Points to Ponder for Seattle Conferees

By: Steve Outing As much of the online newspaper industry gathers in Seattle starting today for Editor & Publisher's Interactive Newspapers conference, there is much for this assembled group to ponder. In recent days, I found several developments likely to have serious implications for the newspaper industry and its forays into cyberspace:

CBS TV affiliates join forces

About three-quarters of the 200 or so CBS local television affiliate stations in the U.S. are part of the launch of the CBS Network on the Web, which takes the CBS.com Web site and joins national CBS content, local content from 155 CBS affiliates, and third-party content such as national/local "yellow pages" directory services. The site is using an Oracle database to manage the flow of national and local news and information, and deliver targeted, co-branded editorial and advertising to Web users in a local TV station's market.

This effort is viewed (rightfully) with some alarm by analysts for the newspaper industry, who fear that it could provide some serious competition for advertising dollars that otherwise would go to newspaper Web sites. The TV industry has lagged behind newspapers in taking the Web seriously, but the CBS Network endeavor seems to signal that the competition has begun in earnest.

It will be interesting to watch the success of this venture in terms of local Web user traffic. For now, when Web users think of local news and information, they naturally go first to their local newspaper site. But this will change over time, as online users will choose between local newspaper sites, TV station sites, or online city guide sites (i.e., Sidewalk, Digital City, etc.). In such a competitive environment, newspaper Web site managers will want to get used to providing video and audio on their sites, if they expect to compete -- especially in coming years when broadband Internet access becomes more mainstream.

I wonder if the CBS venture will wake up the newspaper industry to the need to cooperate more effectively on the Web? Given recent reports of disagreements among the owners of New Century Network -- the newspaper industry's leading attempt to leverage its collective assets -- it might appear that the industry needs to work even harder to collaborate on the Web.

Watch out for Yahoo! Classifieds

You'll want to read the latest column in Forbes by Guy Kawasaki (of Apple fame), entitled "Why newspapers are in trouble." Kawasaki narrates his experience of successfully and easily selling a car by placing a free ad on Yahoo!, bypassing his local newspaper and thus costing its publisher about $50 in revenue had Kawasaki placed a print classified.

"If you want to sell a car without spending a dime, here's how," writes Kawasaki, and he goes on to explain how to find a Blue Book price for the car you want to sell using the Web, then place a Yahoo! ad online that will be seen by Yahoo! users in your geographic area. He says:

"How is a printed publication going to compete with that? And even if the newspaper has the sense to go online, how is it going to compete with a free ad? Yahoo! can recover its costs (for the localized classifieds service) by selling national advertising against millions of daily hits. I don't see how the local Picayune Intelligence stands a chance."

Kawasaki further suggests that new-car buying services on the Web, which are proving to be increasingly popular, will have a profound effect on newspapers. "Bye-bye display ads from car dealers," he suggests. "... I'm not sure the newspapers realize how obsolete they are."

Yahoo! Yuck, Yuck

Not only is Yahoo!, perhaps the biggest brand name on the Internet, taking away newspaper classified liner ads, it's also got its eye on another newspaper staple -- the comics page. This week, Yahoo! began offering a co-branded comics Web site with United Media Comics. For Yahoo!, this is just another ploy to get Web consumers to come through its virtual front door and boost its advertising revenues. Newspapers should well fear that Web competitors can lure away young people who might otherwise pick up their parents' newspapers just to read the comics page (and perhaps encourage a longer-term reading habit). Other services (by other companies) are being developed that will deliver the comics to you daily as HTML e-mail messages.

For now, newspapers' saving grace is that Yahoo!'s comics are several days old; the syndicates don't allow publication of current-day comics yet, except by newspaper Web sites. As syndicates begin to earn more and more of their revenue from online customers, however, this restriction could go away, putting online "publications" on equal comics footing with newspapers. (There's debate in the industry whether the syndicates will continue to hold newspapers' interests first and lock out others from same-day comics delivery -- or succumb to the lure of big profits as the Internet grows to mass market proportions, allowing online publishers like Yahoo! to publish same-day comics.) "Holy diminishing reader base, Batman!"

Sidewalk's latest moves

Another competitive threat to newspapers is Sidewalk, Microsoft's online city entertainment/leisure guide service that's up in nine U.S. cities. Outside of the U.S., publishers have less to worry about now, since Microsoft seems to have shelved for now any serious efforts at setting up shop outside the U.S. (except for a Sidewalk joint venture project in Sydney, Australia, launched last October.)

Reports out of Germany indicate that the company has shelved its plans for creating a German version of Sidewalk, even though it had done a considerable amount of work in having a completed site ready to go. Microsoft declared that for Germany, there will be no more content production. Sidewalk's main spokesmen weren't available to comment the last two days, but other sources at the company say that the official word is that Microsoft never announced that it was entering the German market and was investigating it only -- as it has been doing with other non-U.S. markets.

Domestic (U.S.) news coming out of Sidewalk might give publishers small reason to smile. Two weeks ago, Sidewalk announced a restructuring, with more operations being centralized in Redmond, Washington, and 3-4 employees laid off at each local unit. That indicates that even deep-pocketed Microsoft is not willing to throw money to the wind to prove that the online city guide business model works.

Newspaper publishers who compete with Sidewalk on their own Web sites can take heart in that move. It also means that Microsoft is learning that producing original local content is expensive. Newspapers, who already have a local content creation army in place, can go forward knowing that they have an advantage over the online city guide start-ups that have to create from scratch. Of course, newspapers need to leverage that advantage -- something that only a select few newspapers currently do on the Web.

Back to the bad news: Microsoft has plans to have Sidewalks operating in all of the top 50 metropolitan markets by the end of this year, so more American newspapers will find Microsoft in their market siphoning away some online ad dollars that might otherwise go to the papers' sites (or even the print product). Sidewalk claims to have attracted 5,000 local advertisers across its nine functioning sites, as well as big-name national advertisers like Sears, Barnes & Noble, BMW, United Airlines and Nasdaq.

About 'shovelware'

My last column, in which I chided a majority of newspaper sites for producing Web sites that are too shallow to attract significant audience numbers, brought a larger amount of mail than usual. While most correspondents agreed with my overall comments, one writer questioned my comments on "shovelware," the practice of putting print content from a newspaper online. He wrote:

"I get the impression that you are of the opinion that online newspapers should serve as an extension of a print edition, with limited information from it placed on the paper's Web site. You also seem to think, and I am not in disagreement, that a newspaper's Web site should offer the reader more than what they get in the print edition.

"My opinion regarding the placement of a newspaper's content online is that ALL of it, or at least as much as is humanly or mechanically possible, should be included. I do not think that someone who reads a newspaper's online edition should be limited in the amount of information they receive. The reason for that is my belief that people who read a newspaper's online version are not going to read the print edition, and in most cases vice-versa. Why should they have to?

"Also, if most newspapers? Web sites are like ours -- done by 3-4 people handling all aspects of it -- editorial content re-packaging, advertisement sales, editorial and advertising graphic production, promotion -- then there is not a lot of time or opportunity to produce content which is specific to the Web. ..."

Actually, I don't disagree with that view. The point I was attempting to make is that shovelware alone is simply not enough. I don't generally advocate that a newspaper repurpose only limited print content. Rather, it's my view that full print content on a newspaper's Web site is a useful core service -- plus, online readers will expect it. But I'd rather see a newspaper site with limited print content and substantial, quality, original online content than a site with nothing but print content shoveled onto the Web. For a newspaper site with limited resources for original content, I advocate automating as much as possible the repurposing processes so as to free up the staff for more important original and supplemental content creation.


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 for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

Return to Editor & Publisher Interactive: The Media Info Source

Archive of columns
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


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

Scroll the Latest Job Opportunities From The Media Job Board