The Philadelphia experiment isn’t necessarily a bad idea

Newspapers should have kickass web sites.

Take your typical major metro — a content producing staff that out paces in training, experience and numbers any rival.

A typical metro remains the best advertising buy in town, retail and classifieds.

The free cash a good metro site can through off on print up sells alone (let alone new, incremental advertising revenue) can fund an operations and specialty content staff that most start ups would envy.

With proper focus and strategy, there is no reason for a good-sized, well-run newspaper operation to repurpose its print product for online.

All of those resources should allow the online operation to feed off of, but not be a duplicate of, the print operations. It should allow a newspaper operation to avoid the soul-sucking, readership-killing repurposing of print content online and the aggressive pursuit of web-centric content practices.

So why, more than a decade into the web era, do most metro newspapers still largely reproduce the print edition online?

The consternation today over the Philadelphia Inquirer’s decision to withhold premium print content from Philly.com has the digital class all atwitter (pun intended).

In Twitter, my friend Scott Karp says:

You can’t coerce people into choosing one medium over another. All you can do is serve them as best you can in the medium they choose.

Wired Journalist partner Zac Echola says:

They did a pretty epic job opening the door for competition. I mean, it’s one thing in a small community to do this, but a major metro?

One on my followers, Kev097, reacts to my pro-decision tweets:

More likely bloggers will nicely summarize stories that aren’t online- their readers won’t bother to seek out print.

Predictably, Jeff Jarvis and Steve Outing are down on the idea.

Jarvis:

You are killing the paper. You might as well just burn the place down. You’re setting a match to it. This is insane. Even the slowest, most curmudgeonly, most backward in your dying, suffering industry would not be this stupid anymore. They know that the internet is the present and the future and the paper is the past. Protecting the past is no strategy for the future. It is suicide. It is murder. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Outing:

What’s long held back the newspaper industry and gotten it in the current mess has been holding back online innovation that might impact the legacy product (print). The kind of serious innovation that might have avoided the turmoil we’re now seeing among newspapers (especially larger metros like the Inquirer) could only take place with an attitude of “Let’s completely forget about the print edition and just try to build the best damn online service possible.”

My concern is that the Philly effort doesn’t go far enough.

I say, never put those stories online, but still make sure every single reporter and editor is working hard to ensure a great online edition.

For how many years on Outing’s Online-News list did I read about the evils of shovelware? If the archives were available, I’m sure I could find quotes from Outing himself saying something along the lines of “stop reproducing the newspaper online.”

We were all right in saying that, so why is it wrong now to say “let print be print” and “let online be online.”

Your online product should focus on:

  • Frequency. Plenty of updates. Web-first publishing. Tell me what is happening in my town right now.
  • When there is a big story, hammer it. Own it. Frequent updates, a flood of information, video, blogs, forums, public documents, databases, maps, graphics.

On a pure news basis, those two approaches are proven audience growth winners.

Reproducing the print edition online, not so much.

Even better, make sure your kickass print reporters know how to write for the web, which means more of a blog style, more of a conversational style, maybe even a little opinion, when doing those web-first updates.

There are a ton of other web-centric things newspapers can and should do with their web sites, but none of them include publishing first online enterprise and investigative pieces, columnist, lengthy features, trend stories and even analysis pieces.

Techcrunch published today a poll that showed that on a typical day, 39 percent of the Internet audience went online to check the news. That’s 39 percent of the not quite 80 percent of Americans who even have Web access (75 percent in 2004(pdf), I assume it’s higher now, but maybe not).

That is a number that represents a boon of an opportunity for newspapers, but it also points out how far online must come to be an major news destination.

While the Philly papers have a market penetration below 35 percent (I think), many U.S. newspapers remain well above 50 percent.

More Americans still get their news in print than any other source. Yes, the number has been declining, but newspapers still remain a mammoth force in news media.

Even while penetration/circulation declines have been beguiling to the industry, they didn’t begin with the internet. There is something larger, sociological, or potentially a problem with journalism itself (as I’ve said before), that’s going on.

It might be foolish indeed to expect online to save American journalism, given those trends. So why insist now that a metro newspaper must, must put its entire edition online?

Furthermore, let’s face it, while a well-run newspaper website operation can throw off lots of cash, it’s largely dependent on the newspaper success itself, and the cash flow is still insufficient to support a metro newsroom.

As much as it pains me to say it, we still haven’t found the business model that can support and sustain current newsroom operations.

Meanwhile, as the Readership Institute has pointed out, a lot of people still read print.

So why shouldn’t the Philadelphia Inquirer, or any other print operation, take steps to further differentiate the print and the online products, especially if such steps can potentially stem any tide, any contribution that shovelware/repurposing of print content makes to circulation declines.

Face it, we still need print to pay the bills, that is, if we want to maintain news operations that at all resemble traditional newspaper newsrooms (and whether we don’t or not is a completely different discussion).

UPDATE: Zac Echola makes the point in a blog post that I may be giving Philly too much credit. And he could be right. So let’s just say, differentiation is the model I advocate, and let’s hope that is the direction Philly can be smart enough to take this in. I had not given enough consideration to the part of the memo that prevents staff bloggers from trying out ideas in blog posts first. That’s not smart. And it is a bad sign that the curmudgeons are winning in Philly. On the other hand, the memo does say, “This does not mean that we will put the brakes on the immediate posting of breaking news that puts us first in a competitive Web marketplace.”  Mixed message? I guess we’ll see.  It’s important to remember Philly.com is run by Eric Grilly and Mark Potts has been involved with the site, and they’re no slouches.

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  • http://editor.blogspot.com howardweaver

    I haven’t given this a great deal of thought (I will, I will) but offhand I can’t understand why this has to be an either/or debate. What’s the advantage of that?

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  • http://www.washingtonpost.com jonathankrim

    Two important reasons why Howard is wrong on this one:

    Putting big stories online enables conversation and furthers civic debate around them. It extends the journalism AND engages the community.

    Second, putting such “premium content” online gives the organization the chance to enhance it with web tools that further its impact. Databases, mapping, video, etc.

    Isn’t there something really wrong if newspaper sites aren’t putting that kind of effort into that kind of content?

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Except that there is no evidence that such packages repay the effort in either ROI or audience growth … in fact, the evidence indicates they drive down both.

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