By: Steve Outing
With the overall economy officially in a recession, the dot-com world — and especially the online news sector — doesn’t look promising. With online advertising still in a slump, and a viable model for online content subscriptions nowhere in sight, many traditional publishers don’t seem to have a clear focus on new media … which is a big problem.
The idea of media “convergence” seems to have taken a hit along with the global economy. If you look at many newspapers today, you won’t see a lot in the way of integration between print product and Internet operations. While there are certainly some good examples out there, too many newspapers aren’t taking online-print integration seriously enough. An alarming number seem to have backed away from the idea.
To demonstrate this, last week while I was on vacation in California, I picked up copies of some of the state’s biggest newspapers. What I saw were papers that for the most part paid lip service to promoting their Web sites.
How bad is it?
Let’s look at some examples. I’ll explain what’s wrong, and make suggestions about how these papers could handle online-print collaboration better. Why make the effort, when the Internet sector is in such a slump? I’ll address that at the end of this column.
Los Angeles Times. It wasn’t that long ago that newspaper Web sites were in vogue, and print front pages included more references to features and services online. But last Saturday’s L.A. Times included only one Web reference: the URL to Latimes.com in the masthead, next to the date. Other section fronts were equally as devoid of tie-ins to Latimes.com: the Sports section included only a sports-specific URL in the section flag, latimes.com/sports, for example.
Flipping through the front news section of the Times, you’ll have to search hard to find mentions of the fine Latimes.com Web site. All I spotted was the occasional latimes.com URL. It appears that the site is about as important to the newspaper’s editors as were audiotext services a few years ago — handy little services, but not worth promoting seriously. Considering the substantial sums of money sunk into Latimes.com over the years, the lack of promotion in the print edition seems an odd business decision. If the Web site is ever to become a significant revenue source for the Times, it will need the support of the print edition.
San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle, now owned by the Hearst Corp., hosts one of the better newspaper Web sites, SF Gate. I was disappointed to see that in last Saturday’s front page, there was not a single mention of the Web site, any of its content or services — not even an SFGate.com URL in the Chronicle masthead.
The paper does better on its inside pages. At the end of all locally written articles, the print edition includes reporters’ e-mail addresses. (Bravo!) A full-page “house ad” promotes SF Gate’s “PersonalShopper” service. The paper promotes its “Chronicle Extra” logos, small circle icons placed throughout the paper that offer “discounts, freebies and cool stuff just for Chronicle readers” which can be found on the Web. Alas, in the issue I examined, not a single “Extra” icon could be found in the entire paper.
San Jose Mercury News. The Mercury News was a pioneer in Web news publishing, and parent Knight Ridder has long been serious about its Internet businesses. So I’m disappointed that this newspaper, like the others, treats its Web sites with minimal promotion and modest online-print collaboration. The front page of last Saturday’s edition at least did feature a URL in the masthead for BayArea.com, its principal Web site for local readers. The business section included a URL for its SiliconValley.com site. But beyond that, I didn’t find Web references to online content in print articles.
The Mercury News does include e-mail addresses for local reporters at the end of articles, and overall makes it easy for readers to find and communicate with newspaper staff members and departments. (Again, bravo!) But clearly, some Merc editors remain Internet-challenged. Note the taglines on the Ann Landers and Miss Manners columns, which request that mail to those syndicated columnists be sent to the Mercury News office via postal mail — an e-mail address is not given.
So much more they could do
The L.A. Times, Chronicle, and Mercury News are California’s most prominent newspapers. Each has invested substantially in its online operations. I find it sad, then, that as the times got tough, each newspaper has appeared to weaken its print support of its Web site.
What should they be doing? Foremost, staff of the print editions need to treat their Web sites as partners, and actively urge print readers to partake of what’s available online.
Below are some examples. What I’m suggesting are not expensive things; indeed, in the current environment it’s impractical for a newspaper to embark on costly Web content projects that won’t have an adequate return on investment. My suggestions are reasonable, yet give readers the impression that newspaper Web sites are partners with the papers, not just a minor satellite service.
- Promote, promote, promote that URL! I’m shocked that after all these years of newspaper Web sites, some major papers still don’t aggressively promote their sites’ URLs. The Mercury News includes “www.bayarea.com” in the page heading of every page in the paper (hooray!), but the Chronicle and Times both miss this obvious (and no-cost) way to keep their Web sites in the minds of print readers.
- Supplemental Web content. There was a lack of this in the editions I viewed last week. For instance, a front page story in the Times about anthrax could have included a URL for a Web page containing a compilation of background information — anthrax stories from the Times archive, links to relevant research and government sites, photos of an anthrax skin infection, etc. For a significant newspaper story, there’s no need for it to stand alone in the print edition; at the least, an editor should create a resources or background Web page — which can be referenced over the course of many days of articles about anthrax.
- Related stories — online. It’s common for newspapers to include “Related Story” blurbs with major articles. Don’t stop with promoting other print-edition stories, as these California papers all did, but promote related Web content, too.
- Add video to the paper. A big advantage to convergence is the addition of new content formats to traditional media — like giving print newspaper readers video. This is made simple enough by making a video clip available on a Web site and including a URL in the print edition. For an LA Times article about a raunchy “reality TV” series on Russian state television, it would have been great to point readers to a Web video clip, for instance.
- Run more letters to the editor. Here’s another old idea that’s still worthy of being implemented. Instead of running a limited number of letters to the editor in the sparse existing space of the editorial page, publish all of them on the Web and point print readers online.
- Promote online listings/buying services. Entertainment lists in most newspapers remain static listings of time and place. Why not create a Web ticket buying system that’s hooked in to Web event listings? Tell print readers they can go to the newspaper’s Web site to order tickets. This is no small thing, but partnerships with ticketing companies serving the local market can make it manageable. The trick is to make participation open to all organizations; don’t limit the deal to the major player in your market.
- Promote online discussion events. Something that all three California papers fail to do is promote online discussion of significant print stories. It’s a fairly simple matter to establish an online reader comments system, where readers are pointed to voice their comments about a story they’ve just read. Set a policy that every major, local feature must have an associated Web discussion area or comments board — and refer print readers to specific URLs, not to a generic discussions page.
- Do more online polls. For a Chronicle story about overweight dogs, a simple associated online poll would have been a nice, easy-to-execute extra touch. “Describe your dog: Emaciated. Underweight. Ideal. Overweight. Obese.” Readers would be pointed to an online questionnaire, which returned instantly tabulated results. Readers could even be invited to upload digital photos of their paunchy pooches, for all to see.
- Run more house ads promoting online content and services. Print readers won’t go online unless they know about a newspaper’s Web site and what’s on it. These California papers — and most others elsewhere — need to ramp up Web promotion.
For most of these ideas, a system that creates short URLs is a must. Newspapers should be publishing URLs that take readers directly to Web content (not a site’s home page or intermediary page), but printed URLs must be short enough to be remembered by the reader as he logs on to the Internet (e.g., www.sfgate.com/fatdogpoll.)
Why bother when the Web is dying?
The Web is not dying, it’s merely in the same slump as most other industries. What we’re seeing in the newspaper industry is understandable: as Internet advertising dried up, media executives have cast their gaze elsewhere. But when the inevitable upturn in Internet business emerges, newspaper publishers need to be ready for the next wave. While it probably won’t be as big as the first “Internet bubble,” a more realistic and slower upturn will create viable online businesses.
Newspapers do a disservice to their future by ignoring the Web in their print editions — or downplaying it, as these three California papers are currently doing — and by overlooking opportunities for print-online convergence.
The newspaper industry was derided in the mid 1990’s for being slow to embrace the Internet. “Pure-play” Internet start-ups grabbed the headlines and lots of (easy) venture capital, while newspapers played it conservative. In hindsight, that wasn’t a bad choice — the start-ups are gone and established media companies live on. But the next upturn will surely be different. Newspapers should not be left out again.
Here’s a way to think about your newspaper’s Web site during the lowest point of the Internet’s evolution: It’s a useful, promising vehicle to enhance the quality and breadth of content and services offered by your newspaper. Someday, it will represent a significant revenue stream, as well. (For that, you’ll have to have faith.)
The chips may be down now, but this Internet thing is a long way from where it’s ultimately headed. My advice: stay in the game; and if you’ve gotten out of the game in the last year, it’s time to get back in.
Other recent columns
In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns:
Using the Invisible Web In Research, Wednesday, Nov. 14
Sports League Sites Battle Media, Wednesday, Oct. 31
Honoring the Dead Online, Wednesday, Oct. 10
Are Newspaper Web Sites Dead?, Wednesday, Sept. 26
Attacks Lessons For News Web Sites, Wednesday, Sept. 19
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