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New Practices and Revenues for a New Era in Journalism

We're not just whining about our finances like the Chronicle. We're doing something about them.



The woes of my industry mount on an almost daily basis. Papers in Denver and Seattle recently closed, and two entire chains have declared bankruptcy: the daily Tribune Company and alt-weekly Creative Loafing Inc. Closer to home, the weekly Berkeley Daily Planet and still-daily San Francisco Chronicle warn that they, too, are threatened by closure. I have collected final editions of such newspapers for years, since the 1982 demise of East Bay Today and the conversion of the Oakland Tribune from afternoon to morning publication. I frame and display them in my office like journalistic tombstones. I had the privilege of working for several of them, including the Berkeley Gazette and Spectrum Weekly, an Arkansas newsweekly that I modeled after the East Bay Express. These days, I'm hoping I don't have to buy a new frame for the Express.

The factors that have reduced us to this state are by now familiar. Classified advertising, one of the earliest forms of user-generated content and revenue, has migrated to the Internet. At weeklies like the Express, that migration also spelled the death of personals, which once provided us with edgy cachet and as much as 20 percent of our annual revenue. Meanwhile, daily newspapers have stupidly shot themselves in the foot by freely providing online what they once charged to provide in print. And, of course, all of us have suffered as the ever-greater proliferation of media options fractured once-unitary audiences into smaller and smaller niches. I could go on, but you get the gist.

So in response, this newspaper is revamping its business model. Of course, we'll continue to sell print advertising, which still provides the vast majority of our revenues and remains an exceedingly effective way to reach a targeted local audience of active and aware young professionals with a median age of about forty and an annual average income of about $75,000. But we'll also spread our wings, both by operating our current business differently and by venturing into new realms that hold the promise of sustaining us for years to come.

Here's how we will change our operations:

User-generated copyediting. Alert readers surely have noticed the absence of a copyeditor among our staff members in the past year and a half. Lamentably, that has produced an increase in grammatical errors within our pages. So we're preparing to enlist our readers in an exciting new model of online copyediting. Starting next week, the entire contents of each week's paper will be posted to the new "Beta" section of our web site. The reader who finds and corrects the most grammatical errors each week will win a $25 gift certificate to one of our region's remaining independent bookstores.

Wikipedia fact-checking. In a related development, we're also happy to announce a new partnership with the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Using a new private-label interface that Wikipedia developed in the search for a sustainable business model of its own, readers of the Express will now be able to make corrections directly to the stories on our web site. Certain subjects on which people simply can't agree — the efficacy of rent control, the solution for Israel and Palestine, whether there's a future for the hip-hop genre known as hyphy — will not be eligible for online revision. And, of course, certain members of the East Bay community will not qualify for access. (Yes, I'm talkin' to you, Don Perata.) But Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates can edit whatever he wants, since we'd rather have him change a story than steal our papers.

Reader-assigned stories. Another way in which we will place our faith in the wisdom of crowds is by allowing our readers to suggest specific topics for future stories. Express managing editor, arts editor, and webmistress Kathleen Richards has set up a dedicated Twitter account through which readers can tweet us both serious story tips and juicy celebrity dirt. And we have formed a partnership with Yahoo to cull each week's top ten East Bay search terms, which we will use to inform the content of our new page two column, "The Buzz Machine." Next week, expect coverage of American Idol, Kim Kardashian, Shawn Johnson, the Three Stooges, and Iran.

Reporters are personalities. Even as we enlist the assistance of our many talented readers, we'll also raise the profile of our regular contributors and 1.5 staff writers. In that, we'll be taking a cue from the Chronicle, where each reporter's picture now appears in the paper twice a week. (And while I'm thinking of it, don't you guys ever buy new clothing?) Just like at the Chronicle, we are turning our contributors into personalities. Gone will be any remaining pretensions of objectivity. If Robert Gammon doesn't like Don Perata or Sheila Jordan, he'll say so. (Well, okay, he already does.) This will help turn our reporters into online brands, and should increase our web traffic. Of course, readers will have to adjust. Since staff writer, music writer, entertainment writer, theater reviewer, and calendar editor Rachel Swan doesn't really like theater, we probably won't write about that any more. And since managing editor, arts editor, webmistress, and music editor Kathleen Richards listens only to black metal, stoner metal, and doom metal (try sharing an office wall with her), we probably won't cover country, folk, reggae, or singer-songwriters. But by digging deep into Rachel's love of jazz and Kathleen's passion for Nordic dragon imagery, we expect to triple our online traffic from Germany and Scandinavia.

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