By: Steve Outing
Print editions of newspapers will be around quite a while longer. While advances in Internet and wireless communications mean that printed newspapers will dwindle in importance over the coming years as more consumers have their news and information needs met digitally, the printed paper will stick with us — used by fewer people in time, but remaining relevant to many lives.
That’s not to say that the print edition can stay the same and live on. I’d suggest that the printed newspaper needs a major overhaul to remain relevant in the global-digital-network age.
So, what I’m going to do with this month’s column is make some suggestions on how print newspapers need to change. Most of them sorely need to be redesigned and tweaked to reflect that they serve an audience that can easily and cheaply get whatever news and information they want on their computer screens.
I’ve selected two print editions of major American metro papers, located in different regions of the country. I’m going to hide their identity — frankly, I don’t want to pick on individual newspapers when their print versions are so much like most others (that is, in the context of reflecting the current media environment, flawed). Both papers have decent Web sites, and their parent companies have responded to Internet trends about as much as most U.S. media companies. These print editions are just like most others of their size.
An Overview of the Problem
Overall, the problem with these papers is that they don’t acknowledge that the news companies that publish them offer a greater depth and breadth of news, information, and services online. On one paper, while there is a Web address (URL) for the paper’s Web site on the front page, on many inside pages there’s no reference at all to any of its electronic services. On the other paper, there’s not even a URL to its Web site printed on the front page — although there is a small blurb about a specific online feature, and a few references to the Web site on Page 2.
Both papers seem to exist mostly as a walled garden; the assumption appears to be that anyone reading either publication would not have the need or desire to go further than these printed pages, so online references are limited. That may be fine if the readership is exclusively older people — I’m thinking, over 60 — but it’s silly to ignore online information for a younger audience.
Here’s a small but significant example that demonstrates what’s wrong. On the front page of one of the papers there’s an index to the major sections and features in the paper. Included is a “How to reach us” heading with the main switchboard number and nothing else. Wow. That’s dumb.
Many readers’ questions can be answered online, without forcing them into voicemail hell or taking up the time of a human switchboard operator. It’s much more efficient, as countless companies outside of the news business have figured out, to encourage people to help themselves with online tools. Only if they can’t find a solution online are they then sent to a human to be dealt with. I’m surprised that if I’m going on vacation and want to halt print delivery, when I pick up the paper I’m not directed to the most efficient (and cheapest from the company’s point of view) solution: an online customer service center.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that switchboard number is there. Those people not online need it. But it’s indicative of the print walled-garden thinking going on at this paper that there’s no online solution printed on the front page.
I’m hardly imparting a new thought by saying that newspaper companies are no longer about the paper; every newspaper company is a news information enterprise, publishing to whatever format its customers want — print, the Web, e-mail, cell phones, audio/podcasts, video, etc. The papers I’m reviewing here give me few indications that their parent companies think much beyond print. My guess is that the print editors hold too much control, still, since the papers do have decent and useful online presences.
OK, let’s get to specifics. Here we are on Page 1; both papers’ fronts are very similar. These could be the front pages of any of hundreds of newspapers that look very much like these.
In today’s edition of one of the papers, all five stories are by staff reporters, all covering local issues or localizing national ones. I’ll toss out a quick kudo here, because it demonstrates a strong local focus — in-depth reporting of city, regional, and state issues rather than national wire stories. I think that’s the right approach, because these days, any news consumer can grab a computer mouse and navigate to better and broader national and international coverage than this regional paper can ever hope to publish (unless it’s staffed national and international bureaus). So, barring national or international news that’s just too big to not put on the front page, I think print newspapers should keep the Page-1 focus on local and regional news.
What are missing from this front page are teasers to supplemental online coverage of the main stories. For example, there’s a story about a high-profile murder trial opening. I’d like to see a box inset in the article text telling readers to look at the paper’s Web site for full transcripts of the testimony, or a video interview with the defendant, etc. Perhaps the story has additional photos than what are printed, so tell print readers to find them online. If you’ve got a Web site producing that sort of valuable content, use the print edition to market it.
What if that trial had just gone to jury, and a verdict was expected the day the morning newspaper was printed? With the walled-garden approach, if the jury announced its decision at 9 a.m., the newspaper would have an outdated story on news racks (and in people’s homes) all day, unless it went to the expense to print a special edition and truck copies all over town.
Here’s a better approach. Include a box in the trial story that mentions that a verdict is expected sometime today, and tell print readers that they can check online during the day, where you’ll have the verdict news the minute it breaks. Instead of looking clueless (as happened to morning newspapers around the U.S. when the recent Sago mine tragedy turned from 12 alive to 12 dead in the middle of the night), the newspaper can acknowledge the obvious — that by the time you read this, it may be outdated — while appearing savvy and offering readers instant news online that’s as fast as radio or TV news.
Another pet peeve for me is that print-edition stories are dead ends. Both papers append each significant local story with the e-mail address and phone number for the reporter. That’s great; bravo. But if I’m a reader, I may want to comment on the story publicly. Maybe I want to correct something that I know is wrong, and make sure that it’s published and not at the discretion of the reporter. Maybe I have a photo that I took at the news event, and I’d like to add it to the discussion. My only option is to contact the reporter directly.
A growing number of newspaper Web sites attach public discussion threads to stories. But why seemingly restrict access to those forums to online users? I’d like to see something like this in print, “Want to discuss this article? Go to www.newspapername.com/discuss1234,” in addition to reporter contact info. Or, “Did you witness this subway explosion? Share your stories or photos.”
A newspaper’s columnists are those individuals in the newsroom with whom readers have the closest connection. Therefore, it’s simply smart to promote a dialog between columnist and readers — even in the print edition. In one of these papers, the columnists have the same apparent relationship with readers as reporters: They are limited to an e-mail address and phone number appended to their columns. At the other paper, some columnists have e-mail addresses at the end of their columns, but no phone numbers; other columnists have no contact details whatsoever. The columnist-reader interaction is hidden, if there is any.
Just as with reporters’ stories, I’d suggest that a discussion forum (or a columnist-answers-readers edited feature) be created for each columnist, and that those be promoted in the print column. But I also think it’s smart for every columnist to maintain a blog online — and of course to promote it and quote from it in print.
Columnists appear as one-dimensional when they only write a column. The good ones in the Internet age will excel at interacting directly with their readers, and communicating beyond the printed page. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof is a great example of a columnist who goes well beyond the traditional column. He routinely produces multimedia features that supplement his column, and engages readers in discussions and answers their questions.
I can hear traditionally minded print columnists complaining about that recommendation (or I will, when this is published), because it means more work. But if the public demands more interaction in order to stay engaged with a columnist, then I think it’s columnists’ job — working with their editors who will need to make concessions — to figure out how to fit it in.
And, of course, it’s the job of print editors to show off their columnists’ full range of offerings, in print and online.
The Stocks Page
A growing number of newspapers — notably in recent weeks, some Tribune Co. properties including the Chicago Tribune and Newsday, and the Indianapolis Star — have cut their printed stock listings by as much as half. This seems to be a strategy of weaning newspaper readers off printed listings, since increasingly investors get their information from online sources that are up to the minute, not hours old.
Personally, I think that most newspapers should cut printed stock listings to the bare minimum, focusing on indexes, promoting listing services available online and via telephone or e-mail delivery, and not much else. But it may be that the slow weaning process is the way to prevent public uproar from those readers still clinging to printed stock listings.
What the page formerly known as Stocks should look like is largely a promotion for services available from the newspaper online and via the telephone. Since not everyone is yet online, it of course is important to offer telephone services to get up-to-the-minute stock listings. And, of course, that’s a sponsorship opportunity.
The Comics Page
I think even the comics page could use some modernizing. How about this tagline for each comic feature: “Miss yesterday’s Doonesbury? www.newspapername.com/doonesbury.” Does your Web site offer additional comics than the ones in the print edition? Promote them in print.
And in our fast-paced, digital world, why do we have to wait a day to get the results of today’s crossword puzzle. I’d like to see this line at the bottom of today’s puzzle for those too impatient to wait for the printed answers tomorrow: “Can’t wait till tomorrow for today’s puzzle answers? www.newspapername.com/puzzle013006.” (One of the papers I’m looking at actually publishes today’s answers today — on the same page as the puzzle itself. That strikes me as a bit too convenient!)
The classifieds section is where the print editions of these newspapers are at their worst — and that extends to many other newspapers.
First, there’s the price charged. At one of the papers, for instance, a car-for-sale ad offer (private party) is a 3-line print ad (7-day run) plus an unlimited-length (and unlimited time) online ad for about $60. A print-only ad will cost a little more than half that. Now, considering that Craigslist is extremely popular in this metro area — and on which you can sell a car for nothing — the notion of charging that much to place an ad is just silly. You can argue that there’s value in a printed classified ad, but it’s really only for those older people who haven’t figured out that Craigslist is the new best way for a private party to sell a car.
My recommendation: Offer free online ads for most private-party things, making money from upsells (charge for premium placement, additional photos/video, etc.), from contextual display advertising placed around classifieds, and from facilitating the transaction and skimming off a portion.
For printed classifieds, charging remains an option; printing ads and delivering them to thousands of people is something Craigslist can’t do.
But printed classifieds themselves need an overhaul. At both of the papers I reviewed, the typical “liner” classified ad is nothing but a few lines of text with a phone number to contact the seller. What I’d like to see is for print ads to have a simple code that can be used on the newspaper’s Web site to find an expanded version of the print ad.
So, for example, a classifieds seller might purchase a print ad with online link (printed code), plus an upsell for a free online ad that includes a video clip of the item for sale (say, a car). The newspaper makes money from the advertiser, of course. And the potential buyer is better served, even if he finds the ad in the print edition — because he’ll be referred to an enhanced online ad that includes a video of the car for sale.
In one of the newspaper print editions I reviewed, a small minority of ads participate in its “Click and Buy” enhanced online ad program, which does what I just suggested. But the adoption rate for advertisers is minuscule. What I’m suggesting is including this functionality on ALL printed classifieds. Only by doing this can a print edition’s classifieds be considered truly useful in a world where Craigslist exists. Without the online code, newspaper classifieds are stuck so far in the past, I wonder why the publishers even bother.
And what we’re talking about here is adding a single text line to each print ad — “Web ID: 123456” — along with an explainer box on each page of printed classifieds instructing readers how to use the codes online.
Better Sports Pages
Finally, let’s take a look at the Sports section of these print editions. My advice above stands for sports columnists; let’s be more interactive, and promote that in print.
One thing often mentioned as dispensable in print Sports sections is sports “agate,” the stats listings that offer more detail about major games as well as stats from minor sports. It’s often suggested that print-edition Sports sections could save space by publishing that stuff online and devoting it to more regular coverage. The papers I looked at used stats appropriately on most pages as a worthy supplement to stories, then devoted about a full page to minor-sports agate.
I’d be careful about this. Unlike with stock listings, where omitted print listings can be replaced with an on-demand telephone dial-in service for those newspaper readers who still aren’t online, it may not be as easy to get this same information to non-online users conveniently.
Where I think Sports sections can do better is in promoting multimedia and video content online. For the print version of a story about Sunday’s big NFL game for your city, how about promoting game-highlights video on the paper’s Web site, or a podcast review of the game by the leading football columnist? The game article could refer readers to an online slide show of staff photographs from the game — more than what’s published in print — and/or even reader-contributed shots. And readers can be told where to go online to vent their frustrations about losing or celebrate a win with other diehard fans.
You could make the argument that promoting all the great stuff available on a newspaper’s Web site points out how weak the printed newspaper is — so let’s not promote that fact. I’ll argue just the opposite: By largely hiding what the newspaper staff is producing for the Web, the newspapers I reviewed show that they are stuck in a print mindset. They should be in thinking publish-everywhere, with each medium that they utilize feeding off and helping out the other.