The following is a guest post from Nicholas White, the CEO of The Daily Dot, a new startup in community journalism. White leaves a long lineage of newspaper men and women in his family to join digital media and explains why.
Six months ago, I quit my family’s 179-year-old newspaper company. I left not because newspapers are crumbling — though they are — but because the very thing that has made the old industry so fragile offers hope for the future of journalism.
I quit to start an entirely new newspaper: an experiment in media called The Daily Dot.
Everything you know about this failing industry is wrong. Which is to say, it’s right, but it’s also not why the industry is failing.
Growing Up with Newspapers
I grew up in the news business. My family has owned and operated small-town newspapers for six generations. You can see the history of the entire industry in the United States in the history of my family: why it once was great, what’s wrong with it now, and why I’m starting the newspaper of the future to save it.
My great-great-granduncle I. F. Mack bought our first paper, the 47-year-old Sandusky Register, in 1869. He was a “free lance” or “bad boy” (depending on whom you asked) of the old school, and he was a fixture of the local scene. In 1891, the Detroit Free Press said, “He runs a Republican morning newspaper in the city of Sandusky, Ohio. The town and county are both Democratic, but still the Register lives on, a credit to a larger city. Mr. Mack is one of the most brilliant paragraphers in the country and maintains a paying business because more people desire to see what he says than they do for the news in the paper.”
He left the Register to R.C. Snyder, his son-in-law, who owned the Norwalk Reflector 16 miles to the south. He was a small man who strode the avenues of Norwalk and Sandusky, Ohio, swinging his cane like a boulevardier’s rapier. He kept a stub pencil and ends of newsprint in his pocket in case news broke out wherever he found himself. His daily column chronicled the comings and goings about town, a favorite feature of which were the antics of his grandson and the Pleasant Street Gang. He was also a shrewd businessman and he bought out the competition or put them out of business, and we became monopolies.
When Snyder died shortly before World War II, my grandfather was in Washington, so my great-grandmother took over. We had nearly lost everything in 1929, but we didn’t lay off a single employee during the Great Depression, even though we had to print our own money, good only in town, to stay afloat. Mambi inherited that huge burden, and at less than five feet tall, she handled the company’s debt collections personally and with all the mercy and compassion of a loan shark.
Twenty years after she died, my father still heard complaints about her behavior, such as the time she walked into a haberdashery on Main Street during business hours, stood in the middle of the sales floor, and loudly announced that she wouldn’t be leaving until she got the money she was owed. But she handed down a company that was debt-free.
My grandfather ran the papers when he returned from Washington. He published his son’s school report cards in the paper (D average). That may not have been great parenting, but he wanted everyone in town to know that we printed the news, all of it, and without exception.
Publishers Not from the Community
For more than a century, these newspapers were of, by, and for the people that lived in their communities.
And community is why the newspaper business is falling apart.
Some blame lies with the industry. Dad (Dudley White, Jr.) took over the newspapers in 1957. He started buying other newspapers across the country, and we became a chain, like everyone else. He remained publisher of his hometown papers, and he continued to run the editorial page where he advocated for things like a university campus (successful) and an effort to combine town and township (unsuccessful).
In his mid-40s though, he moved to California. That was OK because a good community man took his place.
Today, as a result of my father and my cousin’s leadership, the company owns 12 newspapers and 10 radio stations. Eventually, as the company grew, publishers mostly stopped being community men and women. They merely paused in the towns they covered — keeping the lid on things until they got a better offer, a bigger town, and a larger paycheck. The publisher today who’s an authentic member of his community — and I am privileged to know a few — is rare indeed.
The internal problem, however, is not nearly so large as the fact that the world beyond our insular industry is changing. Community itself has moved. People don’t swing their canes on Main Street anymore, and if someone did, he wouldn’t hit a soul.
That doesn’t mean community is gone, however. Wherever people get together and talk, and form relationships and social structures and identities, you’ve got a community.
We may once have defined it by geography, but it wasn’t ever really about breathing the same air: It was about the ethereal bonds between people.
And today, people are forming those bonds in ways that transcend and redefine the concept of place.
So what is community about today? I wish I could tell you. Human nature is such that we can’t imagine anything that is truly new — at least, not all at once. Most of the time, we just rearrange images of the past whenever we attempt to see the future.
Stumbling our way toward the inevitable requires a leap of faith. The Daily Dot, a new publication we announced recently, is my leap. The Daily Dot will swing its cane on the main streets and thoroughfares of the online community.
There are communities in Facebook and Reddit and Etsy today just as surely as there was a community in Sandusky, Ohio, 142 years ago. But right now they’re living without the benefit of community journalism. The Daily Dot is going to change that. We’re going to report what happens in those communities, up and out of those communities, just the way my great-great grand-uncle did. When news breaks in Tumblr or the kids get up to tricks in 4Chan, we’ll be there with our stubs of newsprint to tell the story.
This is what we mean by calling The Daily Dot the hometown newspaper of the world wide web. There are stories waiting to be told, issues discussed, and communities defined by their collective senses of interests, concerns, and even histories. These are the aspects that have always been foundational to a sense of community for my family, and as we migrate to a world of digital natives and experience more of our lives online, The Daily Dot will be the paper of record for these emerging territories.
Community Journalism in a Digital World
I trust that if we keep following people into the places where they gather to trade gossip, argue the issues, seek inspiration, and share lives, then we will also find communities in need of quality journalism. And rather than simply covering the web from broad and outside perspectives like other publications, The Daily Dot is conceived from the outset to be of, by and for the web — which is, after all, the largest community in the world.
We will be carrying the tradition of local community-based journalism into the digital world, a professional coverage, practice and ethics coupled with the kind of local interaction and engagement required of a relevant and meaningful news source. Yet local to us means the digital communities that are today every bit as vibrant as those geographically defined localities.
Unfortunately, geography is forged into the very foundation of the newspaper business, in its heavy iron presses and fleets of trucks, and in the deeply etched mindsets of its journalists. It may be that the industry as we’ve known it for the last century has to disintegrate so that the reportage it sustained can survive and flourish.
The only reason I walked away from my family’s generations-long heritage serving communities is because I thought I could better carry on that work through a startup. If that sounds crazy, well, my father is fond of saying, “You don’t have to be a genius to run a newspaper. You just have to have brass f—-ing balls.”
If you think community and journalism matter, or if you live any part of your life online, I want you to join us. Go to dailydot.com and sign up for our newsletter. There are stories waiting to be told.
Nicholas White is the co-founder and CEO of The Daily Dot, the hometown newspaper of the world wide web.
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