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
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 Amazon.com 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 CNN.com. 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 CNN.com 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
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.
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
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 (http://www.american-reporter.com/)
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