By: Steve Outing
This is my fondest hope for online news in 2002: Newspapers (and other traditional news media) will get serious about using the Web to publish supplementary content.
Why? Because there is much missed opportunity in print-Web collaboration, and because newspapers should be using the Web to make up for recession-caused cutbacks in print editions.
The last year has been rough on media companies, of course, and cutbacks have been common — in staff and in content. What’s getting missed is that some of these cutbacks can be renewed online, continuing service to readers even while serving the bottom line.
Comics are serious
Consider, for example, the comics. The Washington Post recently removed several strips from its print comics page lineup: “Six Chix,” “Tank McNamara,” and “Liberty Meadows.” Fans of those (allegedly unpopular) comics reacted with predictable outrage, writing angry letters and e-mails to the editors.
The San Francisco Chronicle likewise killed off a bunch of comics from the print edition recently: “Baby Blues,” “Zippy the Pinhead,” “Sylvia,” “Curtis,” “Amazing Spider Man,” “Piranha Club,” “Family Circus,” and “Marmaduke.” The difference here is that some of those axed strips — “Zippy the Pinhead,” “Curtis,” “Piranha Club,” and “Baby Blues” — will live on for Chronicle readers who visit the paper’s Web site, SFGate.com.
That’s a great example of maintaining features that can no longer be justified in print — yet have a loyal audience. Indeed, comics are the features that historically generate the most controversy and reader anguish when they’re removed from line-ups. By moving strips to a paper’s Web site, you keep readers appeased — they won’t be entirely happy, of course — and still make room for newer strips, or reduced space for comics as a result of newsprint cuts.
Every newspaper comic page could stand to have a daily promotion for additional comics available on the paper’s Web site — which serves to move readers between print and online properties of the parent company.
There’s a price to pay for simply killing off a strip: You could lose a reader who has relied on your publication for access to a comic strip. Post readers who are loyalists to “Tank McNarama,” for example, can easily find current “Tank” strips on many other sites. (e.g., at Canadian news portal CANOE.) Post ombudsman Michael Gelter told me that after he wrote a column about his newspaper killing off several comics, some readers told him they’d look to the Web as their replacement comic source. If they’re going to go to the Web, shouldn’t they at least be directed to the Post‘s Web site?
It’s not just comics that newspaper readers get angry about losing. In December, the Arizona Republic trimmed several comics from the print edition, and (gasp!) the Ann Landers column (in favor of competing advice column “Dear Abby”). But comics and Ann were moved to the paper’s Web site, which lessened the criticism, at least. According to Senior Editor for Online News John Leach, the Web site now carries 70 comic strips online — compared to only 20 in print.
In lean times like these, many newspapers are being forced to cut back on editorial content. What can be cut?
The Web makes the decision much easier, for you can simply move some content online and out of the print edition. The classic example is stock tables.
The idea of reducing print-edition stock listings and instead publishing them online goes back several years. But business editors have been understandably reticent about killing them off entirely from print, or cutting back too far. (They want to be fair to those who still don’t use the Internet.)
But times are changing, and now is a good time to revisit your stock tables. Combine the newshole-reducing requirements of recession and impressive statistics about Internet usage, and you may decide that now is the appropriate time to take a whack at the listings. With 105 million Americans online as of December (Jupiter Media Metrix), it’s reasonable to cut back stock listings to the bare bones — and refer print readers online for full tables covering all markets.
After all, these days just about anyone who’s serious about stocks (in the U.S. and other developed nations, that is) will use freshly updated Internet stock services rather than read day-old numbers in newspapers. (The exception may be retirees who watch stocks closely but haven’t boarded the Internet bandwagon. A possible alternative is to offer them services such as audiotext stock listings.)
Be a sport
Another area that is getting cut out of some print editions is prep (high school) sports, and statistics (agate) for sports in general.
At the Los Angeles Times, for instance, much of the prep sports content was moved online following a reorganization of its Orange County and San Fernando Valley editions. High school game summaries now appear only online. Also, a weekly picks and predictions column, called “The Prophet,” was axed from the paper but lives on online in the High School Sports section.
I would argue, too, that much sports agate (for all levels of sport) can be moved to the Web and off print pages. Full, extended statistics can be published online — with either a tease to Web stats or abbreviated stats plus a URL for full stats online.
There are likewise other content areas in the print newspaper that can follow the same model: entertainment listings; community events; fishing reports; ski resort snow-depth reports; wedding and engagement notices; and (especially) letters to the editor.
If you’re looking to free up print newshole, I’d look especially for low-interest content like fishing reports — valuable to a small number, but most readers don’t care about them — that can be eliminated in print and replaced by a 1-inch blurb pointing readers to the Web version.
Much of this type of content can be treated in dual print-online form, saving print space by condensing what’s printed and pointing newspaper readers to full, even expanded, listings on the Web. For instance, the print edition might list only names of the recently married or engaged, accompanied by URLs of full announcements on the Web. (Savings: possibly 1/2 to 3/4 of a print-edition page.) Entertainment listings might cover events in a paper’s central business area, but readers are referred to Web pages for suburban events.
Letters to the editor can follow this approach in order to free up print newshole. A handful of the best letters are run in print, with blurbs referring readers to additional similar letters on the Web site. For example, run the best letter of the day about a controversial board of education decision in print, followed by a blurb with a URL for additional letters on the same topic.
The key to all this, of course, is something I’ve been harping on in this column for years: promote back and forth (heavily) between print and online. Make the newspaper’s Web site heavy with supplementary content — an additional benefit to those who pay to read your newspaper. (I am not arguing here that a paper’s Web site should not stand on its own; offering strong supplementary content to serve print readers is just one of its purposes in life.)
So here’s my advice to kick off 2002: If your print edition is feeling the economic bite of the recession, and pressure is on to reduce newsprint consumption, take a serious accounting of your print content — from comics, to stocks, to minor sports, to letters to the editor, and to a variety of lesser content — and figure out what can be moved online. Make your print edition leaner and meaner, but still offer print readers the same (or, ideally, more) value for the same price by better leveraging your Web site.
The future of newspaper reading is a multi-media experience.
Letters continue to come in reacting to my recent column about a Web-wide subscription model for online media sites. Here’s the latest from a reader:
I have thought about this dilemma for some time and completely agree that it needs to be solved collectively, ASAP. It sickens me to think of all the invaluable sites that are at risk.
Here are some thoughts I had while reading your article:
* Given that the vast majority of online media properties are losing significant money, what would be the harm in charging for content? (At this point what is there to lose? And why wait?) I realize there would be a lot of intangible losses (viewership, brand equity, etc.) but it seems irresponsible of the industry to continue to lose money while giving away so much. (Too many free options continue to hurt the viability of this concept but more and more sites have to be courageous enough to build momentum for this model.)
* I think that the TRIC model is more likely to succeed because consumers will be more willing to pay their ISPs for additional access to groups of Web sites. (This is very similar to the cable TV model — offer subscription packages, in addition to offering Pay-Per-View.) Removing individual site roadblocks is another important benefit. (Even if all individual site memberships were free, who can easily remember and manage innumerable accounts?) Perhaps your Web-news consortium could partner with major ISPs, which could more quickly and easily build a large subscriber base. Affinity partnerships might also give some much needed competition to AOL.
* I think it is also important to be able to distinguish “in-town” site visitors from “out-of-town” visitors. (I presume ISPs and Web sites could easily track this information.) For example, local residents of a regional newspaper are more important to local advertisers. Perhaps they should get a membership discount. Visitors from afar should have to pay a premium. Additional demographic information provided to one’s ISP could also help the effectiveness of online advertising and content services (similar to NYTimes, but ISPs have REAL/CONFIRMED information on subscribers — mailing address, credit-card…)
* Industry cooperation is probably the biggest challenge. I am assuming that if the cable-TV model has worked for both channels and carriers, then it can someday work for Web sites and ISPs. But it is important that ISPs and portals compensate Web sites fairly. To date, the AOLs and Yahoo!s of the industry have chosen to gouge their “partners.” Who knows, maybe existing cable providers should offer mirrored online subscriptions (e.g., ESPN, E!, Internet Movie Database, etc.)?
* The nature of fair-use linking might change if other economics do not work. I would not be surprised if someday, major news providers prohibit or charge other sites for posting headline links to their respective sites. A great example of current “fair-use” linking is IWantMedia.com. I am a loyal user of this site and I believe the creator of the site has ethical intentions. However, his site is more valuable to me than subscribing to all of the information sources he uses, combined. I do not think it is economically fair that one person can easily benefit from the costly labor of other parties. ESPN only allows subscribers to click through headline links to other sites. Granted, if online advertising worked, this would not be an issue. But the bottom line is that the harvesting of third-party headlines offers a tremendous service.
Other recent columns
In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns:
Preparing For the Upturn, Wednesday, Dec. 19
Industry Must Cooperate To Save News Sites, Wednesday, Dec. 12
Tying Print To Online During Hard Times, Wednesday, Nov. 28
Using the Invisible Web In Research, Wednesday, Nov. 14
Sports League Sites Battle Media, Wednesday, Oct. 31
Honoring the Dead Online, Wednesday, Oct. 10
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