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Rethinking the future of journalism

The rotten economy isn’t killing newspapers, it’s just pulling the proverbial plug on a senescent patient. How else to explain a study by the Bivings Group — referenced here on the blog at the Knight Digital Media Center — that found that “only 10 percent of the top 100 newspaper sites in the United States had implemented social networking tools.”

The Washington Post, always ambitious in the realm of online media, is trying something interesting: a wiki-like directory of government power players called It’s in the very early stages; as of this writing, its section on House staff only contains four profiles. To succeed, The Post will have to build up a critical mass of users to the point where it becomes a professional embarrassment not to have a profile up.

Even if it does succeed, the question is “So what?” A searchable, interactive database of government workers may be a killer app for journalists looking for sources and D.C. lawyers and lobbyists, but what does it mean to the general public, and how does it make money?

I’m more impressed with the way newspapers are making their content accessible and sharable via existing social networks. While dedicated boutique social networks might attract users around a hobby or a school or a business enterprise, it’s hard to imagine people duplicating their social profiles for the sake of a local or regional newspaper.

Despite all the doom and gloom, I’m optimistic that the U.S. won’t become a government without newspapers — even if the ‘paper’ part becomes anachronistic. Part of the reason is that there will always be people who find romance in the idea of being a journalist. If this post from the Nieman Journalism Lab is any indication, it appears that the profession is attempting to rise to the challenge. Titled Building networks around news, it offers a great compendium of links on how journalists are successfully incorporating tools like Twitter and social networks to expand their reach.