For whatever reason, most two-newspaper towns I can think of have one old-fashioned broadsheet that is journalistically conservative (but often politically liberal) and a second, tabloid-sized paper that is scrappy in its journalism (but often conservative in its politics). Think the New York Times and the Post. And, closer to home, the Trenton Times and the Trentonian.
I have been a faithful reader of the Trenton Times for years. And for years I avoided the feisty Trentonian (or Trashtonian, as some call it, referring to its lurid cover headlines and Page 6 girls).
But a few years ago I began buying the Trentonian. The reason: High school sports. As editor of our sister newspaper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, I wanted to keep track of the sports teams at the two high schools in those communities. The Trenton Times had cut back and moved up its press time so it missed the late games; the Trentonian seemed to keep up its sports coverage.
So when I ran into Jeff Jarvis, envisioning the world of journalism in a post-print world, and he announced that a newspaper in our own backyard was transforming itself into this brave new journalistic world, I guessed immediately it would be the cheeky Trentonian. A few days later John Paton, the new CEO of the Trentonian’s parent company, the Journal Register, based in Yardley, announced that he had formed an advisory board “charged with pushing us to experiment in new ways of news creation and delivery.” (The Trenton Times, as far as I can tell, has no social media presence.)
The Journal Register advisory board consisted of Jarvis, NYU professor Jay Rosen, and Betsy Morgan, former CEO of the online Huffington Post. In the announcement Paton talked not about newspapers but rather the company’s “multi-platform products,” some 300 of them in total, which reach an audience of 14 million people a month.
From newspaper to multi-platform product — that’s the transformation happening at the Trentonian, and you can follow by buying an occasional copy of the printed paper (50 cents a day; $1.25 on Sundays) and by following @Trentonian on Twitter, which will link you often to the paper’s homepage www.trentonian.com). There’s no charge for the home page or Twitter — you just pay for that with your time.
The mantra now at the Trentonian (and the other Journal Register multi-platform products) is digital first.
As Jarvis noted on his blog, buzzmachine.com, “by putting print at the end of the line, production for paper won’t dictate the rest of the line. So now a reporter can start blogging at the beginning of a story. And that makes a profound shift in the culture of news: it opens up the process to the public. ‘Here’s what I think I’ll work on,’ the reporter says to the community she covers. ‘Good idea? Is there something else you think I should do instead? What do you want me to find out for you? What do you know? Whom should I call?’ As the process continues, the reporter can share what she learns — and doesn’t learn — and the community can help fill in blanks and make the reporting better.
“At some point in this process, the reporter likely will write what we’d still recognize as an article. Indeed, writing it before publication opens the possibility of the community still helping by correcting and enhancing. Then a print editor can grab the story and fit it for print. No big deal.”
Cool. Paton, 52, started as a reporter and later became a publisher adept at transforming print into online publications. Early this year he joined the financially challenged Journal Register Company (it filed for bankruptcy in 2009). Paton is no idealistic fool. In fact, as he noted in a blog to his employees (but shared with the general public in the new spirit of transparency) the company still has to get the journalism right: “If we don’t . . . it doesn’t matter how many media platforms we are on. Lousy journalism on multiple platforms is just lousy journalism available in multiple ways.”
There are glitches. The Trentonian’s Twitter feeds are sometimes overwhelmed by the sports department, which tweets minor variations of the same story in rapid succession. One can imagine the sports tweets soon being handled separately from the news tweets.
And the audience’s posts to the Trentonian’s blog page are not always constructive. One day I followed the breaking news of a roofer electrocuted when his ladder hit some power lines. The initial report, which mentioned the victim’s foreign-sounding last name, was greeted with bigoted comments about “illegals” and their just rewards. Maybe we should just electrify the Rio Grande River, suggested one post.
Those exchanges were followed by an emotional posting from a woman named Patrycia, who defended the victim as a hard-working American, despite his foreign name. She wrote that she was his daughter and that the family was devastated by the outrageous commentary.
That triggered more charges and counter-charges from the Trentonian crowd. And then came the ultimate Twitter triumph, from Patrycia: “Ha ha ha, man do I feel good. I just got over on all you people, I don’t even know who these people are, I just wanted to let off some steam. Ha ha ha. [rotflmfao].”
I guess the Trentonian would argue that this interchange is the price you pay for “crowd-sourcing,” or tapping the collective wisdom of the audience. The Trentonian obviously could assign an editor to monitor those blog posts. But editors are a scarce commodity in the budget-minded newspaper business.
Like a lot of the media these days, the Trentonian hopes readers will provide some content. The sports department heralds a photo feature called “My Kid Played.” Parents are invited to send photos of their kid competing in anything from Little League to college. They will be printed for free in the Sunday paper and online. Last Sunday’s paper turned over two pages to these snapshots.
I shudder at the thought. Will the sandlot photos crowd out the Trentonian’s coverage of high school sports, my justification for reading the paper in the first place?
Next week: An action plan for communications professionals in the new “news eco-system.”