I do not know Michael Kinsley and cannot personally attest to the fact that he spends substantial amounts of his time sitting in the Los Angeles Times editorial office coming up with subversive editorial ideas while rubbing his hands together and laughing maniacally. But that's what I imagine him doing. "Muahahaha!" says Kinsley, gleefully churning out a list of slightly anti-establishment schemes to be documented in Power Point and then perhaps left atop a stray copy machine. I imagine it that way mostly because I'm projecting (it's what I'd probably do if I were the LAT editorial page editor) and because I like the idea of purposeful mischief making in journalism.
When the LAT editorial page was recreated as a wiki last week, it seemed just the sort of thing that reflects that impulse. A wiki, if you're not familiar with the term, is an online text that can be edited collaboratively and simultaneously by multiple people. (Here, for example, is a wiki'd definition of a wiki.) "It might simply be amusing and interesting," Kinsley told NPR's On the Media last week, "or it might be completely pointless."
Reaction was mixed and by Sunday a few mischievous users with intentions more malicious than purposeful plastered pornographic images all over the two day old wikitorial. The LAT shut it down until further notice.
The wikitorial failed in execution but the concept is still on the table and LAT editors insist that they're open to the possibility of trying it again. And I hope they do. Large newspapers aren't exactly inclined to embrace experimental innovations, especially high-concept structural changes, and the wikitorial is a little bit subversive, a little bit anti-establishment and maybe even a little bit mischievous. (Susan Estrich can finally write for the LAT editorial page, notes mb's own FishbowlLA.) The original conceit of the editorial page—that the paper's editors and/or owners are capable of producing a monolithic judgment that is better informed and perhaps more valid than that of the average reader—is not so convincing if there is value in having the average reader edit that judgment in order to produce a more valuable editorial product. It's pleasantly democratic and it pokes insolent little holes in the elitism of ex-cathedra pronouncements made from the editorial page of the paper.
It's also, perhaps, a logical extension of trends that are currently emerging in media. The growth of blogs and other low cost and free self-publishing mechanisms have broadened the public's ability to participate directly in media and industry fragmentation has heightened expectations that media can and will be tailored to individual needs and wants. The wikitorial allows for both participation and tailored content.
It's obvious but necessary to state that with newspapers in perpetual decline and changing economic pressures that innovations like the wikitorial are inevitably going to become more commonplace and more appealing. But what does that mean specifically? I'm not a fortune teller, so I can't say for sure, but I polled some industry colleagues and below are six media concepts that could happen or are happening, along the same lines as the hypothetical LAT wikitorial formula: pressure to innovate + media trends that are already happening + a little Kinsley-esque journalistic mischief-making. Not all of them are particularly appealing and some are downright disturbing. For lack of a better description, we'll call them prototypes, because as with most off-the-wall media ideas, if you're not developing them yourself, someone else probably is.
1. The evolution (or devolution) of the Most Emailed List. There's a small box on the right column of the New York Times' website that lists the most-emailed articles of the day and the last week. This is, as the joke goes, the most important indicator of one's importance at the Times. It is also perhaps the closest thing, aside from web traffic stats, the Times has to determine which stories pique reader interest. The prototype: story selection by reader votes. The upside: the publication better reflects reader interests. The downside: reader interests as of yesterday: Gay or Straight? Who Can Tell Anymore?
2. Aspirational news. MB's FishbowlNY blogger, Rachel Sklar, refers to the aforementioned Most Emailed List as the "MEL", but there's no definition provided with each mention, so I get the occasional email or IM from a reader demanding to know what exactly the MEL is. I imagine that ABC's political blog, The Note, gets exponentially more email than we do about that sort of thing because a substantial amount of the blog requires some history of reading it understand the prior references and neverending slate of Note-invented acronyms. The prototype: news with a built-in learning curve. Rather than dumbing down the content, smarten it up so that it takes some actual effort and readers have to work for it. Part of the Note's appeal is that its incomprehensibility to casual readers reinforces the notion that it can and does deliver insidery news about what's happening in the beltway.
3. The red-blue media bias index. The Guardian self-identifies as a liberal newspaper. The New York Times ombudsman once identified it as a liberal newspaper, but didn't really mean it and that statement was taken out of context, and in retrospect, perhaps shouldn't have been made at all. I'm more inclined to think that The Guardian's policy is more useful and honest, as journalist objectivity does not preclude media bias that inherently exists because the journalists that staff news organizations happen to have political opinions. The prototype: an index of political identifications along a conservative-to-liberal continuum—perhaps even with blatant color-coding. The Times would probably a nice purple-ish blue.
4. The Citizen's Photo Agency. The recent purchase of flickr by Yahoo!, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the popularity of photoblogging would seem to indicate that everyone's a potential photographer—and, increasingly, an active photographer. It naturally follows that everyone's a potential photojournalist. The prototype: an organization or publication that facilitates the submission and resale of amateur photos taken of news events as they're happening.
5. Glossy A La Carte. The New York Times recently announced that it would charge readers for online access to certain columns in an effort to monetize online traffic while keeping parts of the site free for readers. The Times (and many other newspapers) already charge for individual articles in the archives, which would seem to indicate that readers are content to pay for parts of the newspaper even when they're not interested in buying the whole thing. If iTunes and TiVo have taught us anything, it's that allowing consumers to pick pieces of what they want doesn't reduce overall consumption. The prototype: The a la carte publication. Walk in to your nearest magazine store and pick up a Vanity Fair front of the book piece by Christopher Hitchens, a New Yorker profile by Ken Auletta and the Pynchon essays in the current issue of Book Forum—all for the low, low price of $1.99, because who needs to read the entire magazine?
6. The Graphic Newspaper. If Editor & Publisher has taught us anything it's that the kids aren't reading newspapers these days. They have too many other distractions. (The less optimistic would say they have no attention span.) At the same time, they are reading other things, and graphic novels, for example, have become more mainstream. The prototype: journalism in graphic form. Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde, Art Spiegelman's Maus are two classic examples of graphic journalism done well. Perhaps fixing the youth readership problem is just a matter of packaging.
[Got your own prototype ideas? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll publish the best ones.]
Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.