Lead Story: Much Ado About ... What?

By: Steve Outing

AT&T's Lead Story Web site certainly has caused a lot of talk among publishers. Is it good for newspaper Web sites, since it brings new traffic to newspaper servers? Is it bad because it in effect "steals" stories from newspaper sites? Is it a threat to newspapers, or just another Web site that will have little impact one way or the other?

Lead Story, of course, is the new AT&T Web service that chooses a top news story each day and creates a page that links to the best journalism on the World Wide Web about that topic. AT&T breaks no new ground and provides no original reporting; it merely links to sites on the Web -- many of them newspaper sites -- that have outstanding articles on the chosen topic.

What should we think about this concept, from the publisher's viewpoint? Here's my brief analysis:

* It's good, up to a point. Lead Story's staff of editors comb the Web each day looking for the best journalism they can find that's freely available. If a story from your site is chosen to be highlighted, consider it an honor. Also, you'll be pleased that Lead Story is bringing in new hits on your server -- including new readers who may not have been aware of your site until Lead Story pointed them to it. Conceivably, this could bring you new regular Web readers.

* You need to be prepared. Lead Story links directly to stories located within news sites, not to a site's home page. This means that on your inside pages, it's vital that your publication's branding be visible, because Web users who come into your site via Lead Story may not venture elsewhere into your site. On your inside stories, make sure there is a visible navigation bar so that Lead Story readers will be able to explore the rest of what you offer. And Lead Story visitors will miss your advertising unless you place ads on your inside stories as well. (See how the New York Times on the Web does this, for a good example.) Remember, not everyone will enter through your "front page," so design your site with this inside entry theme in mind. To take advantage of what Lead Story brings you, plan for it.

* Lead Story is business oriented, and not deadline oriented. AT&T New Media spokeswoman Lisa Landa says that Lead Story is not designed to cover daily breaking news, but rather is geared to the business audience. Typically, the lead story is a business topic: the minimum wage, sexual harassment in the workplace, etc.... Landa says the service will not try to produce daily pages on the top breaking news story of the day -- and if it does, it's likely to take the business angle and be a day behind coverage by the daily media. When 7-year-old pilot Jessica Dubroff's plane crashed last week, for example, it was the top news topic on most online news sites on Friday. Lead Story didn't deal with the Dubroff story until the following Monday. (As Landa points out, since Lead Story relies on the journalism of other organizations, it's not able to provide a breaking news service). This business orientation and its delay in dealing with breaking news suggest that Lead Story is not to be feared as a site that will take away a news Web site's readers.

* Some publishers have expressed uncomfortableness about AT&T creating a vehicle that brings in significant advertising dollars by utilizing content that was created by news organizations -- and those organizations are not compensated in any way other than receiving more "hits" on their servers. To that I say, "Welcome to the Web." As Landa says of the concept behind Lead Story, "we are adhering to the best practice of the Internet, which is to link and be linked." There's nothing stopping anyone from placing a link on their Web site to anything contained on your site (unless its password-protected, of course), even if you don't want them to. So figure out how to take advantage of Lead Story-like services linking to your inside content, rather than fight it. You can be sure that similar services will appear that take advantage of content you created and make money off it. Either restrict your content, or figure out how to turn the situation to your advantage.

Landa, by the way, says that if a publisher objected to being linked to, Lead Story would stop doing so. (AT&T editors do not ask for permission in advance.) So far, no such requests have been received.

* A good reason not to password-protect your site. If you do see that there is value in being a link on a Lead Story page, then make sure that your site is freely accessible. Sites that are free to all Internet users but require a user log-in and password to view their content will not be linked to by Lead Story (nor, of course, will articles on sites that require a paid subscription to enter). In the hyperlink world of the Web, free registration schemes don't work if you have as a goal increasing traffic to your site. Registration requirements will make you invisible to Lead Story readers (and those of other similar services yet to be developed).

* Lead Story is a potential sponsor of your site. AT&T New Media has placed Lead Story hyperlinked logos on about 20 news Web sites, including the New York Times on the Web, Boston.com, The Gate (San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner), CNN, and the Web sites of Knight-Ridder Newspapers (including the San Jose Mercury News and St. Paul Pioneer Press). Given the state of Web advertising (as in, there's not enough to go around), you'll probably want to accept a Lead Story ad on your site, even if it may make you feel uncomfortable to be promoting a "news" site that might take away eyeballs from your own site.

Representatives at some of the sites above tell me that they're not terribly concerned by Lead Story ads taking away traffic from their sites. "To tell you the truth, I don't know how successful (Lead Story) is going to be," says an executive at one newspaper with a Web site carrying the Lead Story ad.

At the New York Times Electronic Media Company, vice president of sales Dan Donaghy says that he has no problem advertising a service that might compete with his own Web site. In the case of AT&T, it is one of six Web advertising partners working with the Times on its advertising partnership program. AT&T has committed $150,000 over two years to advertising on the Times Web site, experimenting with different approaches to figure out what works. "It would be arrogant of us" to say no to AT&T on running Lead Story ads, he says.

Some smaller papers are more concerned about the Lead Story ads, however. The CEO of a U.S. company that helps place online ads on multiple news Web sites tells me that in conversations with publishers of smaller newspapers, he has picked up some reluctance to accept an ad that would steer Web users to another news site. While these publishers might not turn down a direct request from AT&T to run an ad on their site today, if given a choice of running a Lead Story logo or another, they'll choose the other. This would seem to indicate that there is still some fear of the Lead Story concept in the newsaper world. I'd say it's unfounded.

You're in the right field!

When P.O.V., an American young men's magazine, published its annual list of the "10 Best Career Fields to Get Into," online content producer came in at the No. 2 slot. No. 1 was computer animation. Among the worst job titles to have today (in terms of long term potential), the magazine says, are accountant and bank teller.

An Italian online journalism resource

Italian journalist Roberto Aita has produced a Web site dedicated to online journalism and Web publishing. If you're fluent in Italian, you'll want to check out his page at http://www.agora.stm.it/R.Aita/home.htm.

Steve Previous day's column| Next day's column | Archive of columns
Presented 5 days a week by Steve Outing, Planetary News LLC.
Made possible by Editor & Publisher magazine.
Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here