This post will seem counter-intuitive to long-time readers of this blog.
It’s a message to the average newspaper.com, and the message is simple: Stop posting all of your newspaper content online.
When I ran VenturaCountyStar.com, I did a very fuzzy calculation. I looked at our circulation declines, our web traffic gains, our registration data and came to a best-guess conclusion that the web site was contributing about two points to circulation declines.
When I look at a chart like this, I think my calculations can’t be too far off. It seems safe to conclude that some switching is taking place.
Back when I did that initial calculation, and for a long-time after, losing some print audience to the web seemed like an acceptable price to pay. We simply MUST grow our web audiences. If we have to eat our own to do it, well that’s just battling against the innovator’s dilemma. And besides, if we didn’t get those local eyeballs on our sites, somebody else would.
I considered getting that whole paper online a necessary evil, without stopping to consider that in reality, building a great local web site was is in no-way dependent on putting the entire paper online.
The flip side, of course, is that it’s hard not to rely on that daily dump of shovelware if your newsroom isn’t engaged in your web operation. That is still a problem today, but it was a much bigger problem in 2004 and earlier.
Putting the entire paper online every day (most papers do a daily dump between midnight and 5 a.m.), causes several problems for the average newspaper company:
- It retards organizational growth. Journalists simply must learn to take the web more seriously, and the daily dump is a crutch that makes it easier for newsroom personnel to ignore the web.
- It gets in the way of building a truly robust web site. That “we’re a newspaper” feel is never shaken from the site structure and it makes it harder to draw attention to the real web features of your site.
- It entrenches core readers into the notion of “I’m reading my newspaper online” instead of getting them to see your site as something different and maybe better than what you do in print.
- It encourages too many people to think, “why should I pay for this when I can get it for free online.”
- We’re in a tough situation with circulation anyway, and encouraging people to switch only hastens the migration away from print. It may be inevitable, but our web sites aren’t ready yet to shoulder the load.
The good news is, there is a better way.
If, and that’s a big if, we can get our newsrooms to take the web absolutely seriously, and make doing web stuff a vital part of the daily routine, we can eliminate the daily dump.
What would a community news site look like that doesn’t overly rely on the entire paper online every day?
It would include:
- A continuous flow of news. Reporters would be active in web-first publishing, publishing what we know when we know it, and letting the community know what is going on now.
- There would be lots of opportunities for user participation and contribution — everything from comments on stories to UGC video and blogs.
- The mindset would be, we’re part of the flow of the conversation, not the whole conversation, and there would be lots of links out to related community content.
- Video (and other multimedia, but primarily video), and lots of it. The primary strategies would be a point-and-shoot video camera in the hands of every reporter, some better cameras for staff with the appropriate time and training, and some well-honed webcasts.
- Lots of utility pieces, such as calendars, movie listings, and strong advertising tie-ins for classifieds and internet yellow pages.
- Strong search. Almost no newspaper.com right now has really good search. We need good search. And it’s not about providing search for just our own web site, but serving the whole community.
- Blogs. This is part of being about conversation (see above), but it’s also about creating original web content, more web content and developing staff literacy about online culture. Of course, not all site-affiliated blogs should be staff-written blogs. Many should be from community members.
- Databases. Lots and lots of databases. If it’s data, and it’s relevant to our community and we can make it searchable and/or sortable, we should have it on our web sites.
- We should also make sure our articles, our videos, our databases — pretty much everything on our web sites — is easy to share. We create individually-addressable links for discreet pieces of content, we use embed tags, we certainly have RSS feeds and e-mail links, and we also create widgets where it makes sense.
- We have user profiles/social networking and the ability for users to customize their local online experience, including saving favorite stories, creating custom SMS and e-mail alerts.
If we can do all those things we will certainly have a community site that stands apart from the print-package newspaper. It compliments it rather than competes against it. It helps us serve our journalistic obligations better on so many levels. It helps us put out better newspapers (because we’re more engaged with our community and producing more content than we could ever use in print, so the print edition becomes our greatest hits).
Our web sites should be web sites, not newspaper sites. The daily dump doesn’t help us either in print or online and probably hurts us a lot more than we realize.
Will this strategy slow circulation declines? I don’t know.Â But I also think it’s conceivableÂ it could lead to small gains. Who knows? It hasn’t been tried yet as far as I know. But it certainly can’t hurt, at least not the way current newspaper.com strategies are hurting. And I’m quite sure building better web sites is our number one mission.