The Rag That Would Save Newspapers
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, a month before the free daily newspaper BostonNow would make its inglorious debut, its editor, John Wilpers, stood inside the All Asia café in Central Square and waited to be impressed. He had invited local bloggers to meet him there to talk about his paper—a paper he promised would be as much theirs as his. About 35 had accepted, and as they trickled into the restaurant, he greeted them with a smile and a handshake and offered each a small concave mirror. “When you’re at work and blogging, you put it up and see if your boss is coming,” he explained, acting every bit the slacker coconspirator.
A veteran of Boston’s two big dailies—he has written and edited for the Globe and the Herald—the bearded and bespectacled Wilpers carried a casual air of authority. A man of his experience isn’t expected to take interest in the work of amateurs, and yet there he was, seemingly enthralled by even the most mundane of online exploits. One blogger announced that he enjoys reviewing movies and had recently attended a film festival. “That’s great!” Wilpers replied, smile wide.
The zeal may have been genuine, but it was also good salesmanship. As Wilpers told the crowd that gathered at All Asia, his new paper needed them: Boston-Now, he explained, intended to be a community newspaper, written by and for the people it served. Local bloggers would get prominent space in its pages, and anybody interested would get a seat at the staff table, via live Internet broadcasts of its daily editorial meetings. The result would be an integration of newsprint and online content—the newspaper encouraging people to visit the website, and the website serving as the meeting place where much of the paper gets produced.
But for all the wild-eyed potential of the paper Wilpers was pitching, when Boston-Now hit the streets on April 17, it was less than extraordinary. Actually, it was downright sloppy and riddled with typos. Its website wasn’t completely functional—a problem, since that’s where the bloggers Wilpers was courting were to submit their work, which meant that for the first two weeks
BostonNow contained almost none of the ballyhooed repurposed blog posts. The paper promised enterprising journalism, but its pursuit of scandal was so zealous that its front page was a frequent harbinger of dubious doom and danger (sex offenders on the loose, unsafe T stations, the city’s baffling evacuation routes). It felt irresponsible, even adolescent. Sometimes it was just plain confusing. What attention it received in the blogosphere was sneering and dismissive.
And yet the ideas behind BostonNow, as simple as they are, square well with the problems newspapers are facing, and represent some possible solutions: Allow readers to mold the paper, and they might also gather around it, lift it up, make it meaningful to their lives. But crudely fusing online posts and newsprint and bringing outsiders willy-nilly into the mix won’t win the new model success. To become essential reading and project credibility—and be something advertisers would gladly pay to be associated with—BostonNow needs to do some quality control. If it can do that, the joke may be on its critics. If it can’t, the newspaper business will lose a valuable experiment.
BostonNow is produced in a beautiful 12th-floor office in Downtown Crossing, with large windows that look out onto the Common. Fittingly, though, its space wasn’t ready by the date that had been chosen for the paper’s debut, so the staff spent the first few weeks in temporary quarters, working on folding tables and laptops, surrounded by empty coffee cups.
Of all the unconventional things BostonNow is doing, the most unconventional is launching a big-city paper at all during a period in which many others are fighting for survival. Advertisers, as we are frequently reminded, are losing interest in the medium, and circulation is in a nosedive. (Since 1996, the Globe, for example, has lost 18 percent of its print audience. At the Herald, things have gotten so grim that rumors of the tabloid’s demise are traded almost weekly.) That’s prompted a full-throttle freak-out in the newspaper industry—and, not surprisingly, given how proud an industry it is, few truly bold changes. Most papers are just fiddling around the margins, trying to make the news more enticing by spicing up front-page designs and shortening stories. In a bid to turn their websites into more than repositories for yesterday’s news, they’re tapping their reporters to post their scraps on blogs of ill-defined purpose.
Such tentative steps have created an opening for a new product to flourish: free, lean papers full of bite-size stories, the kind of thing you can get through in 20 minutes or less. But while these commuter dailies have become popular, so far their easy-to-read format has been more innovative than the content itself, which tends to consist largely of truncated wire dispatches. The most successful are published by Metro International, which hands out dailies in more than 100 cities worldwide. The edition that started up here in 2001 now boasts an audited circulation of 166,500, and is quietly on pace to overtake the Herald as Boston’s second largest paper by late this year. (The Globe’s owner, the New York Times Company, sensing the tide shifting, bought 49 percent of it in 2005.)
Wilpers, who once ran the Boston Metro, is trying to make BostonNow more than just a soulless digest of current events. He wants a paper that its audience can form a bond with. His philosophy is a straightforward response to the industry’s largest quandary: A newspaper has to give readers what they want; maybe the best way to do that is to let them make it themselves. He found a believer and partner in his old Metro boss, Russel Pergament, an energetic newspaper-builder who, in the early ’90s, founded local free weekly the Tab before launching a daily in New York City called amNew York. To get BostonNow off the ground, Pergament secured financial backing from Dags-brun, an Icelandic media conglomerate with lofty plans: It wants the duo to hone a formula here, then penetrate other American markets, with initial plans for 10 similar papers.
Another publisher might have waited until his paper’s website, or at least its office, was ready to go, but Pergament says he doesn’t like sitting still when he’s got an idea to play with. By his own admission, the launch was “choppy and ugly and blurry and muddy.” That’s the way his papers start, he says. Pergament recently gathered the BostonNow staff together and held up a copy of amNew York’s 25th issue, from 2004, declaring it a poor excuse for journalism. The message: Don’t worry, things will get better. “There may be smarter ways to do things,” he says. “But the objective is to make it happen, and then to make it happen right, and then to make it happen real good.”
That penchant for experimentation may frustrate readers in the short term, but those who’ve tracked Pergament’s career say his past successes are due in part to his ability to identify and fix problems fast. BostonNow’s first few months have certainly called on those skills. If the editorial snafus weren’t enough, when the paper launched, its printing quality was so poor that some pictures and text were almost impossible to make out. Perhaps worse, in a town as sports-mad as this one, BostonNow went to press at about 8 p.m., leaving out most of that night’s scores.
Pergament worked with the paper’s pr
inter to quickly resolve both issues, and he says the launch was actually less crazed than his bosses at Dags-brun had envisioned: The Icelanders had wanted the BostonNow team to start three papers at once, until Pergament talked them down. Dagsbrun, a growing company in a country whose population is about half the size of Boston’s, is eager to enter the American newspaper market, which, though shrinking, still rakes in $49 billion in ad revenue a year—about 38 percent of the industry’s worldwide total. Pergament may not be Rupert Murdoch, but he’s shown he knows how to get papers up and running in a hurry. And hiccups be damned, that’s what Dagsbrun wants.
Every day at 1 p.m., about eight BostonNow staffers gather at one end of a conference room table. At the other end is a laptop, its built-in camera aimed at the group. Anyone can log on to bostonnow.com, watch the editorial meeting in real time, and type their thoughts, which get projected onto a wall in front of the staff. Write something particularly interesting—on slow days, write just about anything—and the staff will drop what they’re talking about and respond.
The BostonNow team seems conscious of the distance their words travel, alternately directing conversation to one another and to the Internet viewers. They repeat their e-mail addresses, ask viewers to toss out story ideas, and frequently glance toward the camera as if it’s another person in the room. It’s a strange dynamic, this merger of strategizing and soliciting. For the viewer, it’s a bit like watching a mash-up of C-SPAN and the Home Shopping Network.
Technology is a journalist’s friend, but it hasn’t always helped the time-worn newspaper. Not only has it changed the way news is dispensed by ushering in 24-hour news channels and web-based publications that make newspapers feel slow and archaic, but some industry experts have also proffered that it’s even distanced papers from the communities they cover. Reporters now turn to the Internet to find information they once would have had to speak with a human being to get, and—like writers at the Globe—can use their newspaper’s website to send out the call for sources willing to comment for specific stories. This kind of desk-jockeying isn’t the same as a chat over a drink with a source, but in newsrooms sacked by staff cuts, it’s an efficient way to fill pages.
Part of the novelty of BostonNow’s approach is that it aims to connect with its readers by using the very tools that distance other reporters from theirs. The streaming meetings are designed to foster a dialogue between the newspaper and its readers. Or at least, the 20 or so that may show up. The rest of Boston is busy doing something else at 1 p.m., presumably working to get paid rather than help a paper they have no financial stake in. And that’s what’s making BostonNow’s optimistic plans so difficult to pull off. Yes, people want to feel connected, but that abstract yearning alone isn’t going to compel them en masse to search out that connection. And BostonNow has little reach in the other direction: It has only three reporters, total, to put out on the street.
With its technical bugs finally sorted out, BostonNow’s website has been up for two months. Bloggers can be found here and there throughout its pages—appearing in random bursts of text complaining about politics or fellow T riders, and offering, at best, a mild distraction from the rest of the day’s news. It’s a community of sorts, and the bloggers reflect what at least some people in Boston are thinking.
But even this achievement raises a question: Is the blog material BostonNow is working into its pages actually worth readers’ time? So far…mostly not. In fact, sometimes it seems the paper’s method for selecting which online submissions get published is to print them all out, tape them to a wall, and throw darts at them. (That, or the paper’s only getting absolute dreck, and the excerpts we’re seeing represent what passes for highlights.) A blogger, the paper needs to remember, is just someone who spent a few minutes signing up at any of the Internet’s free blogging services, maybe even the one at bostonnow.com. The BostonNow philosophy may call for a collaborative process, but only a few of its collaborators—namely, the ones getting paychecks from Iceland—have the time, effort, and training to produce reliable newspaper articles.
Hiding among the online riffraff, though, are bloggers capable of discovering things even the best-staffed newsroom never could. The most promising part of BostonNow’s business plan relies on filtering our local blogosphere, identifying the best of those thinkers and writers, and then giving them a platform they actually want to be a part of. The rough start notwithstanding, none of this is lost on Wilpers. He’s calling specific bloggers personally, and in May he went to lunch with two writers from Bostonist. With more than 100,000 unique visitors a month, it’s one of the best-read blogs in the city, and the kind that hadn’t yet bought into BostonNow—with good reason, in its case. During the paper’s early, sloppiest days, BostonNow reprinted Bostonist content without asking permission, leading the site to accuse it of stealing.
Wilpers, ever the ego booster, started lunch with an apology, then moved on to talk of a mutually beneficial relationship. “They’re still discovering themselves,” Bostonist editor Jon Petitt said after the sit-down. “I give them credit for being open to a lot of different ideas.” Not long after the meeting, the blog struck a deal to provide the paper with regular content—for free, no less.