Local daily as news aggregator

For the latest issue of the Journal, several of the stories I was working on didn’t pan out. This is (I am learning) a normal part of the job. Stories get pushed to the next issue, or just fizzle because they aren’t ripe, the sources don’t talk, or lead isn’t what you thought it was. No big.

But it got me thinking, what happens when it’s just a slow news day. You still need to publish something, right?

I checked out the PDN print edition today (Saturday – usually a slow day, Feb. 23). In 28 pages I counted just about 2,700 hundred words of original news content. I didn’t add in the lifestyle section or the op/ed page, but I also didn’t subtract the 1,000 or so words of stuff that wasn’t really news, but rather just filler attached to an update of ongoing news stories (see e.g. here – where a story about National Guard Deployment is suddenly interrupted with an aside about a recent stabbing quite unrelated to the deployment or anyone in the Guard); a fair balance, I figure.

The rest is obits, op/ed, lifestyle, sports, whether, comics, classifieds, and a lot of syndicated stuff on the Oscars, D.C. politics, East Asian affairs etc. This stuff is important, no doubt. But, it changes the game. Most of the work of preparing the daily can be done without the need for any original reporting.

It’s much more a job of aggregating content from other sources. With the internet though, people can aggregate all the national content just about anywhere, anytime. For the aggregation of the local content, well, that job can be managed by anyone with a laptop and a cellphone. No need for a huge production crew.

Though most of this aggregation work is probably already done in this manner by the PDN, they still have a huge operation, with sales, accounting, reception, production, printing, delivery, plus editorial, local news desk and management.

The sort of production the PDN now runs is probably a lot cheaper and more efficient than paying a large local news team to produce 10,000 words of original content on a daily basis.

But I’m not sure that’s is going to be the choice they and other local dailies face in the years to come – the status quo versus a huge local news desk. It seems more likely the alternative is a handful of people aggregating all this content for an almost entirely on-line audience, without the need for a massive production crew to manage everything for the print edition.

PDN is owned by Gannett and I’ve heard they do still turn a comfortable profit, an increasing rarity for local dailies. That won’t last if their strategy is improving efficiency of an archaic business model. PDN faces the same test as the rest around the country; can they accept a changing news landscape, where the landing page will be the only front page that matters?

If you started a news organization today, you wouldn’t even consider a print edition. Why is it so hard for these old organizations to get with the program?