The furture of online newspapers

There’s been a bit of a big deal being made about this Zurich group Online Media white paper in circulation. I can’t afford to buy the damn thing, but Steve Outing gives a run down of what’s in it, and I find myself disagreeing with a good part of his synopsis.

First off, I think much of what the report seems to address is the “online industry” from a large-publication, big media point of view. My personal prejudice is that the large-pub perspective is warped and too reliant on old-media thinking. Where the real strides in new revenue models are going to be made is in papers of the 100,000 circ range (of course, my bias is that I work for such a paper, and I think we’re doing good stuff).

Some of Outing’s take, and mine:

* A business model will emerge for online news operations that works, and makes money.

Well, yeah. Of course.

* The industry will fairly quickly begin to tap its revenue potential. (Sites are current tapping only 20%-30% of their revenue opportunities, the group estimated.)

I’d call 20 to 30 percent conservative. Try five or 10 percent.

* Media-company top management ranks will see a swift change, with traditionalists replaced by executives who understand how the Internet fits into the big picture.

Not at E.W. Scripps, not at the Ventura County Star, but that’s another story.

* Advertising will remain the dominant online revenue source, with paid content supplementary.

Bullshit. Not if you want to survive. Advertising is a nice piece of supplemental income, but it ain’t the whole pie. Frankly, I’m surprised Outing is giving a tacit node toward this particular line of BS, because he’s the one who introduced me to (circa 1996) the concept of “multiple revenue streams.” Of course, I’m taking this to mean, “banner advertising,” or “rich media advertising” or any other advertising that attempts to be sort of an online-only equivalent of display ads. The advertising that will make money now and in the future is that advertising that leverages the print/online synergy, such as “Featured Ads“-type applications.

There’s bigger opportunities elsewhere.

Next Outing discusses the debate over paid content. Here’s my advice: Premium content.

It will be a while before the average newspaper, i.e., not the type of newspaper tacitly discussed in this report, can make good money from paid content. To make money off of paid content, you need to offer something unique. Of course, something unique that every average newspaper has is “local news.” Unfortunately, the readers haven’t reached the point yet where they see significant value in local news. And maybe they never will.

…in the area of content, the group felt strongly that there is a need for news sites to create more unique content and use less content repurposed from other media platforms within a company. Current online-news content, according to the group: is too general and aimed at a mass audience; lacks entertainment value; is too often redundant to what’s published in print or broadcast; and lacks quality and credibility.

I don’t understand how repurposing newspaper content from an established and reputable publisher can lack credibility, but that aside, I’m no longer convinced that anything other than repurposed content is really necessary. The repurposed content seems to be driving traffic just fine, and as long as that continues, publishers will see little need to invest heavily in online-only content.

It helps, of course, if that repurposed content is supplemented in some manner, but I can’t see writing “web only” stories. Why go to that expense to come up with original content and then not allow the print side to use it? If it’s really newsworthy, if it’s quality, it should run in the print edition. If it’s not good enough to run in print, it certainly shouldn’t be published in the paper.

What online can uniquely provide, however, is interactive content. Also, user-generated content. More news sites should be publishing blogs (kill the discussion forum apps in favor of blogs). With the proliferation of digital cameras, turn your readers into staff photographers and reporters. Provide a means on online news sites to bring user-generated content to live. Make news sites more like communities than newspapers. This is what will increase page views and brand loyalty.

The future of online newspapers lies not in thinking like Old Media blowhards; it lies in investing in new business models. The future is involved leveraging the revenue-related things newspapers do well (classifieds, for example), and coming up with better ways to leverage e-commerce opportunities (such as advertiser-driven auctions). Based on Outing’s take on the Zurich group’s finding, I’m not convinced the “industry leaders” get it.

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