DO NEWSPAPER SITES HAVE SOULS?

By: Wayne Robins

Portals May Be More About Marketing Than Community


I admit it: I like to chase moon-beams in this increasingly
technophiliac world. In my priorities, the search for meaning
comes way ahead of the impulse to monetize, which may just be a
granola-eating way of saying I’ve successfully avoided prosperity
in every bull market since 1980.

But even the plainclothes hippie in me had to pause when my
fondly regarded compatriot J.D. Lasica recently reviewed the new
Web portal, STLtoday.com, in the Online Journalism Review
(http://ojr.usc.edu). STL today.com is associated with the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch and represents what Lasica calls Pulitzer
Inc.’s “portal strategy” – one in which the newspaper “takes
a seat far to the rear of the bus.”

Lasica pointed out that STLtoday.com is “bright, colorful, and
slickly packaged.” In a dramatic one-sentence nut graf, however,
he laid his St. Louis cards on the table and declared, “Now only
if it had a soul.”

I’ve pondered this for weeks. A soul! What a wonderful Web this
would be if portals, newspaper sites, and even e-commerce
channels had souls.

Can a Web site have a soul? I checked out some sites about soul,
such as Classic Soul (http://www.soul-patrol.com/soul). Read a
nice tribute to “Agent Double-0 Soul,” the singer Edwin Starr.
The site had interesting information, useful links, and all that
funky stuff. But it didn’t have soul, much less “a soul.”

Maybe I was looking for soul in all the wrong places. So I went
to the Martin Buber Homepage (http://www.buber.de /en), where
thoughts of the great religious philosopher can be found in
German and English. I could spend hours reveling in Buber’s
revelations on the relationship between man and God – or, as
he perfectly put it in his most famous book, between “I and
Thou.” But the site itself couldn’t be said to have a soul.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more Lasica’s query about
soul became less an irrational wish than a credible cry from the
heart. I wasn’t familiar with the Post-Dispatch’s pre-
STLtoday.com site, but as a regular user of what had been The
Miami Herald’s Web entity, I’ve been chagrined to note that
my southern Florida news connection is now accessed via
Miami.com, which is part of the RealCities cookie-cutter concept.

Still unsure about what all this had to do with a soul, I e-
mailed Lasica seeking enlightenment.

“Consider this question,” Lasica replied. “What makes newspapers
special? … It’s the newspaper’s special relationship to the
community by dint of its role as a town square, a place where a
multiplicity of voices can be heard. … As news operations
increasingly migrate online and look for their proper, expanded
roles on the Internet, it’s critical that [they keep] the values
and standards that made them relevant in their communities
[italics added] … [A] portal, city guide, or any other quasi-
journalistic enterprise lacks credibility, authenticity, and,
yes, a soul, if it’s more about marketing than it is about a two-
way dialog with the community it purports to cover.”

J.D. is right. Turning a newspaper Web site into a generic dot-
com may be a shrewd marketing move. But by making itself one
undistinctive element of an online package, the newspaper risks
becoming the voice of an unreal city.



Wayne Robins (wrobins@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor covering new media for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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