Two back-to-back articles -- Okay, they were wrapped around an analysis piece on Battlestar Galactica -- in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine erupted in my mind as a fascinating way out for the newspaper industry.
The second piece was focused entirely on the very real possibility that the over-leveraged New York Times newspaper will implode under a mountain of debt in May. I was less interested in the article's advice on how to save another of America's dying newsprint schooners than I was on how, exactly, a daily newspaper acquires a debt load of $1.4 billion. (It acquires a lot of useless crap, apparently, like the Boston Red Sox or About.com -- both of which, admittedly, have been more successful than the New York Times.)
On the local front, word on the street is that the Richmond Times-Dispatch, while struggling, is relatively healthy. (Fortunately, it never bought the Richmond Braves, and it's parent company paid the cash for the relatively useless Richmond.com domain.) But the reality is that the print newspaper -- everywhere across the United States -- is struggling not just to find meaning, or readers. It's struggling to survive.
Serious stuff indeed.
But the first piece in The Atlantic illuminated for me a way out.
Titled "iGov: How Geeks Are Opening up Government on the Web" it provides a window into what an Obama presidency might create with its calls for transparency, openness and the use of technology. It's all, the article suggests, about opening up the API.
I'll get this almost totally wrong, but the API (application programming interface) essentially is the connection between an application and a set of data. In this case, the data is your typical, run-of-the-mill government data -- budget numbers and census data and information on foreign lobbyists or air traffic control systems. When Google Maps invited public transportation agencies to submit their data in an open format, it birthed a useful, local trip planning tool for urban travelers around the country.
And that connects to newspapers how, exactly?
The modern newspaper is built on narrative, which remains a powerful tool. Narrative and stories hold us together, provide us with context, create a means for understanding. But there is an equally powerful tool wrapped in a newer language -- the language of data -- that might be an interesting platform for the newspaper of tomorrow.
What if newspapers were staffed by writers, designers, software engineers and data analysts? What if the Richmond Times-Dispatch began to pull data from our local governments, push for uniformity, push for openness?
What if our daily newspaper began to provide very real analysis of the maintenance of our urban forests, or the maintenance schedules of school buildings around the region, or the cost of water, or assessments, or the distribution of local funds for education or the arts or recreation?
What if they then began to build simple, functional tools that allowed residents across the region to do something with that data themselves? Or if they began to tell the stories behind the data -- and put it into context for us.
What if newspapers started telling stories that mattered for the society we're building, instead of the one we're leaving behind?
I have a few other thoughts on how the Times-Dispatch -- or any mid-market news daily -- might recreate itself as a valuable (and profitable) member of the community. But this is what landed in my lap this weekend, thanks to the work of another print publication.