What print has been good at, historically, is gathering communities of like-minded people. If you read Flying, you're probably a private pilot. If you read Popular Science, you probably care a lot about tomorrow. If you read The Economist, you most likely have a business with a global view. If you read a local newspaper, you care about the community that newspaper covers.
Traditional publishing, however, is a one-way conversation; the editors and advertisers tell readers what they think the readers want to know. The Internet facilitates multi-directional conversation -- and the people who used to be called "readers" have discovered that they like controlling the conversation as much as the editors and advertisers do.
The good news is that existing media has the edge on gathering readers -- and let's call them that because that's what we've always called them -- because they're already in the business of attracting them with professionally generated content and sometimes-effective (though always expensive) circulation marketing. The bad news is that readers are more willing than ever to abandon old habits and go wherever other readers similar interests are hanging out.
The worse news is that most print media has been actively driving away previously loyal readers, allowing them to find other places online where compatriots lurk. You all know -- or ought to know -- the statistics that show how younger readers are turning to pretty much anyone other than newspapers for their news.
Newspapers aren't dead. They just need to learn a few lessons that their readers have been telling them for the last 20 years or so.
By rights, a city's newspaper should own its readers. After all, it supposedly knows the local ground better than any other medium, provides focused local content, and through its highly profitable Classified pages gives readers the opportunity to talk to each other.
Craig Newmark has not so much stolen the readers and revenues as much as he has gratefully accepted them as they wandered away. Local newspapers failed to understand that they are themselves the entire Town Square, where people gather to commune, and not just the monument in the middle.
For the moment, Craigslist is mostly a marketplace for goods and services. If you want to know what's going on in a town, rely on the newspaper and TV.
But what happens if Craigslist begins being a weblog aggregator -- a hub for citizen journalism? What happens if people can turn to Craigslist for reasonably accurate and self-correcting news and feature coverage of a town? There's scant reason that couldn't happen: the cost is low and there may be a critical mass of readers already there.
What happens? Game over for newspapers.
One problem is that local newspapers aren't so local anymore. More and more, they're owned by media conglomerates based far away, and carry mostly wire service copy and only a scattering of real local news. It's even worse for local radio, which doesn't even bother with hiring local announcers anymore -- and doesn't even carry news, now that the FCC doesn't require it.
Fortunately, there is still time. Local newspapers are still valuable brands with long traditions of trust. But defending that brand by building ever-higher walls is 180 degrees from the right answer. Instead, local media should embrace the lessons of Craigslist and the weblog revolution of citizen journalism. Let your readers join and even drive the conversation. Let them commit to their communities by providing and encouraging a Town Square. Newspapers need to act locally, as though they were part of their communities, and not mere profit centers driven from Denver or Chicago or New York.
I'm not suggesting that newspapers simply turn over the Web site or news pages to any random Joe. Newspapers have editors. Use the citizen journalists as though they're stringers. If the contributors are that interested, let them deal with a newsdesk, answering questions, refining the reporting. It's hard to imagine that the vast majority of interested people could be any less skilled than some kid six months out of J-school getting paid $16,000 to do night cops.
Compuserve and The Source set the explosives on the news cycle by making wire service feeds available to the public. CNN pressed the plunger, the same way that the Six O'Clock News detonated afternoon newspapers. Craigslist is the bulldozer that will knock over anything still standing.
But the Internet is a wonderfully level playing field. It's proven true over and over: Let people be part of a community -- give them the tools and a reason to come and stay -- and they will be yours for a long time.