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Sometimes as media-watchers, we get caught up in philosophical debates about whether newspapers will survive in future times, whether people will still want to have TV news anchors read them the news, and whether non-commercial NPR will continue to survive and thrive in the age of podcasting. In the past, I’ve played a few different meme games to stoke thought on the difficult subject of the future for media, whether it was Oldthink vs. Newthink or Imagining a Future Tense for Newspapers.

Now I want to get down to more of the nitty-gritty of how a future newsroom might operate. Rather than confine the idea to a local print newspaper or local TV station, I want to imagine a local newsroom that has one overriding goal: “Serve the public by collaborating with them and delivering the news they want on the platform of their choice.” If people want to read it on their cell phones, great. If they want to print it out or get a print edition, that will be possible. If they like video, there will be video. If they want podcasts, there will be podcasts. If they want to dig in and help out, they can.

How would such a newsroom work without the weight of a legacy media outlet, without the history of management and circulation and broadcast towers and every other piece of infrastructure that is ingrained in the institutional memory of so many old media operations? And perhaps most importantly for the media industry, how can such a nouveau operation make money? Let’s look at this idea, what I’ll call the “New Newsroom” or NNR, point-by-point.

Leaner Operation
There is a tendency for people to fault corporate news operations that lay off staff to boost profits. But rather than make a blanket statement on staff cuts, let’s try to look at this issue as a subtraction and addition of staff. For every person let go who used to run newspaper presses, there would likely be another web developer added. For every person who drove a bulky TV newsvan around, there would be a search engine optimization expert added. In general, we might foresee these types of changes:

Subtractions: Legacy media production people; legacy media distribution people, including newspaper delivery people; circulation departments; middle management; reporters who focus on one platform.

Additions: Multi-platform multimedia reporters and producers comfortable working in text, stills, audio or video; online community managers; web development experts; mobile development experts; programmer-reporters or mash-up specialists.

I would envision a full-time staff that is much smaller than the average metro local newspaper and a somewhat smaller operation than a local network TV affiliate. However, the range of freelancers would extend from volunteer community involvement in online comments and news tips to paid expert bloggers on niche subjects.

Ways to Make Money
There are the usual ways that media outlets make money online and in various platforms. Advertisements online and/or in a print adjunct publication or in an audio podcast or in a video report. Sponsorships for niche subject blogs. Charging money for print publications, or for specialized online or mobile content.

But perhaps the most intriguing ideas for making money have yet to be explored by such a local newsroom: those cutting edge user-generated ads or special online forums set up for advertisers to get real feedback from their customers. Imagine a car dealership that created its own webpage on the newsroom’s site. The site might contain the latest offers from the dealer, but might also contain a blog written by the dealer herself, along with feedback from people who have interacted with the dealer in the past. The more open to criticism such a business would be, and the more it could roll with the punches, the more popular such a page might become.

How Management Works
Management of such a New Newsroom would be challenging. The usual top-down hierarchy of most newsrooms would be adjusted to allow more voices into the decision-making process. That means the entry-level reporter would be able to have more dialogues with a publisher or an editor in chief, and that community experts would be included in any major decision made by NNR — from choosing subjects for special reports to choosing platforms for content delivery. Rather than turn the process into anarchy, or having too many chefs in the kitchen, management would have to balance openness with a need to get things done in a timely fashion.

Collaboration with the Community
When would the community become part of the newsgathering and reporting and follow-up process? In every feasible part. NNR’s website could include a Digg-like page where community members can vote up the stories they’d like to see covered by the newsroom. Community experts could be part of the daily editorial meeting. Reporters could collaborate with their expert sources in the community, not only getting quotes from them but also asking them to help in the reporting process.

Platform Independence
NNR would strive to report the stories in ways that fit the subject matter and in formats the audience desires. If a story similar to the recent freeway collapse in Oakland deserves to get multimedia coverage, then NNR might dispatch a reporting crew to the scene with a still camera, videocamera and audio recorder. While the homegrown staff was working on gathering information, another editor would be combing the area for citizen eyewitnesses who might also provide video, still photos or their own first-hand accounts on a special blog.

Not every story would get the multimedia treatment. That determination might be made by editorial staff at the start of the story idea, or it could be made on the fly depending on what media comes in from the community. The important overriding credo is that NNR will deliver the news in whatever way the community craves and is economically feasible, including online video, audio, print, online, mobile, TV or radio. Each locality will decide what’s necessary to meet their needs.

The Shape of Stories
After initial completion, each story could take the shape of a tightly controlled wiki. Each edit to the story wiki would go through either a trusted freelance community editor or a paid editor from NNR. Stories would live online in an initially reported form, as well as in the editable wiki form that could be updated over time as things change. These living archives would have the potential to engage more members of the community, but could also add a heavy workload to staffers. The editable wikis could be shut in case they are overloaded with edits by vandals or political idealogues. The rules for shutting wikis or comments would be consistent throughout the website.

Thinking Outside the Box
One of the ways NNR can break from the past is to hire or talk to people who aren’t simply trained to be journalists or ad salespeople or marketers. Why not bring in a professional athlete to blog about sports, or a contractor to do a podcast about the housing market, or a registered nurse to run a discussion forum about health care issues? Giving local experts a way to go beyond sound bites and pull-quotes would have a strong impact on the community.

What do you think? How do you imagine a future local newsroom might operate without the constraints of legacy media? Can this business model work? How do you see things playing out in 5, 10 or 15 years in local media? Share your thoughst in the comments below.

Photo of CNN’s DC newsroom by Lee Hughey.

UPDATE: There’s been some great discussion in the blogosphere reacting to this blog post. As usual, I don’t consider my views into the future as the be-all, end-all, but rather the start of a larger conversation. One of the more interesting responses came from Jeff Crigler, the CEO of online news syndicator Voxant and blogger at the News2020 Project. He was pondering the future of newspaper distribution as he watched a local boy throwing papers onto people’s lawns:

Today’s news is more fluid. We catch it at the Department of Motor Vehicles on a news ticker, we hear it on the radio in our cars, we see it on a TV in the hotel lobby, or we get it via email or a portal. While distribution has been diffused throughout culture, the channels of distribution are still owned by corporations. With the newsroom of 2020, distribution, like content creation, will be shifted — at least in part — to the citizenry as the role of editor and paperboy are mashed up into a hybrid hierarchy-less job description. These distributors of the news will select the news that is of most interest to their readers — be it 10 or 10 million of them — creating customized news lenses.

Although you may not see the paperboy of 2020 trailing his dad’s minivan, tossing newspapers onto porches, you can bet I’ll still be bumping into him on my early morning bike rides.