'What Has This Got To Do With News?'

By: Steve Outing "Stop The Presses!" is about the news industry, yet oftentimes I write in this column about topics that seem to have little to do with "news" and "journalism" ? advertising, classifieds, business directories, ISP strategies, discussion forums and online chats, e-commerce, online city guides, portal models, and so on.

Recently I received a note from a reader who brought this up following my recent column about interactivity, where I wrote about such concepts as news Web sites allowing their users to post online photographic tributes to their pets and cars. "What does any of this have to do with journalism?" this reader asks, "and does that matter? I've always thought of journalism as the core service and product of a news organization, but it appears that may not be true online. Which would raise the question, why should journalists bother, or be interested? I mean, if the audience is going away to the Internet, but is not interested in news on the Internet, what's a poor journalist to do?"

That's a great line of questioning, so allow me to address the issues raised.

Business v. editorial

Let me say at the outset that this column has always focused on the larger field of "publishing," not just the editorial (news/journalism) side of the business. Business and advertising issues obviously are part of any news media organization, but at newspapers in particular, business and editorial are less intertwined than in many new media operations. So the first point to make is that in this new-media world, journalists often find themselves working more closely with the "business side" and having to care about non-journalistic issues. (In other words, the journalist's job is changed significantly in the new media environment. The digital-age journalist cannot operate in a state of blissful ignorance of all things money-related, as was possible ? indeed, encouraged ? in the past.)

The online editor today cannot count on the strict "church and state" separation between advertising and editorial that his newspaper print counterparts enjoy; a business-editorial relationship in the online world probably must be closer if an online site is to succeed financially. As I've discussed in some recent columns, the online ad model that seems to hold the most promise provides contextual links to editorial content in order to turn "readers" into "buyers" ? the movie review that contains a theater-paid ad to purchase discounted advance tickets online to the specific film reviewed, for instance. It's up to the journalists involved in this equation to keep the advertisers from affecting the integrity of the content.

Interactivity: What is it?

The idea of "interactivity" ? especially the increasingly popular concept of "community publishing" which is by nature interactive ? seems to threaten some journalists. The key to the concept is allowing community groups, organizations, and even individuals, to self-publish on the news organization's online site. "That isn't journalism," some voices shout. I beg to differ.

An increasing number of news organizations are starting to realize that this too is "news." The church group that maintains pages on a news site, or the kids' soccer team, or the private school ? each are providing news about their activities; this is stuff too minute to ever make it in a newspaper or even a newspaper's Web site. Yet it's news and information that a (small) audience cares deeply about. Even taken down to the individual level, the person posting information on a news site's free personal Web pages is delivering to her "readers" information and news about her life's interests. In aggregate, this content provides a depth of community coverage that professional journalists could never hope to accomplish on their own.

While it's a stretch to term some of this stuff as "journalism," it can ? and increasingly does ? provide a news organization's professional journalists with insight into parts of the community that typically aren't under their watchful gaze. A strong community publishing program at a news site can provide a wealth of story ideas if staff reporters take the time to monitor what these community groups publish. At sites that have embarked on a community publishing strategy, organizations that haven't been covered by the parent news organization are getting noticed for the first time. Stories that never would have been known about are turning up in newspapers as a direct result of community publishing activities on the papers' Web sites. Community publishing, therefore, is an enhancement to traditional journalism.

Directory journalism

At some of the larger news online sites, a considerable amount of attention and resources is being put into building local entertainment guides, and community and business directories. This is a significant business opportunity for news sites, if they can succeed in selling premium directory listings to a large number of local businesses. But what has this got to do with journalism? It's largely a business endeavor that has nothing to do with news, right?

Again, this is an area of online publishing that fits in conveniently with the news product of a Web site. A journalist writing a story about the highest rated local golf courses based on a new survey's results might include in the story links to each course listing in his site's yellow pages directory, for instance. This serves as a valuable information service for readers (simple access to commercial information about golf courses they've just read about), as well as benefitting the advertisers by putting their listings in front of an audience known to be interested in golf.

In "old media" terms, such an approach would be frowned upon, to be sure. But a consensus seems to be emerging in the online news industry that this type of site behavior is not only "not bad," but it also serves readers by offering them information (whether editorial or commercial) that's important to them. A strategy such as this that wouldn't be appropriate in a newspaper is appropriate on the Web because of the nature of the online medium. This approach of combining commercial with editorial content can be acceptable, as long as the presentation of the information makes it clear to the consumer whether the content is unbiased editorial or paid commercial content.

Again, such concepts demonstrate just how different online publishing is from traditional print and broadcast media. The online medium supports a different ? yet still ethical ? flavor of journalism.

We're not No. 1

The initial question above asked if news is not enough to attract readers online. Clearly, news is a strong attraction, as news Web site traffic counts demonstrate whenever a major story breaks and news site servers strain under the load. Yet when aggregate totals of Web traffic are dissected, news content pales in comparison to the activity of the major search engine and portal sites (which have news as one minor component in the mix). But that doesn't mean that news alone isn't enough of a draw on the Internet to sustain a business.

Some news Web operations have skewed their content mix such that news is a minority partner. Sunline, the small Florida newspaper Web site that's won numerous awards for its community/interactive approach to Web content, reports that 90% of its traffic goes to the community information and interactive features, with only 10% to the news content. Some larger papers are considering adopting a similar approach based on Sunline's success.

Journalists don't need to panic about these trends. No news publisher that I've interviewed on such topics dismisses news as a strong online draw. Rather, look at all the "non-news" Web components ? from online yellow pages, to online chat rooms, to free Web e-mail services, to personal Web publishing tools, to ISP services ? as additional ways to bring more people to a news organization's online site, where they are exposed to the "crown jewels" of news.

Should journalists worry that their work is not valued on the Web? Is online not the medium for them? Hardly. Just think of the differences in the various media types to understand why news doesn't and cannot dominate the online environment. A newspaper is a self-contained medium; it doesn't do anything more than deliver news and advertising. The Web is a giant, worldwide marketplace, within which activities too numerous to count take place around the clock. News is but a tiny sliver of what the online medium is about.

Take heart, journalists. While you can't dominate the Internet, you can prosper by using it successfully as your publishing platform ? and in time build audiences just as large as with traditional media.

Another e-charity model

In recent columns I've discussed various models for using e-commerce to raise additional money for news sites' charity drives this holiday season. Jamie Heller, executive editor of TheStreet.com, alerted me to an interesting and different approach taken by his site. Next Tuesday (December 15) between 5 and 7 p.m. Eastern time, TheStreet.com is doing a "charity chat-a-thon" on Yahoo! Four well-known financial gurus ? John Bogle of Vanguard, Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, Christos Cotsakos of E*Trade, and Jim Cramer of TheStreet.com ? will take part in the live chat session. Chatters who submit questions will be asked to pledge a donation to Tech Corps, a national non-profit organization which helps educators use technology effectively in their schools.

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Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the online news/interactive news 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


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