This Time, Focus and Seriousness, Absent of Skepticism

By: Steve Outing

Last week’s Interactive Newspapers conference in Seattle was the fourth such annual gathering I’ve attended, and each year I note how much the industry has changed. This conference was a bit of a departure from the last, though I mean that in an evolutionary way.

A year ago, there was still an air of “is this really a business?”, and among a good number of attendees, a visible amount of skepticism about whether the Internet is ever going to provide them with viable business opportunities. To be sure, the leaders in the interactive newspaper business were confident and poised to invest in the future. But skeptics abounded, too.

Fast forward to last week’s conference, and there was a totally different feeling in the air. This was not a conference about “should we?” but about “how can we do what we’re doing better?” If there was any lingering doubt about newspapers creating businesses on the Internet, I didn’t hear it voiced.

If there was a theme I picked up from among many of this year’s speakers, it was that it is time to hunker down and get to business — to be pro-active and aggressive in realizing Internet business opportunities, and not to get caught up in developing and running a newspaper’s online ventures in a reactive or defensive mode. Don’t do it just because Microsoft and others are threatening your traditional classifieds franchise, for example; create the best and strongest online classifieds service that you can because this is a good business to enter and over time you stand to make a lot of money. (And secondarily, you do business aggressively online because cyberspace competitors require it of you — and will chip away at your traditional franchise, so you need to figure out how to make up that lost revenue.)

This feeling was reinforced for me during a hallway conversation with the manager of a prominent online newspaper site, which produces a quality online news service with a moderate size staff and a fairly strong commitment from top management to make a go of it in cyberspace. This manager said that the 2-1/2 day conference confirmed his existing view and convinced him and his colleagues that now is the time to tell the paper’s top executives that they “have to fish or cut bait.” Either commit some serious capital to growing the online side of the operation to substantial proportions in an attempt to make it a major profit center down the road, or admit that the paper isn’t going to commit what it takes and shut down the interactive operation.

Another theme heard from some of the speakers and attendees is that 1998 is a good year for newspapers to make such serious investments in new media. The newspaper industry had a great year, with print advertising and classifieds revenue growing at a healthy clip. (The doomsayers who predict that developments on the Internet will hurt print revenues aren’t necessarily wrong, but their timing may be off.) With high profits recorded last year, the industry now is in a outstanding position to drive some of that money into Internet initiatives. “Just do it!” because the time is right.

Do the newspaper industry’s high profits last year mean that the Internet threats to print that everyone has been fretting about are hogwash? I think most conference attendees believe that last year’s profits were simply indicative of a very healthy U.S. economy, and should not be considered as a reflection of the long-term health of newspapers.

Another insight for me came while chatting at a reception dinner with the new media manager of a large newspaper in Caracas, Venezuela. I was, quite frankly, shocked to hear that his staff devoted to new media ventures was upward of 20. This is a country where Internet penetration still has a long way to go to catch up to American levels. The paper’s Web site usage has been split fairly evenly between local Venezuelan users and people overseas using the site, but the proportion of in-country users is growing. I must say, it’s encouraging that more publishers in Latin and South America recognize the opportunities of interactive publishing and are willing to commit significant resources to making a go of it.

Conference gems



Elsewhere on the mediaInfo.com site is extensive coverage of the Interactive Newspaper conference proceedings. What I will offer in the remainder of this column are a few valuable tidbits that I picked up in the course of attending conference sessions and “schmoozing” in the hotel halls. (I may continue these tidbits in some upcoming columns.)

Help advertisers spend less money

Keynote speaker G.M. O’Connell of Modem Media, a big interactive advertising firm, made the important point that interactive publishers need to spend their time helping advertisers spend less money — by placing their ads so that they hit only the target audience for the product or service that the advertiser is trying to sell. The publisher charges more for hitting a smaller, no-waste audience. That’s what the Internet is all about.

In another session, Auction Universe president Larry Schwartz urged Web site publishers to learn enough about their advertisers to suggest campaigns that appropriately target an audience that will be interested in the ads. Too many sites, some speakers suggested, want to initially do a test run of an entire site to learn where a Web ad works best. If you know your site and know your advertiser’s needs, you can avoid that scatter-gun approach and target from the first ad placement — and keep your advertisers happy.

Don’t rest on your laurels

The Chicago Tribune certainly took that thought to heart, though inadvertently. The Trib’s Web site stole the show at the “EPpy” awards ceremony on Friday, winning three separate awards, including best overall Web site by a large-circulation newspaper. The funny thing is, one week prior to the ceremony, the Tribune site unveiled a major site redesign. The awards were based on judges evaluating the old site design. The new design is ground-breaking in terms of interface design and has generated considerable controversy on industry mailing lists and in conversations at the conference. Quite frankly, a lot of people hate it, some love it. The Trib’s Howard Witt, in accepting the awards, noted the irony of destroying what the industry praised so highly. We’ll watch with interest how the site does in next year’s EPpy contest.

Just do this ONE thing — at least

David Carlson, online newspaper pioneer and a professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville, made this plea during his speech about “Net TV.” If you take nothing else from this conference, at least put your Web site’s URL in the front page masthead of your print edition. Not to do so is “making a big mistake.” That’s sound advice, yet not every newspaper is yet following it.

Go, team, go!

Keynote speaker Bob Cauthorn of the StarNet service of the Arizona Daily Star gave the crowd an enthusiastic pep talk. “Let’s have a good fight!” he said, encouraging the newspaper industry to revive the spirit of the “good old days” of newspapers earlier this century, when publishers weren’t afraid to take on powerful interests. “I look at new media and think, ‘Let’s go get some of our money back,'” he said. Newspapers are partly to blame for the current competitive situation on the Internet. Said Cauthorn: “If I were Bill Gates, I’d go after newspapers big time, because they’re soft.” Yet newspapers still have an advantage over Microsoft: “They (Microsoft) don’t know what it’s like to be culturally significant.”

Super scoop for DiveIn



Sometimes it pays to have part-time writers who have other jobs. DiveIn, the USWest online city guide venture, got an exclusive story from one of its writers in Denver. DiveIn nightlife writer Nick Hartshorn just happens to work at the Chophouse restaurant in Denver, where the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos had their post-Super Bowl party — which was, of course, off-limits to the press. Hartshorn wrote an exclusive account of the evening which was posted on the DiveIn Denver site.

To see the story, go to the DiveIn Denver site and type “victory party” into the search feature at the top right hand side of the page.

Steve

Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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