News has an exceedingly short shelf life. If it happened yesterday, forget it — it’s expired. When Ben Bradlee prowled the Washington Post newsroom in his days as executive editor and stopped by the desks of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, he generally didn’t congratulate them about their page-one Watergate story in that morning’s Post. Instead he barked at them in his attention-getting Boston Back Bay voice, “What’ve you got for us today?”
Some 40 years later, “today” still defines almost all news — or, really, “the past 20 minutes.” But the St. Louis Beacon is challenging that iron rule with a modest publishing revolution that gives even last year’s news a new relevance.
The nonprofit Beacon, which covers St. Louis and Missouri and Illinois communities extending to the outer suburbs and beyond, has published the first iBook of “old” news – “Meandering Mississippi,” a collection of the paper’s comprehensive coverage of the destructive floods that hit the region in 2011. The book includes the searching questions the Beacon raised about the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ water-control policies, including the agency’s controversial decision last spring to dynamite a major levee and flood prime downriver farmland in an attempt to minimize damage to besieged upriver communities.
“Meandering Mississippi” is not likely to burst onto best-seller lists. The e-book is available only on iPads — for 99 cents, with Apple keeping 30 cents of the take. But sales have a “long-tail” potential. With management of the Mississippi (particularly the Corps of Engineers’ role) still a hot issue, book sales are likely to continue for months if not years. (Amazon is attempting to do the same with its “Amazon Singles” e-books most of which sell for 99 cents to $2.99.) “Meandering Mississippi” is promoted on Apple’s iTunes with other iBooks.
“Policy proposals are being advanced in Congress and by the Corps of Engineers,” Beacon editor Margie Freivogel told Street Fight in an interview. “I hope the book will help” in the final decision making. The Beacon’s iBook also has had an impact in the paper’s newsroom – and on both a personal and a professional level. “The staff was very excited,” says Freivogel. “It gives new life to their work because now more people can read what they wrote.”
The Beacon’s original coverage of the flooding – text, video, images and audio – stretched over months. “Meandering Mississippi” packages everything in one attractive, browsable narrative that lets the reader survey the big picture, which extends a couple of hundred miles south of Mississippi and all the way to Washington, DC.
Freivogel doesn’t see “Meandering Mississippi” as a one-off. “I think there are a lot of things we’ve published could become a book,” she said. “We do a lot of-in-depth coverage that affect people in the St. Louis region.”
If “Meandering Mississippi” is any guide, the Beacon won’t have to do any heavy lifting to produce more e-books. The first venture was put together by Beacon Presentation Editor Brent Jones mostly on his own time during one week. “I did a lot of it over a weekend,” Jones said. He downloaded iBook drag-and-drop software that made it easy to make up pages and upload videos and other features that enrich the final product. The software includes advanced customizing features that can be used by experienced digital newspaper designers.
“It gives you the freedom to experiment and be creative in a way that goes beyond what you can do on the Web,” says Jones. “It lets us connect things. There’s a beginning and an end – and beyond.”
He added that a new content management system that the Beacon had just adopted will make it easier for Web users who don’t have an iPad to browse the flood coverage. (I tried to find the flood coverage on the revamped website, but the closest I got was a story on flooding problems on the Missouri River – supplied by the Minot (ND) Daily Press.)
Hyperlocal news sites often publish revealing stories about what makes their communities tick or that capture the uniqueness of their character. Can those stories – which routinely disappear into archives – find new life as e-books?
“Our team is all about experimenting with new storytelling models,” says Sacramento Press COO Ben Ilfeld. “E-books are evolving into very compelling multimedia experiences. Who wouldn’t want to experiment? But we need time to refine interactive storytelling and build tools that allow for teams to easily collaborate to create engaging experiences.”
“No, this is not the ‘magic bullet’ that will make indie pubs fabulously profitable. The e-book space currently resides within restrictive walled gardens and you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox – a very competitive sandbox at that. But every additional revenue opportunity adds up, and this is probably a more natural fit for most indie pubs than, say, a daily-deal platform.”
“It’s an interesting idea,” says Mike Shapiro, the founder/publisher/editor of the 15-community The Alternative Press in suburban New Jersey. “I think the issue will be sparing the personnel (even part time) to get a project like this done. However, for an important enough story (such as the 2011 Mississippi floods), I think it would be worth doing. Even taking away the revenue aspect of it, creating an e-book for historical purposes would be worthwhile to do in our mission to serve our communities.”
West Seattle Blog Editor Tracy Record, though, raises some skeptical questions: “My estimate is that it would be a tremendous response for almost any neighborhood served by an independent site to buy even 500 copies of something like this, absolute max. (I don’t even think we have 500 readers on iPads, total.). The gross on 500 copies at 70 cents received for each is $350. It would cost more than that to pay even a part-time person working less than a week,’ let alone marketing (the energy you’d spend [promoting the iBook], administration, etc. Even if you assigned someone already on staff, you’re taking them away from core mission.”
The best answer may be, follow the e-book tail and see how long it turns out to be.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.