A Change In Mood For Newspaper Web Sites?

By: Wayne Robins

The empty storefronts outnumber the occupied ones on many streets of the tidy downtown of the capital city of Silicon Valley. The “For Rent” signs are a direct result of the dying dot-com industry, a silent reminder of the hard times that faced the online newspaper business as Editor & Publisher’s 13th annual Interactive Conference and Trade Show began Wednesday in San Jose, Calif.

But the mood was anything but discouraging at the show, and, in fact, optimism suffused the back-to-back keynote speeches Thursday morning by Steven B. Rossi, president of Knight Ridder’s newspaper division, whose corporate headquarters is footsteps from the convention center, and by Robert S. Cauthorn, vice president of digital media for the San Francisco Chronicle.

And around the exhibition floor and in the hallways, there was an undercurrent of what actually appeared to be cheer, despite attendance (about 200) that, as expected, fell short of last year’s Dallas confab. But even this was seen as a positive by Vin Crosbie of Greenwich, Conn.-based Digital Deliverance LLC. “It’s bigger than the 1994-95 conference,” Crosbie said over coffee and crumpets Thursday morning. As my eyebrow arched trying to determine Crosbie’s level of facetiousness, he waved around the exhibition hall and said: “These are the winners, the survivors.”

Those who defied unappealing economic forecasts understood that this was a time to roll on with vigor and not cower under the cover of disappointing corporate reports.

“This is a wonderful time to give up,” Cauthorn quipped in his address. “But our greatest work is before us,” added the overseer of the Chronicle‘s much-admired (and almost profitable) SFGate.

Surprisingly, it was Rossi of Knight Ridder, the industry’s punching bag for cost-cutting to protect profit margins, who also talked the talk of seizing this moment. Rossi took the compelling view that newspaper Web sites still had not done enough to differentiate themselves from print. “In 2002,” he said, “you can write and edit the way you always can, but we must worry that this model may well not work in perpetuity.” He cited the failure of newspaper sites to leverage their news-gathering ability and present it with the uniqueness that the Internet demands.

The fact that there is not a proven business model for newspaper Web sites is no excuse for hoarding capital — intellectual and monetary — while waiting for one to magically appear.

Cauthorn seems to know what works. “We need to show some backbone,” he said. “We’re spending way too much time talking about our problems rather than solving the problems of our advertisers and our readers.”

Comparing the dot-com boom to that of “an economy built on drug money,” Cauthorn said that advertisers could be brought online by offering value. Using a successful old-economy model, he said, “I’m the Wal-Mart of advertising: I’m getting mass-media buys at Wal-Mart prices. … For 150 years, newspaper print ads were based on what advertisers wanted to sell. We can sell ads on what people want to buy.”

Noting the newspaper industry’s proclivity to self-loathing that has infested the online side as well, he concluded: “Don’t give up. We’re doing the right thing.”

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