Saturday, January 11, 2014

The "No-Newspaper Newspaper"

Pro-newspaper advocates constantly talk about how if the great dailies in America go out of business, democracy itself will suffer. It’s a powerful and, in my opinion, false claim. This is because of another pro-newspaper meme in circulation, that old-school paper journalism is the foundation of society’s information exchange. TV shows, blogs, aggregator sites, etc. all get their facts from papers, the thinking goes, so if papers go away, where is everyone going to turn to find out the “truth” about local and world events?


To me, this argument is a great example of what Marshall McLuhan was talking about when he explored the relationship between the medium and the message. In American society, it’s a common view that ideas printed on paper and mass produced for public consumption are more legitimate, more weighty, and more important than the same ideas transmitted in 1s and 0s across phone and data lines. But ideas are ideas, and after more than 10 years of consuming ideas over the Internet, I believe the format delivers the same functionality as the stacks of newsprint hitting the streets every day.

To see if I’m right, I’ve attempted to assemble a collection of Web sites that provide the same information and data as a typical daily newspaper. My constraints in putting together this “non-newspaper newspaper” are that the sources I select cannot get the majority of their content from any local or metropolitan newspaper such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times or Chicago Reader (the city’s major alternative weekly). Web sites that rely heavily on content taken from regional or national papers like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, are also excluded.

Since my goal is to create a version of a newspaper, I can only use content that must be consumed by being read. This leaves out most TV and movie sites, radio stations that stream over the Web, radio programs like This American Life, and video aggregator sites like YouTube and Vimeo. However, TV and radio producers who provide written transcripts of their shows are allowed.

Lastly, the information I get must be created by reputable, quality content producers. These are relative terms, but, like pornography, most people know them when they see them.

This is list by no means complete. Additional ideas are welcome in the comments section.

World News
In an era when many US news organizations have cut their international reporting, there’s not a lot of in-depth worldwide coverage available from American non-newspaper sources, but there are options from other places. The British Broadcasting Corporation, through its website BBC.com, has leveraged its formidable TV and radio resources to create an extensive and informative and extensive resource for keeping track of international news and events.

National (American) NewsWhile not as all-encompassing as the BBC, CNN.com has established itself as a major presence online, integrating content from its cable TV channel. I don’t think the network carries the same authoritative weight as other news sources, but it is a good place to get a snapshot of current national events.


On the alternative news front, there are a lot of politically biased news organizations out there, which is fine with me because I don’t think there really is any such thing as a politically neutral news source. One of the most successful alternative news organizations is Democracy Now!, which offers transcripts of its radio and video reports on its Web site.

Local News
This area is where the Web really outshines print media. Many, many communities now have their own local sources of news and events. Some sites like Chicagoist are mainly aggregators, and as such rely heavily on traditional newspaper sources for their content. But others do their own reporting - in Chicago, sites like the Chi-Town Daily News and Lake Effect News (a site started by veteran journalist Lorraine Swanson that covers the northeast side of town) has beat reporters that cover events as mundane as pothole filling, school board meetings, and local streetlight replacement.

Several smaller Web sites have emerged that provide detailed, block-by-block news. Edgewater Community Buzz (formerly known as the Edgewater Crime Blotter) and Uptown Update collect information directly from people in the neighborhood to create a hyper-local news source. EveryBlock.com aggregates information about crimes in the area, street cleanings, new properties for sale, and restaurant inspections.

The problem here is that “local” and “neighborhood” news are fast becoming different spheres. This is especially true in the areas of big business and government To get real access to City Hall, for example, you still need a press pass from the Tribune, Sun-Times, or other “legitimate” news organization, the ones who have the time and money to dig through the bureaucratic labyrinths and get the real story (if they choose to). It’s difficult to find quality journalism being done in these spaces by anybody that isn’t one of the major players.

EditorialsObviously there is no shortage of speculation, opinion, and punditry on the Web. The trick is finding sites that offer quality writing and interesting information. Art & Letters Daily is a good example of a site that points out interesting articles from across the Web. Their political outlook is on the Conservative side, but not irritatingly so.

Salon.com and Slate.com are the two biggest, most successful commentary sites going. Even though Slate is owned by the Washington Post, it operates as its own entity and produces its own content. Both of these sites have sections that cite and critique newspaper and magazine content, but their main focus is original essays and reviews. Other Web magazines such as the UK’s First Post are also available, catering to just about any interest or political persuasion.

Also, just about every magazine that is still being published has its own Web site (The Atlantic.com being my favorite). And there are sites that talk about the media itself, such as New York Public Radio’s On the Media (which provides written transcripts of its programs).

Sports and Games
In terms of national sports coverage, it starts and ends with ESPN.com. Their closest competitor, Fox Sports.com, is a distant second when it comes to name recognition and influence.

Go get more specific sports coverage, just go to your Web browser and type in the name of the sport, league, conference, or team you want to read about and you’ll find a Web site dedicated to it. I use Cubs.com to follow what’s going on with Chi-Town’s North-Side baseball team and a great blog called Blog Down, Chicago Bears to stay up to date on the local gridiron club. I also use MLB.com, NFL.com to follow the respective leagues.

Sites dedicated to games are just as ubiquitous as those for sports.
Chess sites like Susan Polger’s Chess Daily News provide all the information you need to know about what’s going on in international competition, as well as puzzles to solve. Feel like doing a crossword? Head over to Web Crosswords.com. How about Sudoku? Web Sudoku has billions of puzzles.

Business
Another area where the Web has a strong advantage over newsprint. Google, Yahoo! and your local broker’s Web site provide can up to the minute quotes. Business pundit sites like The Big Picture and The Dollars and Sense Blog also give more immediate, in-depth and far-reaching analysis than can be obtained from a standard newspaper.

Health, Science, and TechnologyWebMD.com has many articles on everyday health-related issues. Also, various science magazines such as Scientific American.com make most, if not all, of their articles available for reading. Even universities are getting into the act – MIT, for example, makes classroom materials available for public use through its OpenCourse site.

Movie Listings and Reviews
The Web has long ago outclassed newspapers in entertainment reporting, both in quantity and quality. All of the major entertainment magazines such as Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter have an online presence. Sites like The Numbers.com provide daily information on box office returns. Movie times are easily obtained from sites like Yahoo! or the theaters themselves.

The Internet really has papers beat in the range of movie information available. The Internet Movie Database has established itself as a cyber-encyclopedia of motion pictures. Independent companies like Facets cinema provide information on new releases and analysis on film subjects from the most popular popcorn flicks to obscure international and independent fare, while blogs like Bright Lights After Dark and The House Next Door go deep into movie history and theory, serving up very well-written essays on any number of movie topics.

TV Listings and Reviews
For TV listings, TV Guide.com is another old-media outlet that’s successfully migrated onto the Web. For show reviews, Television without Pity provides snarky blow-by-blows of all the major TV shows. Also, thousands of blogs and fan sites cater to every show currently on the air, and many more that are no longer shown.

Book ReviewsAmazon.com is the 800-pound gorilla in this space. While it does draw on newspaper reviews, it also has extensive customer comments, although it’s next to impossible to tell what’s not a marketing ploy by publishers. Bookstore sites and literary blogs (like Bookslut) also abound.

Restaurant ReviewsMy main place to go for local restaurant reviews is Yelp.com, which provides customer critiques of restaurants, bars, clubs, and stores. Yelp was recently caught up in accusations that it was using its ratings process to make money (for example, by removing negative reviews for companies that advertise on its site). All in all, it seems pretty reliable, and much more real-time than a paper could ever be.

Music/Concert Listings and Reviews
Looking for information on who’s playing at your favorite local venue? Chances are there’s a site (or a MySpace, Facebook, or Friendster page) for the band, the band’s label, each one of the band’s members, and even the venue where they’re playing.

Lots of independent companies and groups have music information available. Just three examples are Allmusic.com, the Internet Movie Database of music, which provides record reviews as well as database of styles and genres; Pitchfork Media, which provides music news and reviews of alternative music; and WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, which provides unbelievably large amounts of information about musicians past and present as well as lots and lots of downloads.

Classifieds
One of the big stories of the Internet age is how Craigslist.com ate up newspapers’ advertising revenues and replaced them as the default way to post a classified ad. E-Bay also has become a standard place to go to buy or sell new and used stuff.

WeatherWeather.com, the online component of the Weather Channel, is the only place one really needs to go for weather information.

Horoscopes
I occasionally take a peek at my horoscope to see what the stars have to say. I’ve found that Astrologyzone.com is one of the better places to go for that sort of thing, although it’s not hard to find lots of other sites that provide similar services.

Where Newspapers are Better Than the Web
Clearly, the Internet has come a long way in replicating and replacing the information newspapers have been trading in for centuries. There are some areas, though, where the Web has not caught up to newspapers:

Obituaries – While Wikipedia does have current information that gets updated quickly in the event of a death, the Web has yet to create spaces that match the form and function of newspaper obits, especially for non-famous people.

Comics – Just about every comic strip ever made is available somewhere on the Web, but not in the compact, all-in-one place format seen in the typical newspaper, mainly because strips all have different creators and owners, and without newspapers’ unifying format there is no reason for all of them to be in one spot.

Coupons – While many Web sites provide promotions that readers can print from their computers, I still think it’s much easier to access and handle coupons from a newspaper.

Despite these items, in general electronic sources have provided good replacements for the kinds of information old-timely newspapers used to dominate. Web sites’ big advantage lies in their ability to go into impossible degrees of depth and breadth on a topic that just can’t be done in a printed format. The big challenge is separating the signal from the noise in terms of quality and accuracy (although newspapers have the same issue).

It’s easier than ever to aggregate all of your favorite sites into a Web portal-type format. Ten years ago, companies like Netscape, Lycos, Go.com and Excite.com thought this was going to be a major part of their money-making strategies. Now, using tools like Bloglines or Google Reader, anyone can put together their own daily edition in a snap. The newspapers aren’t just crying wolf. They should be very worried for their existence, as Web content providers continue to perfect their craft in electronic technology and proceed to do their job on a bigger and faster scale than papers ever could.

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