How A Web Newspaper Should Be Built

February 27, 2009

Every day lately you read about newspapers in trouble or being shut down. The old model of news + ads + printing + delivery simply doesn't work in the current webified world. Many existing newspaper companies are trying to be on the web with limited (financial) success while they continue to live in the old world as well.

It's not going to work.

So what should a web newspaper be like?

Let's go back to what a newspaper is for. I the reader want to know what is happening around me, around the region, around the nation, around the world. I don't have time or expertise or contacts to do it myself. I want to know if Mayor Quimby is spending my tax dollar on hookers, what the politicians are doing to my wallet, how my local teams are faring and how the world is screwing up again. Somewhere someone has to dig into these stories, get the facts, write them up and get paid for the work. Then whatever of this information I am interested in needs to get to me.

That in a nutshell is what I want. I don't want to see ads unless its something I am interested in. I don't want to go to 100 different sites to read the articles. I don't want to see things I am not interested in until I become so. I want to get news and information from specific places or categories or keywords and change them whenever it suits me. I want my news my way and entirely in one place.

I'm willing to pay 25¢ per day for this.

That doesn't sound like enough money to support a bloated newspaper company with printers and ink and trucks and delivery people and ad salesmen and massive infrastructure. It's isn't and it shouldn't be.

First forget print and delivery. Second forget everything but reporting and media and editorial. Third forget redundancy and overlap. Fourth forget web access. Finally forget ads unless they are content.

This is the model for what a "newspaper" system should be. Newspaper Diagram

The top layer organization can be local, city, state, regional, national, specialized, whatever. They gather news and generate content. They range in size from the neighborhood gossiper to international in scope. All they have is reporters and media (photography etc) and editors, computers and maybe some vehicles. They create this content at whatever pace makes sense. There are no deadlines. When it's done it's ships. But where to?

Thats what an aggregator is for. The industry defines a standard content format (XML or whatever) for content, media and meta-data. Everyone makes all content (note all content not headlines and snippets) available to the aggregator on a continuous basis (when it's ready). The aggregator saves everything, indexes everything, and keeps track of everything, and manages whatever the payment arrangement is (page views whatever).

So how do I read all this? That's what a displayer is for (note this can be the same company as the aggregator but doesn't have to, just define a standard API). The displayer provides a new ajax web interface for me to read. It provides complete controls for me to determine what I want to see. I am in control of everything I see. There are no ads unless they are content (such as local Craigslist ads for lawnmowers in my zip). I see a nicely organized set of synopsis's of articles available Web View with controls and filters.

When I want to see a whole article it expands in the same space View with article. Then when I am done it closes up and the page adjusts. I can change the layout and filters at any time. I can save preset views at any time (National, Baseball, Mongolian Sheep Herders, whatever).

I'm willing to pay 25¢ per day for this. Not enough you say?

With 400,000 subscribers to this "newspaper" paying 25¢ per day that comes to $36,500,000 per year. Remember that covers no printing, no deliverly, basically nothing but paying news reporting outfits, servers and bandwidth. Instead of 10,000 newspapers all over the country (much less the world) you have 10,000 news reporting outfits who have little to do but gather news and collect payments. How the payment system is defined of course is important and probably should be based on some formula like # readers or other measurable criteria.

Of course this means that traditional newspaper companys and media conglomerates go away. You can't have thousands of aggregators or it defeats the purpose. You could have more viewers to allow for different user experiences but the aggregator is really a utility, a proverbial series of tubes.

This whole scenario is exactly what I want. Will I ever see it? Probably not. Existing media companies want to hold on to their content, their image, their brands, their printing plants, all the way to complete ruin. It would take some money, but more importantly some real balls to convince the media companies to downsize and agree on a common delivery format and payment system that works for everyone from Global News Monsters to the local gossiper.

If I had money (I don't) and time (not without money) I'd find this a fascinating thing to work on. The biggest need is the might to roll the whole industry up, which clearly one person not named Steve Jobs simply doesn't have.

If this does happen as a Phoenix out of the ashes of the newspaper industry I am ready with my quarter.

I am not holding my breath.