Newspaper circulation appears to be on a slippery slope, with over the last six months U.S. newspapers showing a circulation drop of 2.6% for weekdays (after falling 1.9% the previous six months) and down 3.1% for Sundays (after a 2.5% drop in the half-year before). The worst was the San Francisco Chronicle, down 16.4% over the last six months, though this was the result of a deliberate strategy to cut unprofitable circulation. In this context, Robin Miller, editor-in-chief of Open Source Technology Group, the publisher of an array of online technology media sites, including Slashdot, has written a very interesting article titled A Recipe for Newspaper Survival in the Internet Age.
For those who haven’t come across it before, Slashdot (whose tagline is “News for Nerds”) is one of the founding examples of the power of participatory media. Readers submit to Slashdot news articles they think are interesting. A group of moderators then select the most pertinent articles, and readers can then submit their comments on the articles. Where the real magic happens is that every reader has the ability to rate the value, relevance, and interest of everyone else’s comments. Even though every story gets hundreds of comments, you can quickly sift through to find the ones that a large, sophisticated audience has collectively deemed most worth reading. Anyone can quickly delve in and get the condensed insights of this eclectic and intelligent group of über-nerds. Those whose comments are most highly rated are invited to become moderators for a period. The community collectively filters and creates the news, which is why Slashdot is one of the top few technology media sites in the world.
In his article, Miller uses lessons from Slashdot to provide recommendations to the newspaper industry. He discusses the need to draw in reader contributions, while addressing issues of both the value and propriety of their input. Most relevantly, Miller focuses on the local community strengths of newspapers. There is a massively important role to play being a voice for a community, something that newspapers have long proclaimed they do. Yet today they truly have the capability to provide their readers with that public voice. If they can do that effectively, there are a wide range of ways to build effective and sustainable business models around that, and absolutely keep their readers. However few newspapers today seem to be following this path other than half-heartedly.