Let’s stop putting the entire newspaper online

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. It encourages too many people to think, “why should I pay for this when I can get it for free online.”
  5. 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. But I also think it’s conceivable 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.

32 thoughts on “Let’s stop putting the entire newspaper online

  1. If we’re building all of the Web-savvy that you bullet-point into our sites, why shouldn’t we give our online readers access to all of the content that we can?

  2. ROFL. Vastly expand the cost of producing your daily output of money-losing product, and make it up by volume?

  3. @Dean – Did you read the entire post?

    @apetra – Um, what money losing product? Oh, you mean the one with 20 percent profit margins? Obviously, you know nothing about the economics of the newspaper business, online or off.

  4. Howard, I know your heart’s in the right place, but I very much want traditional newspaper content online along with the wonderful wrinkles you’re suggesting.

    I fully understand that you’re trying to get more information out there in the end. But the continuous-flow-of-news approach does not allow the same perspective and fact-checking that the one-a-day one does. Traditional content actually contributes to intelligent dialog online by being more trustworthy than “Here’s what we’ve just learned.” Bloggers, both external and external, can link in to this higher-quality material, and comments can be built around it, so that things are still somewhat dynamic. As I see it, the newspaper business need BOTH approaches.

    To address your concern with the decline in print circulation, yes, we know about newspapers’ vast investment in physical infrastructure. But do Web-reared readers really care? That’s not THEIR problem. What newspapers can do is monetize the eyeballs via either well-targeted ads or subscription fees, although the Times Select experience argues for the former. I’d also like to see digital editions better presented than the horrid PDF-based ones. The .epub format from the International Digital Publishing Forum could help, making it possible for even cellphones and PDAs to display the digital editions, whether or not WiFi is near.

    Anyway, that was a great post even if I don’t agree with all the points there. It’s always good to see a healthy challenge to CW. Thanks.

    Meanwhile, in a slightly related vein, you might check out:

    Ouch! Media dinos at work? Clippy W. Post mobile edition slashes 2,050-word story to 423 words:


    …and an earlier post:

    Washington Post mobile edition: AWOL book section and a vexing Catch-22?


    Notice? The Post is crippling its mobile edition even though this could be where much of the future growth is. Amusingly, it’s trying to divert traffic not to the print edition but to Washingtonopost.com. Same concept as your concern about the PE, though. I’ve queried the Post to see what the devil is going on. Meanwhile, with so much wonderful traditional content available through the much-better-organized New York Times mobile edition, I’m reading the Times more than I am my hometown paper. Why the Times’ mobile editon even has search, one of the very features you’ve so laudably argued for.

    David Rothman
    dr@teleread.org | 703-370-6540

  5. Interesting theory, but while it sounds plausible, I’m not convinced it’s practical in the real world. I could handle it because I get a newspaper at the office every day so it’s easy for me to check both the online site and the print product. But not many people would go out to get a physical paper just in case they’re missing somethine that isn’t available online.

    … If you (or anyone else) know of newspapers doing this successfully (and intentionally!), let us know.

  6. Howard:

    Interesting analysis. I have been following this “online newspaper” story fro some years now and yours may be one of the few original ideas I have encountered till now.

    The trick is to provide a different feel and experience to the online newspaper than your normal broadsheet.

    Lets see if anybody in the newspaper business actually picks this up.


  7. Having worked the night shift for a the website of a national newspaper based in the UK, I can’t agree more with your comments on the problems of the ‘daily dump’.

    Tedious, fiddly and stressful, the uploading process only served to emphasise the site’s position as a mirror of the news site.

    Furthermore the physical action of coming in late at night, when the rest of the newsroom has shut up shop, to work on the website, shows a disregard for the potential of the website as a ground for breaking and rolling articles, rather than a static reflection of the printed page.

  8. I sort of like the “greatest hits” idea, only I think it might be difficult to grasp for “old school” newspaper journalists, who still tend to think they´re the only ones to create relevant news. In fact, this idea sort of turns their world upside down – but it could indeed do something in the way of creating paper editions that are more interesting to readers because they feature local news and topics that originated on the web.

  9. Good ideas. I seem to remember some similar approaches taken by the Gannet papers with their ‘Online Centers’ or something close to that.

    They have started doing just what you mentioned, posting all articles to the web, asap, and then over time adding to them, updating them with new and relevant information, and then pulling the ‘greatest hits’ from the web into the print edition.

    I’m trying to get our paper organized in a similar fashion, but these types of changes take a long time to gain popularity. Especially with older writers that see the web as a dumping ground for their old stories. Thanks again,

    Bryan Pearson

  10. @ David — the goal here is to get over seeing the online news site as the same product as print edition. That’s not to say you don’t fact check, but the once-a-day package story just isn’t an effective tool for online audiences.

    @ Beth — this isn’t about trying to get people to read both products (though, just and now, some will). It’s about recognizing that they are two very different products that require very different strategies. If people read both, great. If not, that’s OK, too. The print people will stick with print and the web people will stick with online. What you might do is stem the tide of print people cross over because the web experience is no less like the print experience.

    @ Laura — We used to call the night update people “web monkeys.” It’s not great work. And you’re right, the very existence of the position reflects a lack of management respect/understanding/commitment to the web.

    @ Thomas — As I’ve said elsewhere, the old school journalists either need to get on board or make a career change. We simply must change the culture of our newsrooms.

    @ Bryan — Still different from the Info Center. If you go to a Gannett site, you’ll see they just provide a little space for “updates” and the rest of the site structure is very devoted to “we’re the newspaper online.”

  11. Howard, I’m with you completely on this.

    Personally, I think a better Web product begets a better print product, because we in the newsroom can see what’s important to many readers in a given cycle, a given month and a given year.

    And on the flip-side I think providing all this exact same information online as what’s in the paper creates an economy of scale that will eventually kill the paper. Why pay for the paper when it’s all online for free?

    Make them near-wholly different products and play to the strengths of each medium.

  12. Howard,
    A fine and thoughtful post, one that artfully synthesizes most of the key emerging online news ‘truths’.
    I think we can also bring together your idea and David Rothmans:
    I’ve watched in amazed frustration as my own newspaper chain has spent almost two years and a mountain of money to roll out a new web CMS system, complete with web site templates that are focussed almost entirely on dumping the print edition onto the web. The front page contains a smallish window for breaking news and a single tiny multimedia box. All the things I thought we should be doing online (see your list)were, if possible, difficult, or required hand-coding. Then I had an idea:
    Why not silo the newspaper online content?
    Why not create a nimble newspaper.com site that does all the things online news should do (again, see your list – although I would add a joint user/staff link blog that treats the entire web as your wire service, a la Digg or Fark or Slashdot) and then link off that to “print archives”, with the paper’s archives in a simple, searchable database? This has the advantage of putting the paper edition in it’s proper online context – really useful, dated news – while allowing the publication and community to see the newspaper.com site for what it could be – a dynamic, interactive, rich source of news, information and community conversation.
    You could monetize the archives by contextual ads or fees and drive traffic there via search engines, links in from related online content at Newspaper.com and via a really good local search tool.
    It seems such an obvious win-win.
    There are cost issues – building the Newspaper.com site we’re discussing does require real costs, but creating a new product always does. You’d need some new hires to get some of these new skills – database wrangler, code monkey, and online designer are, I think, critical, plus a dedicated online sound/video editor and a online managing editor. But even for a small or medium sized city daily these should be doable – especially if you shift some of those resources from print.
    Now. Who wants to be first to do it? I bet you’d have to beat the job applicants off with a stick.
    Bill Dunphy, WebU manager

  13. The underlying point here is that if a newspaper were born today, instead of hundreds of years ago, it wouldn’t operate in the same way. A modern day newspaper would post everything and then reverse publish to the newspaper, making any sort of “daily dump” obsolete.

    The problem is no newspaper – and I mean that – will ever be able to make that step as quickly as a start-up could.

    The time has come for a start-up local newspaper to do all the things we should be doing and teach the rest of the industry a lesson: That it’s possible and works better.

  14. […] Let’s stop putting the entire newspaper online – howardowens.com “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.” (tags: internet newspapers newspapersites journalism audience migration) […]

  15. Why, yes, Howard, I did read the entire post. It’s clear from traffic patterns I see that readers find the print-edition content that appears on our site to be useful. Aside from some theoretical arguments, I don’t think you make a practical case for why we should throw away those page views. Putting up the day’s print-edition stories is a minor chore compared to developing new content. So long as it doesn’t get in the way — and that’s easy to accomplish — there’s no reason to throw away good content.

  16. I think you miss my point, Howard. We share the same goals, highly interactive news Web sites, multimedia, etc. I’ll try my point again; if it’s easy to put the print edition online — and there’s no good reason why that should be a chore — why shouldn’t we do that along with the Web-savvy stuff? One doesn’t necessarily preclude the other.

  17. Dean, sorry if I missunderstood your comment.

    Actually, the cumulative effort to reproduce “the paper” online does have some substantial associated costs.

    There are enough man hours consumed — even with the most efficient CMS — in putting this content online. Those man hours could be better spent on building better web sites.

    Also, there is a price to pay in navigation and site structure that detracts from position the site as something more web focused.

    Finally, “the paper” online makes it too easy for newsrooms to take false comfort in, “somebody is posting my story to the web, so my web responsibility is complete.”

    And then there is the huge issue of circulation cannibalization, which was a large point of my post.

    We simply must try a new way of doing things. We’re not making enough progress the direction we’re going. The situation is desperate and urgent.

    And I’m not suggesting we “throw away good content” — just reframing how we handle it.

  18. I sure hear you on ripping up the model and trying new things. I’m not so worried about the Web hurting print circulation — that will happen whether we’re in the game or not, so I’d call that a wash — we absolutely do have to figure out how to quickly build better Web sites. If a company can’t do that at the same time it puts its print stories online, then I couldn’t agree more strongly with the case you make.

  19. Dean, of course, one thing to keep in mind is that many of my strategy ideas are driven by my environment, which means I think a lot about newspapers with circulations of 80K and less. Those papers have been more immune from circ losses. We want to make sure we keep it that way.

  20. Some excellent points. But why does Gatehouse not practice what you preach? Disjointed web sites. No consistant design throughout the newspaper sites. Many lacking any decent content. Many hard to navigate. Very poor ad sales ececution.

  21. What, you think I can just snap my fingers and change all our sites?

    Not to be snarky, but a year ago I had no staff and a brand new CMS. A year ago, GageHouse was a six-month-old company.

    We’ve gotten a lot done in the past year, and a hell of a lot more work to do.

    As my boss always says — we’ll get there, it will be fine.

  22. Here’s the other necessary step I think is required for wholesale change, both to improve our products and to streamline the workflow:

    Our copy desks and night news editors — with the help of a reporter or two — should start their shifts by reading the Web site. Then based on their own intuition and news judgement, combined with the behavior of our readers (most commented stories, most viewed stories, most viewed slideshows, etc.) build a newspaper — daily or weekly — that contains the best of that day’s Web output.

    And do not shovel it back online at the end of the night. Start each day anew on the Web, with a heavy dose of links back to original stories or ongoing series of stories (aggregated on landing pages) should you be working on a follow-up.

    Serve the audience. Respond to the audience. Engage the audience. If ALL of our products are not doing that, then we are doomed.

  23. The problem with traditional newspaper publishers trying to move their operations onto the web is that they cannot help but view the universe through the eyes of traditional newspaper publishers.

    I was once informed that when Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492, there were native Amercans standing on the shore who could not see those ships because in their universe such things could not possibly exist. And in hindsight we know only too well the fate that awaited the vast majority of those native Americans.

    The real innovations in online information distribution will come from individuals and organisations who are not encumbered with traditional ideas. The new developments will find the vast majority of members of the traditional newspaper industry completely unprepared, because in the universe occupied by most members of the traditional newspaper industry such developments could not possibly happen.

  24. How did I miss this post the first time around? It showed up today as a reference from another site.

    I came to a conclusion several years ago that legacy content had become a crutch that was keeping our new-media folks from learning to walk.

    In one of those repetitive paid-content debates, I stopped the conversation and announced something like this: “OK, I hereby change my vote. Let’s put all the newspaper content behind a paid wall. That will fail, but so what? The real question is: What kind of original content and services should we provide on our websites?”

    That was one of the major streams of thought that led to BlufftonToday.com taking shape as a community conversation site, playing a complimentary role to the free-delivery print product.

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