Friday, February 27, 2009

Newspapers could actually try online

IN the myriad of — mostly misguided — solutions recently offered to save newspapers I’ve yet to see anyone suggest ways for newspapers to simply take better advantage of the situation they’re in. The reality is, tho they pontificate otherwise, newspapers have not really taken advantage of the web and the new medium that it offers. Even today, most newspapers aren’t putting a real effort into online news and that’s leaving them ill prepared for the “secular changes in the industry” that are helping to destroy them.
So here’s my radical idea: get serious about being in the online news space. Stop thinking some rich guy (or rich government) will save you and save yourself. Stop paying lip service to the web and start playing like you mean it. Here’s how:
First and foremost, recognize that the web is different from print and it really is its own “new” medium. It is not, as so many tend to think, simply a collection of “old” media all rolled up in one place, it’s something entirely new. This concept is really important as it is the foundation needed to build everything else on. Once this is really understood, traditional print operations can start to see where other changes need to be made.

Staffing. Because the web constitutes an entirely new medium, it needs an entirely new mindset. What has worked well for 20 years in print, might not work well online (and vice versa). You have to have the experience and skill with the medium to know the difference.
Most daily newspapers employ a talented print staff, on their second or third newspaper, and would never dream of throwing a brand-new, fresh off the truck, reporter into a senior editing or news decision roll. Yet they do it all the time in their online operations, seemingly grabbing whomever is walking by (or worse, some dreg that they can’t place anywhere else) and chucking them into an “online content editor” roll (or whatever it’s called at your paper). Then they mark it off on some checklist that they placed someone in an online position and sit back and wait for the web traffic (and revenue) to come rolling in. And they can’t figure out why is doesn’t work.
Look, most newspapers got onto the web in the mid 90s, this means there ought to be a fair number of people with nearly 10 years of online news experience — and on their second or third paper to boot — running around. Odds are they probably came originally from the print side as well. Why aren’t newspapers hiring them?
There is, of course, more to it than just raw years of service. You want people who are avid and active consumers of the online medium, just as traditional newspaper people are by nature avid and active consumers of newspaper products. I’m talking about people who can make good decisions about the value of a story online because they get that the web is different than print. They get that if a story plays out over time then it needs to be done in such a way that various RSS readers, mobile sites and whatever else comes a long needs to be able to update properly, as opposed to just posting a “write-thru”. I’m also talking about people who are active in both in the writing of and the consuming of blogs. I’m also talking about people actively involved in social sites like Facebook as well as being immersed in other aspects of the online medium (perhaps “how many RSS feeds are in your Google Reader?” might be a good interview question).
These are the people who will build and maintain a serious web presence.

Web Design. Hopefully your crack new web staff knows what should be obvious: newspapers websites suck. Why? Because they were built by newspaper people and follow that same potpourri newspaper model that works so well for, well, newspapers. Problem is, it is the modern equivalent of reading the newspaper on the radio in the 1930s.
Rip all that shit out. Adopt the topic or the storyline approach to better facilitate story-telling online. Also recognize that some stories destined for the newspaper, just might not attract anyone online, which is fine, so don’t post them.
Additionally deploy content using a more linear model. Most newspaper websites are a mishmash of headlines and ads all vying for the readers eye much like the physical newspaper, but resulting in nothing more that a cacophony of visual clutter. Streamline and simplify. I’ve seen newspaper website statistics that routinely show that the traffic on the average story page (or photo) is a miniscule percentage of overall site traffic. This isn’t the case with more linear blogs where article traffic is almost always commensurate with site traffic. This, to me, translates into gross inefficiency and lost traffic potential because stories are scattered all about
Also market your /news, /sports and other subsections directly and focus traffic to them, away from the busy mess that you still call a “homepage”. Not only does this increase you SEO, but it gives readers a reason to come back again and again as news and information updates because they’ll have something to follow. Or better still, design the site to automatically change, so during peak news events users never have to leave.
In short, tailor your web site for the web, not for the printed newspaper.

Workflow. Finally, with a more web savvy staff and a more web savvy site, you have one more dragon to slay: your heretofore broken story workflow. I’ve ranted about this before but even still, damn near every newspaper I’ve ever visited is still working with print-centric story workflows (nevermind the fact that most are also still working with 1990s technology).
Here’s a free tip: if you’re still automatically (or semi-automatically) shoveling content from the “print product” to the “web product” you’re doing it wrong. Just stop. Instead take advantage of the idea of “curation,” where your web editors — using that wealth of online experience you hired them for — pick and choose the best stories and present them in a way that will work well online. But make sure they’re pulling from a story pool before they are edited for print. Give them the tools to easily add web-centric content such as visualizations, embedded video, and yes cross-referenced hyperlinks to other content.
To do this, of course you’ll need a content management system that doesn’t suck as well, something most newspapers just don’t seem to have — either for print or online. Given the huge sums of money flushed each year into ineffective publishing systems and the man-hours used to apply duct-tape to them, I’d think there’d be substantial savings and improved efficiency all around if someone would take the time to invest in newer solutions. And there are newer solutions, especially for web content (and many are free).
Or, newspapers can continue to attempt to become more efficient in other ways, through cutbacks and layoffs, which work in much the same way that cutting off your fingers makes you a more efficient typist. It’s their call.
There is a sense of panic in the newspaper industry, that newspapers are dying, and even though newspapers have been ill for a lot longer than most people think, it has only been recently that real discussion about it has taken place. This gives me some hope, because maybe, just maybe the decision makers are finally ready to get serious about this newfangled web thing.


No comments: