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December 21, 2004

Greensboro Newspaper Goes Open Source: A Follow Up

"Why aren't more people who think citizen's media important willing to advise a newspaper company that is willing to gamble its site on a citizens media strategy? You tell me. Maybe the prospects for this industry (daily newspapers) are considered so bleak by most that 're-invention' is almost a dead letter." And: interview with founder of

I am going to stay on the story of the Greensboro blogging culture that’s coming of age, and of the local newspaper, led by a maverick editor, that’s going open source on the rest of the press. I think it’s national news.

For the facts and links, see PressThink from Saturday (Dec. 18), Action in Greensboro on Open Source Journalism. (And for background this column from Ed Cone.)

It will be interesting to watch what happens now. My guess is the story will shortly be in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR, Business Week or similar venue. But I could be wrong. Whether that happens or not, I have plenty to tell the core audience about. This post will be added to, in bits and pieces, so check back if you’re interested.

Recap. On Friday, Dec. 17, the News & Record, daily newspaper in Greensboro, NC, owned by Landmark Communications, announced that it was looking to overhaul its website ( and enter a period of invention, including rapid evolution away from the standard newspaper site— into more of an online community, a public square, or something equally “transformative” in nature.

Exactly how it would do this, and where the N & R would wind up when done are not, at present, known items. But that is the point: it’s a period of invention, announced publicly. “We have no preconceived notions of what it should look like, and no idea is too weird,” wrote Lex Alexander, an editor and blogger at the paper who must write the report recommending new directions. It is primarily this attitude that leads me to call the Greensboro initiative “open source journalism.” (Since the term has no established definition, we are free to establish parts of it as we go.)

Making use of weblogs it already runs, the News & Record began seeking public comment about what to do, a discussion that is live and still underway (three more days before an internal report is due.) Alexander has said that “everyone in the real-life and online community who wants to participate can [help] make the N&R’s Web presence a true online public square for Greensboro and Guilford County.” The local blogging culture is of course in the midst of discussing all this. But so is the editor, John Robinson, who blogs— and therefore explains himself a lot more than editors in other towns we could name.

For what’s new and interesting on the story, I’d start with Robinson’s statement about Landmark: “we’ve been encouraged by our corporate bosses to break free.” Encouraged to break free? Maybe Landmark knows something other companies do not. Might be a story there, business press.

Robinson’s search for a new model in online journalism is not a sudden thought; turns out it’s timed to the re-design and re-launch of the newspaper’s major portal. Charles Stafford, Operations Manager for News & Record Interactive at The Lex Files, Dec. 20:

We have been planning major upgrades to our online capability for some time but haven’t been able to make them due to software limitations. We have addressed those limitations and are preparing a major relaunch of and several other of our websites. With the new online publishing system, readers should be able to comment on any story, view photos that made it into the paper and those that haven’t, participate in forums and blogs, etc. The new system is light-years ahead of where we stand currently and we look forward to debuting it to the public. I won’t fall into the trap of promising a launch date, but please stay tuned. It’s coming.

A new site is coming, great. But how far along is the platform? How undecided are things?

We have addressed those limitations and are preparing a major relaunch sounds like a site that’s basically done. But how can it be basically done if we have no preconceived notions of what it should look like, and no idea is too weird? (UPDATE: see the exchange on this among Alexander, Robinson and Stafford in comments.)

I’m wondering, as well, why we haven’t heard more advice and suggestion from the press and new media blogosphere and the people of Greensboro themselves in the open comment period that runs for a week, Dec. 17-24. (This is the major comment thread, If all of us build it…)

Why aren’t more people who think citizen’s media important willing to advise a newspaper company that is willing to gamble its site on a citizens media strategy? You tell me. Maybe the prospects for this industry (daily newspapers) are considered so bleak by most that “re-invention” is almost a dead letter.

I give you San Jose Mercury News tech columnist Dan Gillmor on the Greensboro action: “Bravo. This is a big deal.” Maybe we haven’t made it clear enough why that is. Or maybe it’s just Christmas shopping season and everyone is busy.

Hey: are you an aspiring press blogger? Next waver in journalism? Slashdot contributor? Just someone concerned about the future of the press? Are you Steven Ben Deste? Blog up some wisdom for the News & Record, will you? Now’s the time because they might put one of your ideas into their plan for a new kind of daily newspaper site that is more like a public square.

You don’t need a blog. You can can leave a comment with the guy who’s writing the recommendations. At Ed Cone’s barbershop, they’re arguing here and here about bloggers in Greensboro expecting (or not really expecting) to get paid. (See also this thread.) To give the News & Record your suggestions for the interactive, Web-literate, open source journalism site the company proposes to build, go to this place (The Lex Files) and this one (The Editor’s Log.)

I asked Ed Cone, very much in the middle of all this, what the Greensboro blogging and newspaper “crowd” needed from around the online world:

“What we need in Greensboro is information — updates from around the country, and the globe, on what’s being done elsewhere, what’s working and not working. Ideas and reader preferences would be useful, too. Business models a bonus, and also tech suggestions — see the discussion about titles and aggregators at my blog this weekend.”

I also asked Cone, who writes a column for the newspaper, but is not on staff, what pushed Robinson to start over with the site. His sense of it:

“John seems to have been moving this way for some time. He’s written that my blog was an influence — as noted, they’ve allowed me to run my URL at the bottom of my column for years — an offsite link that was ahead of its time. John knows the current website — the leftover of an ambitious early web effort that didnt’ generate revenue and thus scared the money guys off for a while — needs fixing.”

Here’s what Robinson himself had to say of interest (in a post thanking PressThink for the ink):

Rosen suggests that we may have been radicalized and are ready to rebel here. I don’t call it rebellion. More like common sense. My still-evolving observation is that bloggers and newspapers want basically the same thing: to tell people the news. Some blogs are seasoned with more opinion than ours. Some are more personal than ours. But they all want to share information with others. It’s not threatening; it’s invigorating. And it feeds one of our fundamental purposes, which is to help build a strong community through the free exchange of information and ideas.

“Keep the suggestions coming,” said Robinson, the editor-turned-blogger. “Many of you who have advised us in your blogs and in your comments are teaching us.” Here is his other key statement:

I believe the newspaper’s web presence should be open and inclusive, should include lots of voices and commentary and news, should feature so many blogs on so many topics that everyone wants to be a part of the community and, better yet, everyone wants to visit here, should generate revenue that we can plow into the site to make it better, should be dynamic so that it takes its lead from the market, and should engender the civic-oriented discussion of ideas that makes Greensboro such an interesting place.

I just haven’t figured out how to do it. Yet.

Special to PressThink

Brief interview with Roch Smith, Jr.
founder of the aggregator and forum site Greensboro101.

Roch Smith told me by e-mail: “I once ran for mayor of Greensboro. In 2001. Although I defeated four other primary contenders, I lost the general election by the largest margin of any candidate in recent memory, a record that was mercifully broken in the following election in 2003.” (Link.)

Hey, tech press? Got a story: candidate cannot bring the town together around his mayoralty but gets another shot three years later with the aggregator. It practically writes itself! “I no longer have an interest in running for office,” Smith added. Here’s our exchange:

Why was Greensboro101 started, and what are you trying to accomplish?

It was started because I like a challenge. I read many of the local bloggers on a daily basis. I know many of the bloggers and some are good friends. Ed Cone and I had talked about aggregating blog content a year ago, but when the local bloggers started to talk about it recently, I thought it might be something I could do. It turned out to be the greatest technical challenge of my career, but once I started it, I didn’t want to quit.

As for what I hope to accomplish, my immediate goal has been realized. My friends now have the tool they were wanting. As for what’s next, I’m playing it by ear. I’ve been contacted by media people wanting to replicate the Greensboro101 concept in other cities. Pursuing some financially beneficial opportunities is certainly of interest, but I’ll also keep Greensboro101 going as a proving ground and as a service to my community.

Everyone has competition. Who is your competition?

I guess that depends on what I’m competing for. If it’s for local eye-balls, then the competition is the News & Record, although I think other local media will soon be interested as well. If it’s for income, then I suppose the competition is with other programmers and designers who have the ability to build these kinds of sites for paying customers.

Do you think sites like Greensboro101 can change the political climate in town, or is that not the point?

Yep. I think that’s certainly a possibility, perhaps in two ways. One would be that Greensboro101 becomes a touchstone for local public opinion and in that, it may serve as a resource for politicians. If it reaches a critical mass, it may also become a medium for campaigning.

What should I have asked you?

What a great question. You might have asked if there were models or other inspirations, to which I would have said yes.

I think does a superb job of facilitating online discussions. While it doesn’t aggregate blogs, its ability to nurture and facilitate the exchange of ideas was an inspiration. If we can get that kind of discussion going in Greensboro, through any means, our community will be better for it.

Thanks, Roch.

Notice, then, that News & Record is not the only institution in town seeking to become “the public square” or the place Greensboro goes when it needs to be in forum mode. Who is to say the newspaper should have that franchise at all? One the other hand, why does it have to be anyone’s prize?

Act One: Andy Wismar, tech blogger in Raleigh-Durham, posts about his astonishment that a hick town like Greensboro is getting attention for its blogging culture when his more educated, more affluent, more wired area—with its famed research triangle— is up to nothing special. (Update: Chapel Hill is mobilizing for a bloggers conference.)

Act Two: PressThink quotes from his post, alerting the Greensboro Boys. (And a N & R columnist, see this.)

Act Three: Greensboro bloggers descend on the resentful techie and overwhelm him with loving kindness, and some taunting— at his own blog! But he seems to get the message. This is him in the comments on Dec. 18, “taking the opportunity to display my techno-elitism,” as he put it.

To me, tech bloggers are vastly more important than locals to the foundation of any ‘blogosphere’. That’s just a matter of personal opinion and not going to change.

Now here is Wismar the next day, Dec. 19, responding to the Greensboro bloggers.

Do you need a PhD or an intricate understanding of computer networking to have a good blog? Absolutely not, as I think you’ve all pointed out. Does a local blogging comunity need tech blogs to be successful? No more than it needs piano-repair blogs or any other niche of human interest. What it needs are passionate people, and those seem to be available in abundance in Greensboro.

What happened in between? Take a look. It may illustrate Jude Nagurney-Camwell’s observation, on her “long-distance connection with the Greensboro bunch.” (Link.) “I recognized them, early on, as a group with the collective heart it takes to become a community.”

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links.

Program Note: I was on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, the local NPR station, Dec. 23, with Wonkette and Scott Johnson of Powerline, discussing the “blogging year.” You can listen here. The most amusing moment was when Scott Johnson said he could not reply because: “Jay’s a little bit on a different wavelength,” prompting Wonkette to speculate (amusingly) that I believe in “predestination.” (Here, by the way, is Brian Lehrer’s blog.) Scott had some comments about the segment here.

Tell us in comments: yes or no? What’s going on in Greensboro is (should be) national news.

Greensboro blogger Dave Hoggard says in comments: “My only suggestion to my N&R: Launch it and keep listening.”

Anna from NC Focus in comments

For a news organization, I think embracing/engulfing bloggers is a leap forward, and in the paper’s best interest, but I don’t know if it’s in the community’s best interest; depends on what would have grown up otherwise, and on how the paper will use the influence that it gains (or fails to lose to the now-outflanked upstart).

John Robinson comes across as a very aware and socially conscious editor, but the paper doesn’t belong to him, and he’s not involved with the editorials, which is where the paper can really throw its weight around. (see the rest)

John Robinson at his weblog (Dec. 22):

I worry about the heightened expectations implied in all the discussion and the subsequent smackdown if we fall short. We will inevitably disappoint some who want us to go further or who think our resources are unlimited. We aren’t looking to change the world. We simply want to get better.

Fair enough. Shouldn’t be more than a few days, though, before we see the first blog posts de-bunking the “hype” about Greensboro. Sometimes, the authors will engage in hype themselves by exaggerating claims made for the News & Record’s initiative. Your professional balloon poppers will do that: inflate what they are about to deflate to get the bigger pop. Paging Andrew Orlowski!

The puzzles of two-way politics: Chewie reports that the Register of Deeds in Greensboro, Jeff Thigpen, is being harangued on his blog by one of his own employees, who refuses to reveal their identity.

Over at LiveJournal, Twisted chick is saying: “Greensboro Newspaper goes open source — imagine a cross between a traditional newspaper and a blog. This should be interesting.”

Tim Porter of First Draft (inspired by Steve Outing’s essay for Poynter What Mainstream Journalists Can Learn From Bloggers) does his own “list of 10 things traditional journalists, particularly those who work for newspapers, could learn from bloggers.”

Porter writes: “Good blogs have distinct personalities and themes. The time is past for newspapers to be all things to all people. That formula is broken. Communities are too diverse and resources too limited to cover everything. The result is deepening mediocrity and increasing reliance on institutional reporting - go to a meeting and write a story. This is stenography, not journalism.”

Check out the Post Standard in Syracuse with their page of citizen webloggers. Here is a similar page from the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Here is the Guardian’s version, quite advanced.

Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice (recommended), who sees what I see in the story (and then some) writes a long post based on my earlier one, and adds: “The daily newspaper isn’t dying due to sudden heart failure; it’s slowly being eaten away by an unrelenting cancer of lack of creativity, inflexibility, occasional corporate arrogance, and 20th (in some cases even 19th) Century thinking.” He has much more to say on Greensboro, so check into it.

Here’s something I wrote in a note to Glenn Reynolds:

One of the reasons this story interests me is that a mini-breakthrough—local blogging posse gets ally in daily newspaper, which itself goes open source, a nice piece of change as far as innovation goes—takes place in a Southern town many in my part of the great nation know little about, except for ACC basktball— wait, isn’t Michael Jordon from there?

I saw this once before in the civic journalism movement. Innovation from southern towns that the Northeastern press couldn’t imagine as even on the map of journalism. They were places you got out of if you were any good. It took me a while to understand that, being from the world of the Northeastern press. I made a lot of trips to Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee when I was working on civic journalism. So this action in Greensboro doesn’t surprise me.

UPDATE: Instapundit is now onto the Greensboro story (Dec. 22)

Jay Ovittore of Greensboro: The Local Blogisphere (Dec.23)

Thomas P.M. Barnett on why a knowledge worker should blog: “almost every book I’ve read in preparation for writing the second book has been recommended to me by a blog reader, like TM Lutas telling me I need to read Wolfe’s Why Globalization Works, an excellent book I finished today. How else would I know what to read without this network? I simply will not hear about these books in my day job, even as reading them is essential to me being who I am in my day job.”

Psst: journalists are knowledge workers.

Mark Glaser—author of “The Media Company I Want to Work For” (Dec. 1 at PressThink) and a columnist for Online Journalism Review— has completed his review and survey of the year in new media. It includes observations from me and about 10 other critics. Here is a sample:

The issue of how online sites affect their print counterparts is bubbling steadily beneath the surface, and is set to erupt in the upcoming year or two. obviously has a big stake in this discussion, so I don’t pretend to be a neutral or disinterested player. But the idea that giving away your content doesn’t affect print circulation and revenue is becoming too ludicrous for all but the most die-hard proponents of this flat-earth theory to keep promulgating. — Bill Grueskin, managing editor of Wall Street Journal Online.

Read the rest from OJR: “2004 — the year bloggers made a difference, while hyperlocal citizen journalism made inroads. Our annual poll of colleagues, with Top 5 lists and predictions for ‘05.”

On the silo mentality and the struggle for an online future, check out this item live at Lost Remote….

DONATA Communications (er, that would be me) is looking for TV news managers who understand that the Internet and multiple distributions channels will be an integral part of the newsroom of tomorrow. I’m a new media consultant and have TV clients who really “get it.” Do you? If I ask about RSS, Podcasting or video blogging, and all I get is a blank stare, your name doesn’t belong on my list. But if you’re a news manager who wants to get in on something different, send me an email and a resume.

Sign ‘o the Times.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 21, 2004 4:53 PM