Opinion: Newspapers Online Rely Too Much on News

By: Steve Outing

What do newspapers primarily have to offer online audiences? News, of course. Is news what is going to attract huge numbers of Internet users to online newspapers, and make those Web ventures profitable? Probably not.

A discussion taking place on the Online-News Internet discussion list, about the pros and cons of local news sites carrying national and international news, helped me realize that the newspaper industry is still relying too much on news content when it comes to its Web sites. Go to Editor & Publisher’s list of newspapers online and click on a few randomly. Odds are that most of the sites will feature as their dominant element on their “front page” repurposed news from the newspaper or wire services. (To be sure, this is more likely to be the case with small papers’ sites than large ones.)

These are newspaper sites, you say; of course they should feature news as their main draw. Well, think again.

Repeat users — Not!

I also was struck by my recent interview with online news researcher Eric Meyer, who has come up with numbers that indicate that for a typical newspaper site, repeat traffic is scant. Few Internet users rely on a newspaper site as a source of keeping up to date on current events. More likely, they come to search for specific information, or come to the news site occasionally when a major event breaks and they can’t get enough in the newspaper, or the paper won’t be published for many more hours. Or perhaps they’re in offices, and look for a news update around the lunch hour — and a Web site is the most convenient source.

Let me make clear that this is not a call to ignore news on newspaper Web sites. Rather, it’s a plea for online newspaper managers to realize that their sites must offer more. Here are my recommendations for dealing with news on your newspaper Web site. (And remember, “your mileage may vary.” Depending on the type of publication and audience you have, news may be the appropriate primary draw to gain the largest audience. My comments here are directed largely at local and regional newspaper sites that currently feature primarily news that readers already get in the print edition. Sadly, that’s still the case for a large percentage of newspaper sites.)

Don’t “lead” the Web site with the top news story every day. Rather, assume that the majority of your local audience is happy enough getting headines from the print product (or TV). Instead, only lead with major news events when a headline story breaks far from the next press run. If your print readers are trained to know that when a major story breaks (Noon bomb blast at downtown office tower) they can get details online, they’re more likely to use your Web site. If they know that most of the time the top story on the Web site is the same one as in the morning’s newspaper, they won’t visit unless they have a specific need to search for something. Train your print readers to know that your Web site is an alternative to TV for breaking news.

I’ll even go so far as to suggest that you not repurpose at all as your Web lead item. If the bomb blast happened yesterday and is covered in the morning paper, then that can be placed in a secondary position if you still feel the need to run it. Far better: develop some original content involving the bomb story and lead with that — and, of course, promote that original online content in the print edition. (There’s an exception to this guideline, if your Web site typically attracts a sufficiently large number of non-locals who rely on the site for news from your area. But a minority of newspaper sites can boast this.)

Change your site’s “front page” every day. If a major local story breaks at mid-day, then lead with that. If it’s a quiet day and the big story of the day is national or international (Pakistan conducts 5 nuclear tests), lead with something else. Let’s face it, most people are going to use other media to learn about Pakistan — if not television, then CNN.com or a major national Web news site where they know they’ll get better coverage. You don’t have to ignore the Pakistan story; just don’t expect it to be much of a draw for your site.

A modest percentage of Web visitors will use your site to get regular news updates, and as a replacement for the printed newspaper. You can still accommodate that by running a list of the day’s top headlines, but run it in a vertical column down the left or right side of the screen instead of as the main element. The Pakistani nuclear tests can still be prominent as the lead news item, but the main feature should be something that Web readers can’t get elsewhere.

What to lead with? Breaking news, of course, when relevant. Ideally, your Web readers might always see some news that’s more current than what’s in the print edition; this might come in the form of a “Breaking News” box on the Web “front page” which features local headlines from the last few hours. Even if these are nothing more than one-sentence bulletins, online readers are finding information they can’t get elsewhere. You’re giving them reason to visit your site regularly.

You don’t always have to lead with news. Consider mixing it up. If you have a Web columnist, occasionally highlight his or her pieces. When you have a new site feature, make that the dominant element for the day. If it’s a slow day, use your main placement to promote an online syndicated feature (Motley Fool, an online game, etc.). If a celebrity chat is scheduled for the evening, promote that in advance; or run highlights of the discussion the following day, if something newsworthy comes out of the cyber event. Perhaps you can lead with an online opinion poll occasionally, or an online contest. The point is, get Web users interested in seeing what you’re going to feature each day. Some days, your Web site may look more like a newspaper, highlighting news stories; other days, it may be more magazine-like.

A key point in my argument is that the majority of news sites today allow strictly top news stories to take up the dominant position on a site’s main page. Yet evidence of user trends is beginning to suggest that news online is not bringing back Web readers regularly on the majority of newspaper sites. If you’re a local paper that can’t expect to get a large online audience coming to your site for news — and this describes a majority of newspaper Web sites today — then it’s time to try something different.

Finally, devote your resources to developing original content (which can be completely original, or supplementary to print content). Having news on a newspaper Web site is important; it’s not something you can do away with. But it is something that can be automated with today’s Web site publishing tools, so that limited Web staff can concentrate on developing content that will keep Internet users coming back and print readers visiting regularly, too. I’ll be quite surprised if everyone agrees with the opinions expressed above. If not, please write me with your comments; I’m happy to publish contrary views. My e-mail address is at the bottom of the column.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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