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Sept. 2, 2009, 12:23 p.m.

Four reasons neighborhood papers might be the (or a) future of editing

Go figure: When we’re talking about a new media ecosystem, writers and reporters get all the press. But one in two of the country’s daily print journalists is an editor or a boss. What’s going to happen to them?

Cornelius Swart, the 37-year-old publisher of a respected neighborhood monthly in Portland, Ore., is working on an answer. In a nutshell, it’s this: bloggers, cable-access hosts, neighborhood associations, their distributors or their benefactors will be willing to pay somebody to teach amateurs the ropes, draft their FOIAs, hear their pitches, edit their copy, syndicate their content or manage their software.

In other words, reporting might be so much fun that it’ll be left to volunteers. It’s being an editor that sucks — and it’s being an editor that will pay.

The concept of giving external support to solo performers seems to have legs. founder Mark Potts recently announced GrowthSpur, which wants to offer a variety of advertising services to small-scale local sites. By analogy, if Potts wants to be a blogger’s surrogate publisher, Swart wants to be their streetwise city editor.

Swart — a former documentarian turned community organizer whose Portland Sentinel has tripled its revenue and doubled its circulation (to 26,000) since he bought it in 2004 — has a history of making the math come out his way. Here are four of the calculations his project, called Portland Media Lab, is counting on.

Young talent + local expertise = strategic advantage. What’s the core competence of a first-rate small newsroom? It’s mentorship. When you can successfully mix gray hairs and youthful energy, everybody wins — readers included.

That’s what the Sentinel discovered with the internship program it ran from 2005 to 2008, led by newsroom grizzlies who’d spent years at the dailies in Portland, Kansas City and Indianapolis. Watching from the publisher’s chair, Swart learned two things: that mentorship in the “20th-century tradition” of newsgathering is too valuable to lose, and that few newsrooms can still afford to do it.

“What we’ve found with other small papers is it’s a lot more effort and time and money to manage interns than it’s really worth,” Swart told me. “The Sentinel was really about creating a small newsroom rather than being a small paper.”

But the very difficulty of dealing with interns, Swart realized, was an opportunity: If managing a small newsroom could become his specialty — well, that’d be a niche.

Your ideas < everybody's ideas. Neighborhood journalism, like neighborhood organizing, requires buy-in from everybody in the area. And you don’t get buy-in without integrating other people’s ideas.

Unlike the Backfences and Citysearches of the world, Swart isn’t primarily interested in luring volunteer content onto a website his company has designed, though software consulting might be among his services. Instead, he likes the philosophy of facilitate, disseminate, but don’t try to aggregate. Let good ideas emerge entrepreneurially instead of trying to make them all your own.

But as with, this generosity of spirit puts Swart in a financial bind. Where’s the cash come in?

Maybe, Swart said, money will come from syndicating interns’ content around town, or from foundations with an interest in training tomorrow’s journalists. Maybe tomorrow’s journalists, looking for end-runs around the outdated j-school system, will put up cash for short courses themselves, then apply for a competitive intern program once they’ve learned the basics. Maybe the whole thing can be subsidized by a network of profitable beat blogs who turn to Swart’s team for copyediting or consultation.

If you’ve got ideas, I bet Swart would love to hear them.

Reporting ≠ journalism. Sure, Swart worries about the future of the media. But don’t wait for him to weep for the vanishing beat reporter. He’s been watching the local web, and he doesn’t see an information shortage on the horizon. Instead, there’ll be shortages of reliability, priority and presentation.

“There’s a distinction between reporting, which is sort of gathering and relaying information, and journalism, which is really about investigating, hearing both sides and in some cases making a judgment,” Swart said. “It’s really the journalism that seems to be under threat.”

It’s an unusual, provocative argument: The risk isn’t that Ariana Huffington will steal the ledes of all your best stories. The risk is that there won’t be enough Ariana Huffingtons in the world to help your readers find the best ledes.

The future = the past. In Swart’s mind, the Huffington Post model is actually the second coming of the His Girl Friday era, with rookie reporters working the beats and experienced rewrite men curating their information.

“They describe a reporter as an ‘outside man,'” Swart said. “That’s the term. He or she is the one at the courthouse with the judge, and then he makes a call to the writer at the news desk, and he writes up the story.

“That outside man increasingly can become the citizen reporter,” Swart went on. “And the Huffington Post is increasingly the guy at the other end of the phone. They’re at the newsroom, harvesting the information.”

And that’s how Swart sees the future of editing: Community organizing. One-on-one contact with independent writers who have different needs but a shared hunger for guidance and expertise.

“I’m not saying all news organizations should be like that,” Swart said. “Most shouldn’t. But the broadsheets of yore and the political organs that newspapers used to be — in many ways, they were like community organizing tools…There should be, in many markets, a tremendous power to be able to empower citizens, organize them, and not only being able to relay what they see but also to kind of galvanize them around a news story.”

POSTED     Sept. 2, 2009, 12:23 p.m.
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