Impressions of the Who Needs Newspapers? experience

Screenshot from Who Needs Newspapers? homepageIf you read my previous post today, you know that a crew from the Who Needs Newspapers? project was at the Chronicle today, interviewing the publisher, managing editor, online ad guy and me about the future of the newspaper industry at the local level, far from the glitz and rumor surrounding big-time papers like the New York Times and LA Times.

Two of the nonprofit’s journalist members, Sara Brown and Paul Steinle, asked me a number of questions about the future of the newspaper industry. So far as I could tell from looking at the videos already published to the WNN website, the questions were fairly typical.

  • What sort of impact does the website have in the community?
  • What, if anything, is your paper doing to move toward an all-digital future?
  • Was there a seminal moment that convinced you about the power of journalism?
  • What skills should students coming out of journalism school have for a job like mine?

I’m paraphrasing, of course. It was a lengthy interview, and I got the impression I talked more than they wanted me to. And despite knowing that videographers are looking for shorter, pithier quotes, I had to talk long — chalk it up to my academic background and the fact that there are no simple answers (life’s one certainty).

Brown and Steinle explained that they have been traveling across the country in an RV for the better part of a year collecting these interviews, which come from a single paper in each state. The project is self-funded, though they hope to find some sort of grant someday. They hope to wrap up the interviews later this year.

The interview went all right, I guess, but I couldn’t help seeing the similarity between the questions the pair asked me and the ones they asked of every other online person I saw interviewed on the WNN site. You can hardly blame them for using a set and slightly flexible set of interview questions. The pair have been at this a while and efficiency is needed for long projects.

Still, I get the impression that I was playing a part, the part of the young journalist eager to upset the balance of the existing print hierarchy with my newfangled sorcery. I play a contrasting role, I’m sure, to the more measured and considered roles that I’m sure were played by my publisher and managing editor in their interviews.

Maybe it’s a false impression, but it wasn’t helped when, later, while Steinle was taking photos around the newsroom to supplement their report, he caught sight of me and said, “Playing with your little website?”

Can you hear me bristling?

Maybe he was teasing. Maybe he was joking. Maybe it was sarcasm. I don’t think it was. I think it was most likely an off-the-cuff quip from someone belying their true feelings about this “fad” called the Web. It’s just a toy, a distraction from the real business of news, kid. Have fun.

I hope I’m wrong about this. Maybe Mr. Steinle was just having an off day. Maybe he is cantankerous by nature? Maybe he has a sense of humor that doesn’t immediately come across to those who don’t know him well. We’ll see how the video tape comes out.

I’m optimistic about their project. It will bring to light a lot of the things that people at smaller papers are doing to make themselves fit into the digital world. A lot of that smalltown work is overshadowed by the big papers’ work, which is a lot easier to do when you have things like “interactive units” rather than “the one guy who knows a little Flash.”