A roomful of journalists and I were discussing digital publishing when someone asked me a question that gave me pause. With rapidly changing standards, how can small newspapers afford to keep their digital products current? This year’s cutting edge will be next year’s also-ran.
The question came at the end of my session at the spring New York Press Association conference. I had just given a presentation on flexible publishing, a method for bringing more of the production value and impact of print layouts to the Web (and, even more so, to tablet and smartphone products).
When the publisher of an upstate newspaper asked the question, my only response was to acknowledge the problem. But that night during the trip home, I gave it a lot of thought, and if I had another chance to answer that question, this is what I’d say.
Define your goals
If you do what a vendor or salesman tells you to do this year to catch some trend, it will probably be outdated next year. Someone may present a compelling case for a publishing system that uses the right buzzwords. Then next year, a different vendor will sadly shake his head at the choice you made the last time and proudly tell you about his new system that addresses the new buzzwords.
The way to avoid this is to keep what you are trying to achieve foremost in your mind. Are you trying to have something in mobile? Are you trying to add multimedia to your site? Are you trying to use social media?
The answer to these questions is “no.” Or, if the answer is “yes,” it shouldn’t be. Let’s take a big step back and answer the question again.
Most likely, your real goals are something like this: Offer value and great experiences to readers. Offer value and multiple options to advertisers. Build your brand. Keep costs in line with profits.
So the question isn’t whether you need something in mobile, or need something in social. The question is more fundamental: How do you attract and please readers and advertisers?
If that is your focus, you will find that what makes sense this year probably makes sense for next year too.
There are exceptions
The move to mobile media is a great opportunity for publishers. That is conventional wisdom, but it also happens to be true. You will not thrive in the long run if you don’t have quality mobile offerings. If you do have them, you have a chance for growth.
But don’t create a mobile experience just to say you have one. You need to think about what that mobile experience should be. If you don’t have a smartphone, get one. Spend time with it. Ask tech-savvy journalists about their favorite mobile sites and apps, and try them out.
I have seen countless mobile sites and apps that look like they were built so someone could check a box and say, “Yes, we’ve got mobile covered.” In many cases, they pull RSS feeds from a website into a simple format — generally a stack of headlines and maybe the occasional photo linking to an article. They have banner ads. They display articles on mobile. And they are, at best, unexciting to use. I can’t imagine that these products attract new readers, or make existing readers think more highly of your brand, or bring enough value to advertisers to add greatly to your overall revenue.
So, what to do?
There’s not a single correct answer. It depends on the details of your publication, your goals, your audience, and your budget. But here are some general suggestions:
• Your mobile experience should be appropriate for the medium. For instance, smartphone apps should have swipe-based interfaces, not click-based ones that are awkward to navigate with your fingers.
• Full-screen rich media ads have more value than banner ads.
• Your publishing process should be unified into one publishing system across all platforms. If that’s not possible, you should unify as many platforms as possible.
• Think twice about locking into proprietary solutions that only one vendor can update. It may be OK in some situations, but it could also create problems down the road.
Remember that any product with your name on it ultimately reflects your company, not whoever built it. You should fully understand it, and stand behind it.
Keith Jordan is managing director of Upstream Digital Media and author of an upcoming book on mobile media. Follow him on Twitter: @KeithUDM