Conference Post-mortem: Where’s the Pizzazz?

By: Steve Outing

Each year, the Editor & Publisher Interactive Newspapers Conference

and Trade Show gives us an opportunity to view the progress of the

newspaper industry when it comes to the Internet. I’ve been attending

these events since the mid 1990s, and use them to gauge how the industry

is progressing.

Last week’s conference in New Orleans was, as usual, instructive. I

sensed movement forward and enthusiasm within the industry, but overall

continued to see evidence that most newspapers are not investing

sufficiently to make big Internet plays. The huge market

valuations of the leading pure Internet companies remain a pipe dream

for most newspaper companies, as they continue to hold back from making

serious investments in new-media ventures. (The sports saying ‘No pain,

no gain’ comes to mind.)

The newspaper industry’s movement still tends to be conservative and

deliberate. Progress is slow and steady, as publishers move their

Internet operations toward profitability. They’re adding new features

and building some impressive sites, but seldom do you see sites that

hold the potential to be the next or eBay. It’s only a select

few newspaper companies making the bold moves that eventually might

create big Internet plays.

The kids don’t care

Several key themes came to my mind after attending Interactive

Newspapers. The first was brought home by an excellent conference

session where Boston University communications school dean Brent

Baker quizzed about 10 college students on their media usage habits.

Their answers (and these were journalism students, mind you) were enough

to demoralize any print journalist, but also were highly instructive in

guiding those who head newspaper new-media operations.

First, we learned that this generation uses the Internet on a daily

basis and has little need for the printed newspaper. That’s no surprise,

of course. But this lack of interest in newspapers also seems to carry

over to online newspapers. When asked what news sources they used on the

Internet, the most frequent answers were Yahoo!’s wire headlines service

and That’s all most of these students needed.

What do they use the Internet for? Mostly doing research and

communicating with friends and family via e-mail and instant messaging

services like AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ. E-mail is the killer app

for this age group; online news is just a blip.

The idea of the printed newspaper appealing to this generation is pretty

much a lost cause. The only hope for newspapers to capture their

interest is to make newspaper Web sites appealing to young people,

before they commit their allegiance to and online-only news

sources that sport a more youthful ‘attitude.’ Here are a few ideas on

how to do that:

Come up with a Net brand name. For young people, the

newspaper name reproduced online can be a detriment. So devise an online

brand name that presides over the newspaper legacy brand and is more


Be interactive. Because people in college have grown

accustomed and comfortable with interactivity on computers, they’re less

tolerant of one-way media where the publisher is sending information to

them and not letting them talk back. News sites need to solicit reader

feedback and provide discussion areas to promote user-to-user and

user-to-Web site staff communication. Allow users to easily communicate

with your writers and editors.

Provide a comparison pricing/shopping experience. Most young

people are extremely price conscious – because they don’t have much

money, obviously. They’re increasingly using the Web to research the

best price on what they buy. A newspaper site can attract young people

by being the best place to find the best deals on local goods and


Emphasize entertainment guides. If you can provide the best

guide to local entertainment, young people will use your site. Make it

convenient for them, by offering reviews, the ability to buy

concert/show tickets, a music-buying service with downloadable music and

comparison pricing, etc.

Integrate the Web into your business – all of it

Another dominant impression that struck me while attending this

conference was that newspapers (indeed, all traditional media) remain

lacking when it comes to incorporating the Internet into their entire

business structure. Making the Internet an integral part of everything a

media company does is long overdue.

You have to wonder sometimes if news executives are paying attention to

the world around them. When most of the ads during the Super Bowl are

for Web sites, and when an online company (America Online) buys a huge

old-media company (Time-Warner), it should be obvious that the Internet

is now mainstream – and indeed is heading on its way to becoming

the dominant communications medium of our age, or at the least, equal in

stature to newspapers and television.

So, what news publishers need to do with that is integrate the Internet

into everything they do – which is something that I’m not yet

seeing in the newspaper industry, in particular. For example, you can

visit most newspaper sites and still not be able to halt your

print-edition delivery for a few days when you go on vacation. You can’t

yet pay your subscription bill using your credit card and filling out a

Web form.

Advertisers should be able to handle their accounts with newspapers

online: submitting new creative; scheduling placements and run times;

etc. Classified advertisers should be able to handle their accounts

– from placing an initial order, to canceling an ad after an item

is sold, to editing and/or extending an ad, to paying the bill –

without ever having to talk to a human being. This should all be capable

of being done online. It’s more convenient for the consumer (no need for

annoying waits to talk to a customer service representative) and saves

money for the publisher.

If you look at many news sites today, you’ll still see shortcomings. I

had occasion to send a press release to Denver-area media recently. Of

the newspaper sites, on several of them I could find the name of the

person most likely to be interested in the information and send them

personal e-mail. Yet on the Web site of one of the two big Denver

dailies, I found only a limited staff e-mail list and was expected to

send e-mail to a generic address. Worse yet, on the Web page about

sending in press releases, I was instructed to send in my information to

a postal address or fax it – e-mail press releases not supported.

That’s dumb.

A news company ‘gets the Internet’ when it allows (as an option ,

not a requirement) its customers to conduct all of their interactions

via the Web and/or e-mail. The company that does that truly ‘gets the

Internet,’ and is prepared to profit from it.

Yet another plea for using e-mail

Every year at the Interactive Newspapers conference, speakers reiterate

the idea that e-mail is the Internet’s most powerful feature – and

urge online news publishers to use it more effectively. As a long-time,

ardent supporter of online publishers using e-mail delivery techniques,

it never ceases to amaze me how limited most news sites are in their use

of e-mail to deliver content to their users.

Conference attendees who took the shuttle bus to the exhibit hall saw a

huge room full of fancy Web offerings that could be added to their Web

sites. It was the rare vendor who offered e-mail services or products.

But e-mail delivery of content to users is more important than that, and

Internet news publishers need to get in the habit of sending

personalized e-mail to the majority of their customers – to

establish and maintain a strong relationship with each user.

If you’re interested in my opinion on this topic – and suggestions

on how you can use e-mail more effectively as part of your Internet

strategy – see an opinion piece I wrote for the conference daily

newsletter distributed at the New Orleans show. (It’s also
(/ephome/news/newshtm/stories/021200cn8.htm) available

online .)

Progress, but not fast enough

Overall, my impression after attending the Interactive Newspapers

conference this year is that the industry is in a state of evolution

rather than revolution. I didn’t pick up the sense of urgency among

industry participants that I do when I attend pure-new-media shows. Have

newspaper executives and those running newspaper new-media operations

resigned themselves to building Internet ventures that are respectable

businesses, but have little hope for hitting it big?

I certainly hope not. The Net presents a business environment where hard

work and creativity can pay off in unpredictable, big ways – even

for newspaper companies.

Online content goes to print

In my last column, about online-originated content increasingly turning

up in the printed pages of newspapers and magazines, I cited a number of

examples. Obviously, I left out many other examples of this trend in

action. One that I wish I had mentioned is (
The American Reporter , an online-exclusive international news service

that’s been around for more than half a decade. Run by independent

journalist/publisher Joe Shea , the Reporter has sold its

content to such print publications as the Los Angeles Times ,

San Francisco Chronicle , Casper, Wyo. Star-Tribune ,

Harper’s magazine, Utne Reader , and others.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher

Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at

(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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