Wednesday, August 01, 2007

How newspapers can thrive on the World Wide Web

From Online Journalism Review,
Annenberg School of Journalism, University of Southern California

Commentary: An online journalism pioneer examines the state of the industry through the example of his hometown Florida newspapers. By Robin Miller
Posted: 2007-07-24

Robin 'Roblimo' Miller is Editor in Chief for OSTG, owner of Slashdot, NewsForge, freshmeat,,, and the ecommerce site ThinkGeek.

I live in Bradenton, Florida, where we have two local newspapers, the Bradenton Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Neither one has a very good website. Both are steadily losing print subscribers and advertisers, just like most newspapers around the country. Still, newspapers are usually the most recoginizable media brands in their communities, and should be able to translate that brand recognition into local online information dominance. Here's how they can do it.

Where's the calendar?

One of the most useful services a local information medium can provide is a comprehensive events calander. My local newspapers list many events but in scattershot fashion, with political events here, city council meetings and other official gatherings over there, sports in their own corner, and other social and business events in their own sections or mentioned in little articles published in no particular order, in no particular place.

In a world of free databases and simple PHP Web-building tools, it is no big trick to put together a comprehensive online calander that can be searched in many ways, including type of event (high school sports, zoning board, musical performance), date (all events on Febtober 38, 2101), and location (within X miles of Zip Code XXXXX).

A website that can tell me about every upcoming meeting of the Bradenton City Council and every upcoming appearance of my favorite local bands and alert me to the next meeting of the Tamiami Trail Business Association is going to get a lot of visits from me -- and from a lot of other people, too.

Maintaining a comprehensive local calendar takes work, but it is not highly-skilled work that requires a journalism degree or other specialized education. Anyone with good typing skills, the ability to send and receive faxes and emails, and enough self-discipline to call organizations and government agencies regularly to check the accuracy of their listings ought to be able to handle it.

Many years ago, when I wrote freelance for Baltimore's weekly City Paper, I learned that even if my name and story were on the cover, more people picked up City Paper to read the events calendar, produced by two anonymous people in City Paper's office, than to read my work. Events calendars may not feed journalists' egos, but a good one is probably more important to more people's lives, day in and day out, than an endless series of hard-hitting investigative pieces -- and costs a lot less, too.

I suspect that two or at most three people could maintain a comprehensive online calendar for all of Southwest Florida or any other medium-sized metropolitan area. Add one or two aggressive salespeople who understand ad targeting (and a targeted ad-delivery system), and you not only have a valuable local resource, but one that ought to bring in substantial profits.

Beat local TV at its own game

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune carries lots of video news clips these days, but it's all just like TV news, because that's what is is: pickups from the associated (Comcast cable) SSN6 news channel. Most of their video clips are anchor-read items, very short, with 10-second pre-roll ads and post-roll ads that are often longer than the news items themselves.

Experienced H-T site users soon learn to close their video pages as soon as the actual stories are over to avoid the overly long post-roll ads, so they probably don't do much good for the businesses that pay for them. Worse, they are repeated endlessly; the same old ads run over and over instead of fresh ones constantly being plugged into the rotation.

It's almost as if someone in an executive capacity at the Herald-Tribune took a course in how to deliver TV-style news as badly as possible, then came home and put everything he or she learned into practice on the paper's website.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post and New York Times run interesting and engaging news videos, made by print reporters who often do their own camerawork. Post and Times news videos don't look like TV news at all. For one thing, the average story length is minutes, not seconds. For another, they have better and more probing interviews, and use more ordinary people and fewer official sources on-camera than most TV news shows. Sometimes the camera movements are a little more casual than what you see on big-city or network TV news, and the reporters aren't nearly as dolled-up as TV reporters, but that's okay. It helps give these newspaper-based videos a "take you there" quality that formulaic TV news lacks.

It is now possible to outfit a reporter with a "backpack video" newsgathering rig, including a high-definition digital camcorder, all necessary sound equipment, and a compact tripod, for less than $3000. This equipment is nearly 100% "point and shoot," too. It doesn't take any great technical skill to operate.

Print reporters moving to video still need to learn how to frame shots correctly, to be aware of lighting conditions, and how to set up and check sound gear, but all of this can be learned through hands-on practice augmented by regular critiques and advice from peers and, possibly, independent filmmakers called in as trainers and consultants.

Indeed, the way I would organize a newspaper's video news efforts would be to hire at least one experienced TV documentary director to lead the effort, who would also do most of the video editing until reporters learned enough of this arcane art to handle most of it on their own. I would also recruit a group of video stringers who might or might not be experienced journalists. Local TV stations large and medium-sized markets all seem to have helicopters these days. For a fraction of the cost of running a single news helicopter, a newspaper could field a veritable army of "backpack videographers" who could provide intense, close-up coverage of events that now get overlooked by TV news operations -- or that are covered only from 1000 feet in the air instead of from ground-level.

"Boots on the ground" is Army-talk for how you win wars. Air power is nice, but if you really want to take and hold a piece of territory, you need infantry to occupy it. Newspapers have always been the infantry of the news business. They should take this same attitude as they move into video.

They should be careful not to overwhelm their video viewers with advertising, too. My rule would be to hold pre-roll and post-roll video ads to a maximum total of 15% of the length of any given video clip. The only reason to brak this rule is with a videos less than 60 seconds long, which can legimately carry a simple "sponsored by" message -- preferably at the end, not the beginning.

Stringers everywhere

In a world where citizen journalism is becoming ever more popular, newspapers can either fight the trend -- and lose -- or go along with it and adopt it. Jay Rosen, of New York University, put together an experiment in "pro-am" journalism called Assignment Zero that has shown some of the joys and problems associated with mobilizing volunteer citizen journalists and teaming them up with professional reporters and editors. I don't see Assignment Zero as a model for building a stringer-based local news-gathering operation, but as learning tool that can teach us both how to do it and how not to do it.

For one thing, newspapers cannot rely on volunteers. They must pay their stringers because they, themselves, are almost all for-profit operations, and if they don't pay people who write for them, the people they want most will post their stories on their own sites and blogs instead of giving them to their local newspaper -- or even to a hyper-local news site.

A stunning reality newspaper people and other publishers are just starting to figure out is that the financial barrier to entry for independent news disseminators is now close to zero, and that it is no longer hard for an independent to gather his or her own audience.

As an example, let's use a Google search for Bradenton video. You'd expect that search to be dominated by TV station websites, but it's not. My personal site dominates, interspersed with ads from local wedding videographers. Stories and videos on my site, and that I have posted elsewher, also come up at or near the top of many other local searches. If a local newspaper offers me a chance to "get published" I am going to laugh. I am published, and popular, without any help from other local media. And I can put ads on my site (I have none at this time) and generate income from it, too.

The thing is, I am not special. A retiree who compulsively covers city council, county commission, and zoning board meetings and writes about them consistently for a year or more will also place well in search engine rankings, often higher in many searches than the local newspapers' own (inconsistent) coverage of government meetings.

Net-hip readers will also subscribe to our retiree's RSS feed, which boosts his or her readership even more.

Other ordinary people can (and often do) run sites and blogs that cover topics ranging from real estate to punk rock. And every one of them can easily sign up for paid ad programs with Google or dozens of smaller (and often more lucrative) context-based online ad networks.

Newspapers should be out scouting for successful local bloggers -- not the ones who do two-sentence links to stories published elsewhere, but those who do original reporting -- and offering them a chance to put their material on the newspapers' sites instead of their own. For pay.

The next stage is to team the paper's staff reporters and editors with the stringers. A majority of breaking news will probably still be covered by staff reporters, with stringers working on longer-fuse pieces, although there will certainly be cases where a stringer who is on call -- perhaps one equipped with a video rig -- will be able to get to a breaking story's scene faster than a staffer.

Following the Assignment Zero model, while hopefully avoiding Assignment Zero's problems, can lead to a situation where professional reporters spend a significant amount of their time as team leaders and organizers. Some will dislike thier "coach" role, but others will thrive in an environment where they have the luxury of essentially being in two places (or more) at once. Instead of deciding which one of several important events to attend, a team-leading reporter will decide which team member attends which one.

Reporter-led newsgathering teams will not only be able to be in more places, gathering more information, than any single reporter, but will have more and deeper ties to the community they cover than any individual reporter. A well-chosen reporting team will be able to get more and more accurate quotes from ordinary citizens, patrol cops, and even from criminals than a reporter who is not part of the community he or she covers. And even a locally-bred reporter doesn't know everyone and everything. Diversity of experience in a reporting team will lead to more and more-balanced coverage than we see now, which will bring a new level of public trust to newspapers that employ this newsgathering method.

Meanwhile, on the ad sales side...

When I wrote freelance for Time Life Media (now Time Digital) in the early days of the commercial, ad-supported Web, a staff editor told me their main problem with ad sales was that their sales force's commission structure made it unprofitable for a sales rep to go after contracts smaller than $100,000 per quarter. At the time, there were nowhere near enough online readers, even on Time's mighty group of sites, to justify ad buys at that level, so their sites were notably free of income-producing ads.

A newspaper that dedicates itself to becoming a major Internet-based force in its community needs to have an ad sales force that shares that mission, staffed by people who understand both the advantages and disadvantages of online advertising as opposed to print advertising. Those salespeople must have a more innovative attitude than a print salesperson. Online ads are no longer just banners stuck at the tops and bottoms of pages. You have inline ads, interstitials, the possibility of entire (clearly marked) advertorial sections, video advertising, and so on.

Traditional classifieds may be lost to Craiglist, so lost that when the Bradenton Herald wanted to find a Director of Interactive Media, they placed this ad -- on Craigslist. But what about premium listings in the events calendar? Or making sure that calendar has plenty of free garage sale listings and other reasons for shoppers to turn to it, then marketing text ads in it to local businesses for special sales and events at classified-like rates?

Search-based ads help you shop for something you already want or need, but they can't create a desire for a new product or service, so there is still plenty of room for creative advertising, especially online, and most especially for newspapers and other media that can sell clients not only ads or links but also work with them to build landing pages that actually sell, not the blah things we usually click through to once, but never again.

Another online advertising area I haven't yet seen exploited well is coupon distribution. For many years, newspapers have boasted that their Sunday editions carried $XXX worth of coupons. Where is the online equivalent? There is no printing cost associated with an online coupon. Organizing online coupons so they are easy to find is no big trick. It's another database job, just like the calendar.

Coupons can make great ads on a newspaper website's pages, but a whole section devoted to coupons (possibly with an accompanying stringer-generated blog pointing to special deals noticed by readers) could become a reader draw on its own, not to mention a decent income-generator.

This is only a beginning

A newspaper that took all of these suggestions about how to run its website, and put the same amount of energy and budget into promoting it as it does into drumming up print subscribers, ought to be able to run its site at a profit within a year or two, and with enough diligence and energy may eventually be able to make its website replace profits lost as its print edition loses steam.

My suggestions here are a starting place. Astute, Web-hip publishers and editors will not only implement my suggestions (or do similar things), but will also find or develop other, possibly better ideas to make their online publications attractive to both readers and advertisers.

The real question is not whether we will see the development of dominant local online news operations run by Web-hip publishers and editors, but whether those Web-hip publishers and editors will work for existing local newspapers or for new, Web-only publications that eventually replace newspapers as the dominant source of local news.

With newspapers typically owning the most-recognizable local news brands, they would seem to be the logical ones to dominate local online news, but they can't rely only on their branding to make it work. Their new competition is not only other established media companies -- notably local broadcast and cable TV -- but nearly anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, writing or video production skills, and enough time on their hands to consistently post new stories on a homemade website.

And with constant newspaper layoffs, some of the people running their own websites are likely to be just as skileld as the people running the newspapers they compete against, so the competition for local online news dominance is going to be... let's just say "interesting"... to watch over the next decade or so.

Related news from Europe: How the web sites of major UK newspapers are doing, from on July 26, 2007:

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