Newspapers Are Still Betting On Online News

By: Carl Sullivan

The familiar themes of convergence and profitability were stressed during the first sessions of Editor & Publisher’s 13th Interactive Newspapers Conference and Trade Show, which opened here Wednesday night. This year’s smaller audience also got a bit of a pep talk from Thursday’s keynote speakers.

“Don’t give up,” Bob Cauthorn practically shouted from the podium. The vice president for digital media at the San Francisco Chronicle took his colleagues to task for their sometimes defeatist behavior. “Newspapers are perverse organizations,” he said. “We love to hate ourselves. Don’t do it.”

Despite the abysmal advertising climate of last year, Cauthorn’s SFGate.com ended 2001 with record revenues. How? Cauthorn wouldn’t provide specific details, but said the simple focus was, “How do we solve our advertisers’ problems?”

In the recruitment space, SFGate.com created a popular $199 upsell from the print classifieds that allows employers to “fluff” their ads with HTML and other interactive features. These special help-wanted ads are given a prominent spot in a right-hand “jobs of the day” feature on editorial pages.

Cauthorn said the unusual placement allows employers to reach consumers who aren’t even looking for a job. Even though the project started late in the year, it generated revenues in the seven-figure range, Cauthorn said.

“The question of profitability is still premature,” added Steve Rossi, Knight Ridder president, newspaper division, in the opening speech of the day. “We simply have to be more aggressive about trying new models.” He encouraged newspapers to experiment more and to place a large number of bets, knowing that some will fail. “We need to think of ourselves as media people, not newspaper people,” said Rossi, who helped start Knight Ridder’s online efforts in Philadelphia.

This wasn’t the first time the newspaper industry has heard this tune, but it’s one that bears an encore. “We’re very good at content, which is our core competency,” Rossi said. But newspapers aren’t so good at packaging their content for other media or at reaching those online consumers who don’t use the print product.

Rossi’s colleague Dan Finnigan, president of Knight Ridder Digital, is confronting the difficult task of reaching both of those audiences. The company has local portals with their own branding, such as SanJose.com and Philly.com, but also has sites branded with Knight Ridder newspaper names. The portals tend to attract younger audiences who may not reach the print newspaper. “We’re providing both options on our sites,” he said. “For people who just want to read the newspaper online, they get that option from our home page.”

Over time, it does appear that the separate media of companies like Knight Ridder are indeed converging. Finnigan said the company’s new online publishing platform was built to anticipate the integration of video, should Knight Ridder choose to add that function in the future.

At Chicago-based Tribune Co., the local TV affiliates are feeding people to Tribune newspapers. “KTLA-TV drives people to latimes.com,” said Tribune Interactive President David D. Hiller. “WGN feeds people to chicagotribune.com. It works.”

Hiller said the company is now building internal systems to allow the chain’s newspapers to share their story schedules every day, in an effort to spread more content across the chain nationwide.

Thursday’s speakers also indicated that traditional and online media divisions are communicating more than they have in the past. “We have a fundamental rule: no surprises,” said Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive CEO and Publisher Chris Schroeder. He said The Washington Post Co.’s very separate online unit meets with the newspaper staff on a regular basis to discuss upcoming stories. “We still trip on each other … but communication is key,” he said.

At CNN, Director of Integration Roy Wadia created working groups of broadcast and dot-com workers to foster better working relationships.

These speakers also stressed that multimedia isn’t just about editorial content. Schroeder said his company will announce later this week a deal with the NHL’s Washington Capitals, whereby special advertising video packages on the team will be provided on washingtonpost.com.

Schroeder’s site is also experimenting with broadcast-like lead-ins that “take over” the browser for a few seconds before leading the user to the requested editorial content. The quick lead-ins then shrink to tower ads on the page. These may work, Schroeder suggested, because they don’t break anyone’s train of thought in the middle of a story or content search. The lead-ins occur before the user gets to the requested content, not in the middle of it. “That’s why people find pop-ups so annoying,” he said.

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