Too Many Newspaper Web Sites Get Poor Grades

By: Steve Outing Last week I spent some time judging newspaper Web sites for a contest by the Colorado Press Association. Being a judge in a competition like this was a good exercise, because it got me to look in-depth at a scattering of sites I otherwise don't visit -- and gave me a good indication of where newspapers are at in the evolutionary process of learning to publish and do business on the Internet.

But I came away from the experience in a dark mood.

In this particular contest, I was mostly looking at the Web sites of small and medium size newspapers, and that's the group that doesn't (in large part) do a very good job with the Web -- or seem to grasp its potential. Of course, there are exceptions among small papers, some of whom have created fantastic sites on modest budgets. And many large and medium size newspapers have committed the resources to create sites that compete effectively with such well-heeled cyberspace competitors as Microsoft and America Online.

So my comments in today's column are not directed at the newspaper industry as a whole. Rather, my criticisms are for those newspapers -- still the majority, if my latest judging exercise is a good sampling -- that have gotten online and created Web sites, but have not made the commitment to making them work for online users. The vast majority of sites that I judged -- about 80% of the sites, and my fellow judges reported a similar experience -- are of little value to the papers' audiences and probably are a financial drain on the publishers.

Here are some impressions, based on examination of numerous newspaper sites in cities throughout Colorado. This state's newspapers are probably a fairly typical lot, with most publications except the very smallest having set up Web sites in the last couple years.

News that's fit to be repurposed

The biggest and most frequent problem I noticed is that the Web sites contain news from the print edition that's simply shoveled online, and that's it. Too often I found that the only real content on a site were print stories hastily converted to HTML format. (At an alarming number of sites, the formatting was sloppy.) Unless a reader has an interest in the newspaper's city news and lives out of town beyond the reach of print delivery, these sites give no reason for local readers to visit the site.

The sites I felt good about didn't fall into this trap and included some original content available only on the online medium. Indeed, some sites offered only the highlights of the print news, but included other features that would attract readers. I liked the weekly newspapers that I found that used the Web to report on news occurring when the paper doesn't publish. A daily online headlines service -- even if it offers only headlines and brief stories -- is a great online addition for a weekly print newspaper. And some sites included useful "evergreen" tourist and community insider information.

Supplement the paper

Rather than blindly repurposing print content and calling it a day, I would like to see more newspapers use their Web sites to publish supplemental material that's not in the papers, and refer print readers to the Web for the additional information. This is hardly a new concept, yet the majority of newspapers I encountered during my judging duties didn't do this; it was "shovelware," pure and simple.

Deliver the news

There are instances where electronically "shoveled" print newspaper news is a good product, particularly for mountain resort town papers that have a large population spread around the world who have an interest in the town -- either because they own a vacation home or business in the resort, or just are regular visitors. These people are an ideal audience for a paper's news to be delivered to them electronically. This can be as simple as a weekly newsletter sent by e-mail, funded by a sponsor like an airline or hotel. The paper could offer an e-mail subscription to the weekly gossip column, or a weekly Letter From the Editor about the past week's events. Yet as obvious as this idea should be to a resort-town publisher, most such newspapers don't offer such services. That's a missed opportunity.

Where are the archives?

It's a no-brainer that newspapers' archives are of interest to readers, and a potential revenue stream. Yet the majority of sites I studied have yet to make their archives available online. Smaller papers might balk at the expense of setting up a paid archive system. Then they can make accessing archived stories free, and find a sponsor to pay for what will be a popular service that generates significant online traffic.

How do I reach you?

The irony here is obvious. I found that a good number of sites either included no names of staff members -- making it difficult for Web users to contact the people responsible for the sites, reporters or editors -- or included staff listings but no e-mail addresses. Several sites suggested that Web readers could send in letters to the editor, yet there was no online form to do so. About half at least included an e-mail address for letters, but a shockingly large number of newspaper sites demanded that letters be faxed or sent in via surface mail. That's just a silly oversight.

Staples of small-town papers

Especially for the small-town papers with Web sites, I was struck by the absence of online obituaries, birth notices, and other minutae of daily life that's of interest to local readers. Apparently that's not interesting to Web site editors, as the only thing I spotted in my site meanderings was the occasional site that published the current day's or week's obituaries.

What any small paper's Web site should do with obituaries is publish them and keep them on the site permanently (with a search feature), creating a history of who has passed through the community. Better yet would be to add some interactivity, allowing friends and relatives of the deceased to write their remembrances or post photographs. A similar approach can be taken with new babies or pets, where Web site users are permitted to contribute their memories to share with the community. Yet I found no evidence of this.

Community discussion?

For any city or town -- but especially small ones -- an online newspaper site can become a community forum. I was surprised to find that few sites even operated simple online discussion forums. What better way to get people to repeatedly use your online service than to encourage them to talk to one another in the newspaper's electronic venue.

Poor design; poor use of frames

I found quite a few sites that use "frames" in designing their Web pages. Trouble is, some designers didn't do a very good job of making sure they work for users. I typically use a laptop computer, and most of the framed sites I encountered had pages where elements did not fit on my screen and i was forced to scroll horizontally. I also frequently found frames where the content (say, a logo) didn't fit in the allotted space.

Overall, I was unimpressed with the Web site design I saw among these newspaper sites. Many looked in need of a professional designer to spiff them up. In particular, I noticed a lack of continuity of design throughout a site; many sites had sections where the designs were so different that it wasn't apparent that the same company produced them. Is design important? I think so, especially when in many cities non-news competitors are creating Web sites that look professionally designed. Microsoft's Sidewalk sites, for example, have the appearance of a professional operation. Those sites look polished and professional, next to the sloppy design of too many of the newspaper sites I reviewed in my judging capacity.

Quantity, not quality

I identified a common thread in many of the sites I reviewed. There seems to be a tendency among newspaper sites that operate with small staffs and limited resources to put up a lot of information and features. Unfortunately, what I found was some sites that had lots of quantity, but not much quality. I would suggest that those newspapers with limited resources to devote to their Web presence concentrate on creating less, but working harder to make what they do produce on the Web polished and useful to users.

Don't do it alone

The worst sites I viewed often were those that have no resources to rely on outside of their own staffs. Among the best sites I found were those who had corporate parents who provided substantial Web resources -- perhaps in the form of national content added to locally produced content, or centrally hosted sites serving all of a chain's papers. Some might accuse these sites of being "cookie cutter" projects, when one paper's site looks just like another in a different city. On the contrary, I applaud this approach because it simply produces better quality when a company shares talent and resources among its far-flung operations. Such sites were among the best that I reviewed.

Not doing it alone also may mean finding vendors to help you. Many of the small sites I encountered put their classified ads online, but they were nothing but a long text stream with no search functionality. In contrast, other sites chose to work with a classifieds vendor or network, and thus their users had a better user interface to use.

Slow servers

It's the bane of any judge of Web sites, and of Web site users: The slow Web server. Using a dial-up connection, I encountered the full range of Web site speed. One of the larger papers I reviewed had one of the slowest response times. Other papers compound the problem by loading up their pages with image files that are too big for today's typical dial-up user.

Advertising: Where is it?

My site reviews turned up an alarmingly modest amount of advertising on newspaper Web sites. I have to guess that most of them are not making much money and probably are a drain on their papers' budgets. Alas, I don't think that it has to be this way. I wonder why there's not more print-online advertising being sold as a package. It would appear that newspaper sales staffs are not out their pushing sales to their Web sites. But it's also apparent that the sites themselves are not being made attractive enough to find willing advertisers.

It's not all bad

While I've focused here on the negative, I and my fellow judges found some good, of course. The contest is about identifying the best work being done by newspapers and offering it up as an example to others. I expected to find a mix of good and bad. What is distressing is that I found so much more bad than good among newspaper Web sites.

As competitive forces gather and newspapers face graver threats from new cyberspace entities that want to steal away some of publishers' revenues, the industry needs to take the Internet more seriously. It is my impression following this latest judging exercise that many publishers have made a token appearance on the Web, but have not devoted the effort to understand how to compete effectively online.


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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

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


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