

Howard Reich’s profile is a great piece of newspaper reporting. My wife and I were stunned by level of detail and fresh information the Tribune classical music writer found in this decade-old story. [Full disclosure: Pine maintains her personal blog on my wife’s website, an online community for violinists.] The Tribune story truly is an outstanding example of what this industry does best. There’s even original video to supplement it online. So why should this work, in any way, be representative of some problem?

The problem wasn’t with anything that happened up until the moment of this article’s publication in the newspaper. The problems developed later, once the piece went on the Web, with the public’s reaction to the story.

A member on my wife’s website sent her a note tipping her to the piece. But the member wondered if the story was “legitimate.” Since the member did not live in the Midwest, she – believe it or not – had not heard of the Chicago Tribune and did not know that it was a newspaper. All she knew was that she’d stumbled onto an extraordinarily long piece and she wondered if it had been commissioned by Pine herself.

It’s too easy to forget that, as powerful as newspaper brands might be in their local markets, most consumers don’t know the names of any newspapers from cities where they haven’t lived. Maybe they know the big national papers, such as the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal. Heck, even news professional don’t know the identity of many small- and medium-market papers. I’ve lost count of the times my wife and I have tried to link to a newspaper story from our websites, only to be frustrated by our inability to figure out just where in the world the “Pioneer Herald,” or whatever, is located because the publication didn’t bother putting its city’s name on its website.

Brands have power only to those familiar with them. For everyone else, they’re left to make a guess about a publication’s credibility only on the basis of the content they see on that first page they click to on the publication’s website.

In this case, the reader found a tiny byline, with no link to the author’s impressive biography. Much online content is driven by personality, from individual blogs, discussion forum responses, personal profiles to YouTube mash-ups. This truly is a writer’s medium. So an article without a prominent byline, or blogger ID, prompts many readers to wonder “just where is this coming from?” Especially if it doesn’t read like a typical, dry, straight off the wire, conventional news report, as Reich’s engaging profile did not.

Newspapers employ some of the best writers in their communities. They ought to be treating those writers as the valuable assets they are, and providing them the same level of credit on their stories that top bloggers take on their posts. Where are the mugshots, the links to biographies and to other stories written by the same author? That information isn’t there just to stroke a writer’s ego; it should be there to help establish that writer’s credibility with a potentially global online audience.

But what really got me shaking my head were the comments reacting to the article. [More disclosure: The Tribune’s comments section runs on the Topix platform, and Topix is a financial supporter of OJR.]

As of when I wrote this piece, the Pine article had elicited more than 160 comments from readers. Some of the comments ripped into Pine and the article, often based on widespread misinformation about Pine that Reich refuted in the piece. (Initial reports said that Pine was run over by a commuter train when she refused to let go of the strap to her multi-million-dollar violin, which was trapped in the train’s door. Reich reported that the strap had wound around Pine’s arm, making it impossible for her to free herself.) Other readers tried to correct them, and flame wars broke out all over the section, as the comments drifted from diatribes on the treatment of Iraq War veterans to arguments about jury verdicts. (Pine won a multi-million dollar judgment against the train agency.)

Nowhere in the comments section, however, did readers hear anything from a staffer at the Tribune. No one with that authority stepped in to admonish the rude, correct those who posted wrong information, or to respond to those who had questions about the story. Without that leadership, the Tribune lost the opportunity to forge a community based on these readers’ common interest in this engaging story. Readers were left just to argue among themselves.

The hostility and confusion in this article’s comments section reflected upon the Tribune’s credibility, to that member of my wife’s website. She, and other readers, saw a leader-less debate. Might they not wonder if the rest of this site lacked leadership as well? Or, if they’d wandered onto another unmoderated forum, of the type that litter so much of the Web?

That someone might jump to such a conclusion on a website run by an organization with the reporting power and local credibility of the Chicago Tribune probably makes no sense to people within the news industry. But few readers are industry insiders. They have little or no concept how this sausage gets made.

I love computers. I love the power of smart computer programming to help enable and encourage smart online communities. But programs alone don’t do squat. Every responsible online community needs, and has, human leadership in addition to useable tools. Newspaper newsrooms need to extend the production cycle of their content beyond the moment of an article’s publication in print. Reporters and editors need to stay engaged with a piece so long as people are commenting on it and linking to it. Otherwise, they are squandering their chance to use that amazing content as the foundation to build the communities that can sustain market success online. Who wants to belong to the fight club?

Yes, I sympathize with overworked, underpaid reporters who wonder how the heck they’re going to get the paper out tomorrow with 10 percent, or more, of their colleagues being shown the door by a panicked management. The last thing they want is another set of responsibilities, especially for articles they’ve already written and published. There’s another paper to get out tomorrow, after all.

That’s why it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the newspaper industry to reform its basic production processes to support online community building, so long as the industry sees itself as the “newspaper” industry.

That’s why it is time for the “newspaper” industry to die.

Words matter. So long as newsrooms see themselves as “newspapers,” the needs of that medium will dictate the organization’s production process. And things like online community management will be left to automated tools, and, maybe, a few supplemental staffers.

I’m not arguing that newsrooms should stop printing papers. They should continue, as they should offer their work in any medium for which there is significant public demand. But the day quickly approaches when successful news businesses will liberate themselves from the term “newspaper company.”

Only then can they end their focus on the old way of doing things and fully accept the possibility of a completely new one. One where reporters become as mildly concerned with production of a printed newspaper product as they have been with the production of the online one until now.

Great content and great tools are not enough to build the large, habitual audience that content publishers will need to maximize their opportunities to make money online, through advertising and sales. Even more than those two things, a website needs great engagement with its readers. And engagement with the public is something that’s been budgeted out of too many newsrooms over the past generation.

It’s time to bring that back. It’s time to do that online. And if a beloved label needs to be sacrificed to inspire the innovation that will enable this effort, so be it. It’s time for the “newspaper” industry to die. Because we all need the news industry to survive.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Suzanne Batchelor says:

    A very good point. It’s counterproductive to leave the comments section without oversight. Letting inappropriate comments fill the space and appropriate queries go unanswered discourages and discounts those readers who want to discuss the piece or learn more — they’re dissed, basically. It’s like letting hecklers take over a meeting. At least one publication I’ve read online sets a time limit (a week or two?) for active commenting, with editor/writer oversight, then freezes the comments section, keeping it archived along with the article.

    At a minimum, though, at least edit out inappropriate comments. I’ve seen comments posted under newspaper pieces that related to entirely different topics (sports comments under political news, etc.), plus the rude stuff.

  2. says:

    Good article.

    Do you think you could move the great big Yahoo ad to the side with the rest of the ads, instead of right under the byline?

    Putting – as text – right into the story like that makes it look like this is a ‘Yahoo approved’ article. Which is probably is. But don’t be so obvious.

  3. Eric Mankin says:

    Regarding irresponsible comments – the best way to get rid of pathological loons taking over discussions is to require real names for participation. Anonymity begets irresponsibility.

  4. says:

    Just because a reader has never heard of a newspaper does not diminish its credibility. I agree newspapers need to move on, but not to make it easier for people who don’t understand the media. It’s so that news can continue to be provided to those who are interested and the watchdog role can continue.

  5. That quickly melts into the “if a tree falls in a forest…” argument. If a newspaper has “credibility,” but a reader does not perceive it, does that “credibility” exist for that reader?

  6. Eric Mankin says:

    Credibility is earned over years; it’s the main and irreplaceable asset that newspapers have. It’s currently being squandered in city after city by takeover owners trying to squeeze out extra pennies. The point about the need to rethink and remake newspapers as news organizations is absolutely on target. But this will take both brains and money, both of which seem scarce in the present environment.

    Does anyone know how the Madison Cap Times is doing since it folded its print edition completely?

  7. Jeff Shrewsbury says:

    In regards to the post by Eric Mankin…

    Newspaper executives will never, EVER require real names before posting comments. To do so would deter clicks and cut into their hit counts, and since the dinosaurs in charge think hits are all the web is about, that’s terrifying to them.

    It’s debatable, of course, whether hit counts really matter that much any more, but the old guys need something to hold on to as their industry evolves out from beneath them.

  8. Eric Mankin says:

    Which is just silly. No self-respecting paper would ever publish a letter to the editor under a patently bogus name: they would lose, um, credibility, which makes their company less valuable.

    And it’s not even clear that requiring real names would lower the click count; while it is clear that it would raise the click quality. What advertiser wants to have his toy store or furniture outlet ad alongside ravings by foul mouthed ranters and obvious cranks?

  9. says:

    After swearing I’d never read yet another “newspapers are dying” article, I am so glad I didn’t take my own advice and went ahead and read this one. You wrote some of the most dead-on statements about the industry I’ve yet to read. And sometimes it seems I do nothing BUT read article after hand-wringing article about the death of journalism.

    Why people who are sitting on a stable/goldmine of say, Pulitzer-winning writers, yet do nothing to brand or market such writers has always baffled me. Hell, the poor writers’ egos alone would surely profit by such a tact.

  10. The newsroom environment hasn’t exactly encouraged this kind of (necessary) media leadership from its rank-n-file, missing a terrific community-building opportunity in the process.

    The broadcast industry is “getting it” though. Slowly. Just today, I recieved the first emailed promo from a cameraman, one who’s been in the broadcast news industry for over 30 years. His quick note touted an excellent series that he’d been DP on, of profiles about an extraordinary person. I doubt I would have ever watched the TV series though had he not taken the time to email me and tell me about them and his work shooting the stories. (They aired originally on morning TV; I never watch morning TV.)

    Yet just now, April 5, 2008, was this one network cameraman tapping into his vast personal network to illuminate his work in an industry where he’s considered at the very top of the profession. Maybe he never realized just how vast his network really was. More likely is he never realized how VALUABLE it was! And likely no one in news management ever thought to consider its value either… this one cameraman, out of droves of ENG types, sitting right there in their very own industry… literally right under their noses.

    Then again, this particular DP had been layed-off by his network two years ago, and is now out on his own trying to earn a living by himself, doing what he’s done all his life. (He’s still in the union though. I wonder if he had to get permission from a shop steward to email the promo around?!)

    Once the blanket of job security, and with it a sometimes dogged complacency, is taken away from people, it’s amazing how fast they begin to reach out to shore-up and build-out their personal social networks. Indeed, you could argue that their very survival is now utterly dependant on doing just that.

    I seriously doubt newspaper management has ever been “hungry” enough to look for value in social network leadership. I say lay-off a few more upper management types; only THEN will you see more of what you talk about here begin to happen.

  11. says:

    Hi, everyone! “Google alerts” sent me an email about this blog, and as an avid newspaper reader (computers don’t work so well at the breakfast table), I thought it was fascinating.

    Regarding online media and message boards, I really don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, never having pondered the issue before now.

    However, I thought I would share with you one interesting phenomenon. The last time I was highly visible in the mainstream Chicago media (as opposed to the arts sections) was in the the late ’90’s and early 2000’s. I would often open my email in-box to find many “hate mails” from strangers, who must have taken the trouble to google me, find my website, and personally send me their nasty notes. But this time, I guess they’ve all been able to get it out of their system on the Chicago Tribune’s web site, and I haven’t gotten a single hate mail, for which I’m very grateful.

    Rachel Barton Pine 🙂

  12. That’s a great point, which I hadn’t thought about until you mentioned it. I would love to hear from other journalists and public figures about the effect of public message boards on direct, private feedback to new stories. Is Rachel’s experience typical now?

  13. says:

    I disagree that a newspaper has any obligation to comment or moderate the comment section. Any attempt to “censor” comments would anyhow be rather futile.

    What would be desirable though is that comment sections employ the self-moderation techniques which has been pioneered by Slashdot. Readers can assign positive or negative points to comments and set a minimum threshold of points below which they will not see comments. This is very effective in keeping the riff-raff invisible. Far more effective than any single person could ever be.

    In other words, the newspapers are just technologically behind a few years. As these techniques become more common (YouTube is using a similar system for example) the newspapers will eventually deploy them, I have no doubt about that.

  14. Eric Mankin says:

    >I disagree that a newspaper has any obligation to comment or moderate the comment section. Any attempt to “censor” comments would anyhow be rather futile.

    Neither I nor (I think) anyone else has suggested this. All I’ve said is that newspapers should insist that people commenting do so under real names. This is not an effort “censor comments.” The Slashdot system, by contrast, is vulnerable to manipulation by online buddy-groups who can knock off not ‘riff-raff’ but enemies.

  15. says:

    Are you talking about comments at How is the newspaper going to control that?

  16. Topix is a platform, available to newspaper-dot-coms under contract. (FWIW, I believe that Tribune is a part-owner of Topix, and it is used on many Trib Co. websites.) There’s nothing inherent within the Topix platform that prevents a staff member of a contracting publication from using it. Just because you outsource the tech, doesn’t mean you’ve outsourced its execution.

  17. says:

    I often read the comments on the Tribune Website, and comment myself. Sometime, I admit, my comments are attempts at wry humor, but always relate to the story. I am always shocked, however, at the comments that appear with any story relating to crime and especially if the victim or perp is a minority. Stories of kids killed by guns are always filled with rants about how good it is to “get another gangbanger off the street.” School shooting stories are always filled with pro-concealed firearms rants. Any story that includes a hispanic name is always filled with some of the most vicious anti-illegal immigrant and racist material I have seen. I wonder if people were tracked down and asked in person about their own words,what would they say.

  18. says:

    I agree. It’s ludicrous to allow a reporters reputation to be pock-marked by baseless, unjustified sniping. Seriously: what other industry but journalism publicizes customer feedback, whether it’s true or not? Can anyone imagine Joe’s Pizza Shop allowing customers to say “this pizza sucks” and “there are rats in the kitchen” in a comment box at the bottom of the homepage?

  19. says:

    > insist that people commenting do so under real names

    Really? And exactly how do plan to enforce this?

    Just a heads up — you can’t.


  20. says:

    I liked the content, but since you don’t really want newspapers to actually go away, I wish you hadn’t put that in your article. We in the news business need to quit writing about the demise of our own companies, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy!

  21. says:

    I totally agree about the papers that put the title of their paper on their website, but can’t seem to figure out that the name of their city & state also matter.
    Romanesko often links to them & it takes a lot of drilling down into the site to find that simple piece of information.
    That info should be part of every byline in every paper!

  22. says:

    a) Open the print edition of Information Week (a tech business trade magazine) and you will find that, not only do they permit commenting via pseudonym on the website, they run “letters to the editor” that way too. I’m with you, Eric — those submissions hold no credibility for me. But apparently, if the comment has value (positive, negative, inflammatory, whatever), it’s considered fair game for publication IN PRINT. Weird.
    b) where does this personality-driven culture leave The Economist, a magazine that never uses bylines yet is one of the few print publications with rising readership?

  23. Eric Mankin says:

    >> insist that people commenting do so under real names
    >Really? And exactly how do plan to enforce this?

    The way newspapers do with print letters. Registration (confidential) for comment has to include a verifiable physical address, phone number & name. Not perfect, a little cumbersome, sure.

    > you can’t.
    Not if you don’t try, or don’t care. And doing it certainly doesn’t keep the foamers from howling at the moon on their own blogs and elsewhere. But as ol’ noted, ” what other industry but journalism publicizes customer feedback, whether it’s true or not? Can anyone imagine Joe’s Pizza Shop allowing customers to say “this pizza sucks” and “there are rats in the kitchen” in a comment box at the bottom of the homepage?”

  24. Michael Dupras says:

    I suspect that most news site commenting policies are based on legal issues rather than journalistic ones. The more reviewing and moderating of comments a news organization does, the more legally responsible it is for their content. They allow a free-for-all because to do otherwise would leave them legally exposed.

    Requiring full names and contact information would discourage but certainly not eradicate anonymous posting. You can type anything in those little boxes. And while using contact information to verify the identity of letter writers is practical in print, where space is limited and control is maximized, it’s not so online, where the comments on a single story could outnumber all the letters-to-the-editor a newspaper publishes in a week or even a month.

    It’s a conundrum sliding down a slippery slope into a quagmire.

  25. Eric Mankin says:

    Regarding the reviewing: I don’t think a court would think not reviewing anything at all, and allowing anything to be posted would be a good defense if aggrieved push came to litigation shove. It also does not make a news organization look good.

    Regarding filling in boxes: if you just fill in boxes with fictions, you won’t receive your package from Amazon or your download from iTunes. It takes a little engineering and ingenuity, to keep it honest without being too burdensome, but it is possible. What you do have to be careful about is keeping whatever backup info is collected absolutely confidential – but that’s not impossible either.

  26. Michael Dupras says:

    I don’t disagree, and I’m certainly no lawyer. But as I understand the legal position of our site, it’s that if the comments are reviewed and then posted, the site is then considered to be “publishing” those comments and therefore responsible for their content. If commenting is presented as an “open forum,” then it’s the poster alone that’s responsible.

    I should add that our site reviews comments after they are posted and removes anything offensive, etc. The issue of when the comment is reviewed is the rub.

    Whatever the legalities, our site’s position is that not reviewing comments before posting is legally the safest, least-exposed route. I’m guessing other sites take that approach for similar reasons.

    But personally I agree with you, for the reasons you and others state. Not only does “free-for-all” commenting erode credibility, it also encourages the conversation devolving into flame-wars and off-topic rants, as others here have pointed out. And when that happens, it in turn discourages legitimate, thoughtful discourse.

    The industry as a whole should keep working on this issue, as you say, and try to come up with a better solution than the anonymous, free-for-all that seems to be the standard.

  27. Michael Dupras says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t like the policy or agree with it, and I scratch my head about how it works legally. But that’s what I understand about how “they” see it, and I wonder if that’s not how a lot of sites see it and why they don’t do the hard-but-important work of coming up with a better solution.

  28. Eric Mankin says:

    >But as I understand the legal position of our site, it’s that if the comments are reviewed and then posted, the site is then considered to be “publishing” those comments and therefore responsible for their content. If commenting is presented as an “open forum,” then it’s the poster alone that’s responsible.

    I’m not a lawyer, but if something got to court I’d love to hear the argument.

    “Yes, judge, we’re a respected newspaper, in the business of trying to serve our readers and our community with responsible journalism, finding the facts as best we can, carefully editing, and speedily acknowledging errors if we make them. However, we do maintain this mud pit on our news site in which anonymous anybodies and obvious losers are allowed to make noise, often insulting our organization, our reporters, public officials and everyone else in the process.
    “Judge, I hear you asking ‘why?’ The answer is, we think if we stick with it long enough and get enough noise going we can make money by selling ads. In a journalistically sound manner, of course. But of course we’re not responsible for what shows up there.”

    Call me a star-eyed idealist, but it seems to me that if papers – make that post-newspaper news organizations – can find a way to get into the business of building online communities, zip-code by zip-code, of real citizens who themselves get involved in the enterprise, helping neighbors find like minded neighbors, they might sacrifice a few hits at first, and it would take longer, but the journey would be worth the time and the cost. It’s a new definition of subscriber.

  29. says:

    We run the Chicago Tribune Forums here at Topix and for what its worth, I agree with the article’s main point — which is that it’s a shame that reporters and other folks on the editorial side aren’t more involved in the discussions that evolve from the articles.

    For the record, the forums on the Chicago Tribune *are* moderated — both preprocessed to get rid of true horror, and the folks at the Tribune actually have staff which take a look at the commentary, and ectively edit things which are violations of the terms of service.

    I disagree that doing away with anonymous comments does any good besides getting rid of 4/5 of yoru commentary, and I have the numbers on my side:

    We know as much about the anonymous people as we do about the registered users, when it really comes down to where you live — and we have some pretty good tools to deal with problem folks.

    But – again – I think the interesting opportunity for a news organization is to get involved in the discussions to a much greater degree — that would uplevel things a lot in my opinion, and its a shame that the culture of the newsroom is still pretty uncomfortable with the reporters and ediotrs going in and mixing it up in the commentary.

    We’re always ready to take criticism of what we’re providing folks like the Tribune, and we’re constantly trying to improve what we do here.

    I *am* happy to see that this article got 160 comments, because I’m a believer that the level of interation and interest is, in fact, the measure of success for content on the web. If people aren’t commenting, whatever you wrote probably doesn’t matter that much.

  30. says:

    Robert Niles, very important article, and the comments are also a must-read by all reporters, bloggers, and editors the world over.

    What I think is real important is comparing comments on blog to “letters to the editor” in print newspapers and online letters section, which are always vetted, checking to make sure the writer is who he/she says he she is, phone number to check etc, and these letters to editor as always shortened, edited, and monitored to make sure there are no flames wars or attacks on people etc… you are right, comments sections need to be monitored by PEOPLE, by editors trained in editing and fact-checking and checking to make sure the person is who she he says she he is…….if we start treating comment sections in blogs like letters to the editor of print newspapers, there would be a much better conversation here. Let’s get working on this. Robert, your article is an important wake uo call to the news and blogging community worldwide. I hope the New York Times interviews you on this important story.

    — Danny

  31. says:

    Here is the caveat from the Tribune website at the comment area:
    Please note by clicking on “Post Comment” you acknowledge that you have read the Terms of Service and the comment you are posting is in compliance with such terms. Be polite. Inappropriate posts may be removed by the moderator. Send us your feedback.

    In contrast, NYT, for example, does not open all articles for comments and moderates ALL comments before posting for topicality as well as courtesy.

  32. Eric Mankin says:

    I am very glad that the Tribune’s (can I call you “.43” for short?) has come forward to offer the view from the newspaper/webmaster POV. One thing that struck me was that the point raised repeatedly earlier — liability for irresponsible lies — apparently is not an issue at all: Artificial Intelligence deals with most of it.

    In terms of the defense offered for anonymous posting:
    I can do no better than recommend that people read the comments about the policy posted on the site regarding how this works out in practice, including case histories from Indianapolis, Akron & etc. Maybe they just need better AI. These are extremely eloquent.

    There is also the ‘let them be heard!” issue:
    We are told that requirements for real id are somehow elitist, that the unruly commentators are, I quote, “not barbarians that appeared one day the net went up. They

  33. says:

    If nobody wants to wade through hundreds of unmoderated comments, then why would marketers want that? They wouldn’t get any clicks.

    Readers and commenters are fully capable of distinguishing between specious posts and more thoughtful ones.

  34. Eric Mankin says:

    >Readers and commenters are fully capable of distinguishing between specious posts and more thoughtful ones.

    Sure they are. And they have all the time in the world to read it all, all those dozens and dozens of strung on, mostly anonymous comments, smart, dumb, nutty and irrelevant, and nowhere else on the web to go.

    Readers are also smart enough to distinguish well-run sites from digital mental health wards run by the inmates. So, I think, are advertisers, if you give them a chance.