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Aug. 11, 2009, 9 a.m.

If it’s good enough for cheese: What would artisanal news look like?

I’d never heard this term until Dave Hendricks, who blogs at Attentionization, used it when he wrote about my post regarding what newspapers could learn from the decline in the ice harvesting business. (Read more about how he explains artisanal news in the comments on that post.)

I like the term. So I started to think about what it might mean.

Artisanal, we know, means something produced in limited quantities often using a traditional method. When I hear the word, I think of cheese or bread, not news — as I’d guess most people do.

I’ve been mulling the idea of artisanal news quite a bit, and I believe it would mean radically altered news organizations, very different from the ones we’re used to seeing. Here’s what I think an artisanal news organization might look like, particularly ones covering small and mid-sized communities.

Focus is niche, not mass: The news organization no longer strives to make every story as relevant as possible to everybody. Instead, it aims to make individual stories highly relevant to small groups of readers who collectively add up to lots of people. (Think Camembert for me; classic goat cheese for you.) Beats are constructed to tap into existing communities that appreciate the particular “cheese” or “bread” you are offering.

New skills: News organizations are radically slimmed down from those we know today. They employ “hybrid” journalists who know how to tell a story in multiple platforms, interact through social media and face to face and have the techie skills to create their own interfaces and adapt open APIs for the newsroom’s benefit. Journalists don’t work the assembly line of the “paragraph factory” in the fashion of the incremental cheese-production process of a major supplier. Instead, they hone a variety of skills and are involved start to finish in a story or presentation, as a cheese maker on her own small farm would be connected to every aspect of her product.

Trimmed bureaucracy: Instead of using a hierarchy of managers, news organizations rely on a few overseer-type facilitators and a few more writer/editors who lead rather than manage. Story placement isn’t determined by the newspaper section (business, features, local) where a staffer works but by what makes sense for readers. A health writer/editor, for example, might write stories that end up on the front page or in the business section as well as craft an interactive multimedia online presentation that helps readers get their own health-related questions answered. But his expertise would be tapped when someone who covers another beat writes a piece that straddles the health beat. Compare it to the artisanal bakery, where everyone knows how to make a baguette, focaccia, and brioche, but the baguette expert’s advice is sought when baguettes are made.

Online-first: News organizations are web-forward with their focus and brand. The web site is updated regularly, and readers can find out up-to-the minute news through blogs, stories, Twitter updates and real-time news formats such as CoveritLive. Using social media and engaging the public is an intrinsic part of the job, not a novelty. A staffer oversees and facilitates social media use, but the news organization doesn’t impose hard and fast rules. Staffers are free to invent a new “recipe” and try it out without going through yards of red tape.

Not just news: News organizations would cover the news, but their web sites would offer readers much more than that. The sites would provide just about everything someone needs to navigate their community, aggregated and easily searchable. I’m not saying news organizations would become search engines; they would use their journalistic expertise to curate the web with a mindset toward that local community and provide links to all types of information, from the school lunch menu at the area elementary schools to the local bloggers in town. Like artisans who sell cheese or bread but who are really selling an experience in old-world goodness, news organization would sell the convenience of having everything readers need in one place, not news.

Print takes long view: Print isn’t dead, but it morphs into a more magazine format. Imagine Newsweek for a local community, full of in-depth, change-the-world pieces that readers cannot get anywhere else. Perhaps it publishes daily, or, more likely, a few times a week. It also summarizes the breaking news for readers, so they feel like they know everything that happened that week. Like a fine cheese, the product is meant to be savored not gobbled down.

Would this work? I don’t know. I think it’s worth thinking about and dissecting.

Photo by Wendy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2009, 9 a.m.
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