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March 28, 2022, 2:30 p.m.
Business Models

“Newspubs”: Let’s try a new word for a new era

“It’s simple, fast, and gloriously free of baggage. It’s not what we’re not, it’s simply what we are. And anyone is free to use it.”

“How’s the, uh, paper going? I mean, the, uh, online site. The phone app? But it’s not really an app, uh…The startup? Your new thing.”

If I had a dollar for each time I’d been asked that awkward question as Lookout Santa Cruz approaches its eighteenth month, we’d have enough money to hire a full-time investigative reporter. Or deepen our engagement with college and high school students or further fuel our post-shutdown community betterment events strategy.

As newspeople, we know that words matter. We believe in the power of language to help us define what we’re seeing, highlight our beliefs, and inch toward truth. We know the danger of not knowing, which for me in Santa Cruz has been reinforced by experiencing life and journalism in an American news desert. We also see every day the opposite of knowing, as we witness the Orwellian nightmare of Putin’s Russia.

Yet we haven’t been able to come up with a word that describes what many of us are up to. We’re building something new locally, oh-so-fitfully replacing the stumbling, semi-suicidal newspaper dinosaurs that financial engineers keep on life support, so long as the cash flows.

Early on, as I talked with locals in Santa Cruz about Lookout, I’d see the confusion in their eyes. In 2020, pre-launch, they even asked if it was “a blog.” I explained what I intended it to be: A local digital-only news company, deeply invested in the community, as the daily newspaper had once been. That description has now made inroads, a year and a half in, because readers can actually see Lookout on their phones. But, still, it’s “How’s the paper…”

I think readers want to see us as more than one-offs. They may see our own individual products, but they don’t see that they are part of a trend, if not a wider mission. They can’t categorize us, as humans are driven to do.

“News media” really doesn’t describe much, and lacks purpose. The American Journalism Project has taken a swing at it with CNOs, for Community News Organizations, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

I believe it’s more than a semantic problem.

If we can’t describe what we are doing, succinctly and with a touch of modernity and of spirit that all 2020s news products should have, then, maybe, that tells us something.

Way back in the early digital days at Knight Ridder, and more widely among our industry brethren, we talked about “online newspapers.” Made sense. We had — Clay Christensen’s ears must be ringing somewhere — defined the new in terms of the old. We had brought that metaphor of the newspaper and digitized it. But mostly it was still a newspaper, in format, presentation, and thinking.

That was then. This is now: Post-recession, post-shutdown, with platforms defining the ground in which we news pioneers plant our seeds below.

Hundreds of news startups now populate the North American news landscape. Over the years, and more recently, as we’ve built our own Lookout Local model, I have spoken to many of them. And they hear what I hear, from readers, donors, would-be members, and advertisers — that uncertainty about what they are.

People like categories, and they like terms that make sense to them. And all of us in the business of building rather than milking need a way to talk about ourselves more wholly.

So, I’ve started using this new term: Newspubs.

It’s simple, fast, and gloriously free of baggage. It’s not what we’re not, it’s simply what we are. And anyone is free to use it.

At root, it is about what unites us, not divides us.

We all do news. We all, or almost all, do it in the public interest.

It connotes something modern, and, yes, digital, but no longer needs to spell that out for Dummies. It is 2022, after all.

It’s “platform-agnostic.”

Nonprofit, public benefit company, or set on making a mint on news? Makes no difference. All newspubs.

Call yourself an “organization” or a “company.” Best wishes. Makes no difference.

Local, national, or networked? Have at it. The readers/listeners/viewers will figure out those distinctions.

Rely on grants or driven by the notion that earned revenue can sustain and build news operations? As we all increasingly agree, as long as you report without fear or favor, get funding wherever you can.

Great, mediocre, or indifferent? We may hope for greatness, but let’s be frank about the wide (and largely un-critiqued) differences in journalistic quality among all the non-newspaper newbies. Makes no difference. All newspubs.

Newspubs, then, wouldn’t be a club, or an association, a consortium, or anything else. It’s just a term. Just as the quality of newspapers and TV and radio cover a full spectrum from excellence to effluent, newspubs only define a new class of media.

It is media almost entirely consumed on the phone and on the computer, but we don’t need to say that to each other any more.

We can draw on our combos of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek to form neologisms, as our media predecessors did.

Constantin Perskyi saw far ahead at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, naming “television.” The origins of “newspaper” are murkier (and they don’t mean “north, east, west, and south,” though that’s a nifty myth), it’s pretty clear how that new word made sense to printers looking to diversify their revenue models.

For now, I’m going to try out newspub and see how it goes. Let me know if you come up with something better.

Ken Doctor is a long-time media analyst, speaker, and consultant, who contributed more than a million words to Nieman Lab before launching his own local news-start up, uh, newspub, model, in November, 2020. Lookout Santa Cruz, the first newspub of Lookout Local, supports a staff of 13.

POSTED     March 28, 2022, 2:30 p.m.
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