By: Seth Sutel
If you?re not plugged into the Internet, you still have to buy the whole newspaper even if you only want to do the crossword puzzle. But online, that and other stand-alone features are increasingly popping up all over the Web.
Now you can get The New York Times crossword on a customizable page from Google Inc., or you can test your “Times IQ” on a Facebook application that launched last week. The Washington Post offers a gizmo to view top photos or gauge your political leanings.
These pullout Web modules are commonly called “widgets,” and they?re one of the fastest-growing trends on the Internet, especially since Facebook opened up its user platform to outside software developers in late May.
For newspapers, widgets represent a huge new opportunity to draw in new readers and to boost their brands throughout the Internet.
Yet they mark a fundamental rethinking for papers accustomed to selling news, entertainment and information only in prepackaged bundles. With widgets, newspapers are sending some of their content out into the world in piecemeal fashion and allowing users to share them with their friends _ for free.
Google, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. all offer large varieties of such modules _ in some cases they?re called “gadgets” instead of “widgets.” In the four months since the popular online hangout Facebook opened up its platform, outside software developers have created some 2,000 applications.
Keenly mindful of steady declines in newspaper circulation and advertising, several newspapers are seeing widgets as a way to reach out to new, and especially younger, users online, those who might not otherwise come to the paper?s main Web site destination.
And the widgets that they?re making aren?t necessarily clones of what you?d see in the paper. The Washington Post just launched a photo-viewing application and one that keeps track of issues most often brought up by the 2008 presidential candidates.
Earlier, the Post wrote a Facebook application called “The Compass,” in which users take a short survey to gauge their political leanings, and then compare results with their friends whom they invite to take the quiz.
Later this month, The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Dow Jones & Co., plans to launch a widget to keep track of stock market news and indexes.
Gannett Co.?s USA Today, meanwhile, launched several travel-based widgets earlier this month and has plans for several others based on news headlines, celebrity gossip and other categories.
Jim Brady, the executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, says widgets can boost a newspaper?s brand online, refer new readers back to the site and perhaps generate revenues through sponsorship deals.
Traditionally, newspapers and other Web sites have first and foremost tried to drive traffic back the main destination so they can sell more advertising, the way a TV network or magazine or newspaper might do.
But as people spend more time within networks of their own creation, such as on MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch?s media conglomerate News Corp.), Facebook or personalized Web pages with Yahoo or Google, newspapers are bringing pieces of their content to the users.
In Microsoft?s new Windows Vista operating system, you don?t even need a browser open _ these applications can sit on the desktop.
“Web reality has kicked in, and it?s hard to get people to your site,” Brady says. “You have to throw a lot of fish hooks out there” to attract new readers.
For newspapers, breaking pieces of their content and coming up with playful applications like online quizzes could be even more monumental than their first forays onto the Web a decade or so ago.
The New York Times is still in the early days of widget development, with just a handful launched so far, but many more are in the works.
“Some of the most fun meetings we have are when we?re sitting around and brainstorming what kinds of widgets we can create,” says Vivian Schiller, the general manager of NYTimes.com.
As for getting a traditional media outlet to embrace the newest Web boom, Schiller said that “whatever cultural or institutional barriers to this are long gone.”
Schiller and others say widgets are no flash in the pan, since they harness the biggest change currently going in online behavior. “It?s both reflecting and accelerating the personalization of the Web,” Schiller says.
As for making money, well, that?s still a matter of some discussion. The Wall Street Journal says it?s building traffic to its main site by allowing users to embed WSJ.com video elsewhere, but the paper hasn?t yet signed up advertisers for its first widget.
That markets-based application is more of a “marketing and brand extension,” says Mike Jones, director of business and audience development for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network. “The revenue model is still TBD” _ to be determined.
In the long haul, many see great opportunities for media companies to offer unbundled versions of some of their content as another way to get in front of audiences.
“If you have content that is good and allow people to distribute it themselves, you?re in a much more Darwinian environment … in that there is less friction to distribute the best content,” says David Weiden, a partner at Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm with investments in widget makers including Slide and iLike.
“You don?t have to do a deal with Yahoo, Weiden says. “You just encapsulate the content and attach a thing like a Lego block to it so it will attach to anything that takes Lego blocks. It?s a big opportunity for content owners.”
And although the advertising model remains undefined, many marketers find the idea intriguing.
“It?s a natural link between information and entertainment, which is a sweet spot for newspapers,” says David Verklin, chief executive of Carat Americas, a major ad-buying firm. “It?s a wonderful delivery strategy for the newspapers to deliver the information they?re gathering anyway.”