News Sites Repeat Mistakes Of the Past

By: Steve Outing

I’ve been part of and covering the online news industry since 1994. It’s been a fascinating yet frustrating business to be in.

Through all those years, we as an industry have learned a lot. We’ve experimented, experimented more, and experimented some more. We’ve tried this and that business model. Through the dot-com years, I’ve met lots of smart, ambitious people working hard to create an economically viable new mass communications medium.

And through it all, lots of those smart people continued to make mistakes and sometimes miss the obvious. Despite the popularity of the Internet, we’re still a troubled industry as a result.

Cataloging the mistakes

As I’ve participated in online news conferences and events this year, I’ve been struck by the sense that the industry continues to make the same mistakes — miscues that make it more difficult to build a media industry that rivals traditional media like newspapers, magazines, television, and radio.

In recent months I attended two events focusing on online journalism. At both, speakers, panelists, and attendees often seemed to be of a common mind. Their message: too few people in the news industry recognize the value in true online interactivity and in creating services and content that are unique to the online medium.

Let me get more specific:

Mistake No. 1. We still behave as though we don’t understand this online medium. We still publish mostly by the old rules, disseminating information that we think the public wants in a mostly one-way manner. We still (for the most part) speak at our online audience, not with them.

Sure, most news sites now operate discussion boards; they publish reporters’ e-mail addresses to solicit feedback; they include “add your comment” links to stories. It took a few years for those practices to become commonplace on news sites. That’s interactive (and it’s good), but it’s not enough.

Online news managers need to look deeper. Look at what others in the online community space are doing. They’re not hard to find. Look at, or the newer Kuro5hin, both online communities where the users control the experience. Kuro5hin is designed to be the antithesis of the typical news organization. Its users come together in an online community and select the content they want to publish, comment on it, and debate. It’s a debating society melded with a news publication.

Kuro5hin founder Rusty Foster (who is a programmer, not a journalist) told an audience recently at the USC Online Journalism Conference, “Traditional media needs to get this.” What they need to get is the concept that it’s good to invite readers into your community, and develop online tools to serve that community — to facilitate the building and maintenance of communities of interest.

One of Foster’s ideas that I really like is the notion of building communities of interest (lots of them) around reporters and columnists. Get journalists to go beyond fielding e-mails and participating in discussion forums. Encourage them to use software tools to build an online community where they are at the center, surrounded by readers, fans, and critics who react to what’s been written, suggest new ideas, and even correct the journalist.

An important point here is that creating such an interactive community is possible only in online media, no other. This is a strong technique for making the Internet media experience like no other. In no other communications medium can news consumers get this experience.

Mistake No. 2. Most news sites expect users to visit and read something, or listen, or view. This is just like all traditional media.

But to make online media different and unique, think about having visitors do something, instead of just reading something. Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies and a connoisseur of innovative online storytelling forms, advocates making the experience of visiting your Web site an “activity.” (She also sharply criticized the majority of news sites, telling the Online Journalism Conference audience, “Most news sites right now are pretty damn boring.”)

I think this is at the heart of online news’ problems today. The content that most of us produce is stuff you read, not stuff you interact with. Paul’s Institute has among its missions to explore new digital story-telling forms. (She prefers to call it “story-making.”) The Institute has hosted sessions where it brings together journalists and game designers, and journalists and fine artists — to explore new ways to communicate with an audience.

Online news, if it is to succeed, needs to get more adventurous about trying new forms of story presentation. It needs to focus more on the “stuff you do” and not the “stuff you read.” Then, Internet journalism becomes something new — and not just a variation of content as presented in other media formats.

Could this be the heart of what’s wrong with online news? I think so. And you can look back through media history to find precedent. Television began as “radio with pictures” — that is, cameras were trained on people reading from scripts. As the medium matured, television adopted its own native content forms. The Internet is still in the middle of this transition — where it’s beginning to develop its own unique story forms, but tradition-based content is still the rule.

Yes, there are many examples out there of unique-to-online news content. The Society of News Design’s SND.ies awards, announced earlier this year, each month honors outstanding examples of such multimedia content. But the point is that this content is still rare. The SND.ies initially had very few entrants, which confirms the problem.

Here’s what should be commonplace when Internet users visit news sites: content that they interact with, in the same way that you interact with a computer game; content that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium. For example, a story on a proposed property tax increase can have an interactive application (created using something like Flash) with which a site visitor can type in his home’s worth and see how it would affect his property tax bill specifically. A recipe presented can be interactive by having the user specify number of servings, click a button, then recipe ingredients are adjusted for the requested serving size.

Mistake No. 3. We ignore obvious trends for too long.

Take Weblogs, or blogs, as a prime example. The Weblog trend has been obvious for a while now, and blogs number in the hundreds of thousands. Look for Weblogs on the sites of mainstream news organizations. You’ll find a few, but the news industry has clearly not embraced the concept yet.

Why are blogs important for news organizations? Because they can give a voice to the public. For example, the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., recently debuted a “public Weblog” called Off The Record. The idea behind there is that anyone can submit an item (on any topic involving the Internet), and the blog’s editor approves submissions. For many people, this is the easiest way to get their names published by the Observer-Reporter.

I think that Weblogs haven’t caught on in the news industry in a widespread manner yet because they threaten the status quo. They encourage public participation, public voice. And they are not as tightly edited (or edited at all) as traditional journalistic content.

But blogs and other Internet-native trends are exactly what news organizations need to embrace. They represent yet another form of communication that a news site can employ to be uniquely online.

When the news industry truly adopts the notion of offering an online-unique experience to Internet users, then perhaps the industry’s financial struggles will go away. Online news will have grown up.

Letters to the Editor

My last column about the convergence education requirements at USC’s Annenberg School brought in these letters:

Others Are Teaching Convergence

Steve Outing’s March 27 column gives us a good glimpse of how the University of Southern California will be giving its students experience in print, broadcast, and Web journalism. It also gives us the idea that the University of Kansas is the only other school that “takes multi-platform education very seriously.” Not so.

Washington and Lee University’s journalism department is among several other programs that are providing their students with solid experience in how news is being disseminated these days. We’ve started our ‘multi-platform’ curriculum in temporary trailers. In the fall we’ll be working on all-digital, integrated systems that we hope will help students focus on news values and not technical values.

You’ll also probably hear from others who say the verities of accuracy and fairness are more important than learning how today’s quill pens work. They’re right, too.

Hampden H. Smith III
Professor and head
Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, Va.

You Forgot Minnesota’s Work

Great article about USC’s new curriculum plan for this fall — you explained the philosophy and the sequencing of the classes really well. But you left out an important fact in describing their program in the context of other journalism programs.

While Kansas is certainly doing a good job in restructuring their program, you neglected to mention the New Media Initiative at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This initiative was funded by the Minnesota legislature back in 1998. The New Media Initiative consisted of four parts — the renovation of Murphy Hall to a state of the art multimedia education and training facility, the hiring of eight new faculty positions — people who could deliver a new media curriculum, and the redesign of the curriculum around the very convergence approaches now being done by Kansas and USC. (The fourth part was the creation of the Institute for New Media Studies.)

UM is well along the path of delivering a converged curriculum approach to journalism and mass communication education.

Nora Paul
Institute for New Media Studies
University of Minnesota

Other recent columns

USC J-School To Teach Convergence To All, Wednesday, March 27
Interactive News Is Newspaper-Wide Effort In Spokane, Wednesday, March 13
News Sites Need To Get Flash-y, Wednesday, Feb. 27
Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again, Wednesday, Feb. 13
Product Placement On Newspaper Web Sites?, Wednesday, Jan. 23
Use Web To Supplement Your Print Edition, Wednesday, Jan. 9
Previous columns

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