The progress of newspapers in developing online business to keep the money flowing in to finance quality journalism, and prevent newspapers from entering a “downward spiral” is examined in Editor and Publisher. Steve Outing asks: “So how is this going?”
He finds a mixed picture but says: “Just about everyone — finally — is on board and working to address the big problem.”
But his conclusion is not optimistic:
With all the hand-wringing in the industry about how to cope — and the acceptance at the corporate level that big changes are required right now to address the challenges faced by newspapers — I’m surprised in looking at today’s state of the newspaper website that the changes aren’t more dramatic.
To sum up, we’ve got some industry leaders doing outstanding work — but often instituting change more slowly than is required for an industry that is being challenged to remain relevant to today’s information consumers. And we’ve got too many newspapers with websites that are far behind the leaders, missing even some obvious fundamentals.
Today’s state of the newspaper website doesn’t leave me terribly optimistic about the industry.
To illustrate the lack interactivity on many sites, he provides a link to the Seattle Times which has no more than an email link to a reporter. “The topic cries out for reader participation, discussion and feedback. But there’s no way to leave a comment for others to read,” Outing writes.
He might have bitten the hand that was paying him by looking no further than the bottom of his Editor and Publisher column. They offer no more than an email link for letters to the editor.
Outing’s column covers a lot of ground including weaknesses in the handling of classified advertising which must have an important role in increasing online revenues.
He also call for better blogging, a sentiment with which I heartily agree. But his argument is strangely rooted in the days of shovelware. He writes:
Many newspapers have embraced blogging by now, with staff members now including blogging in their workdays. Hey, I couldn’t be happier about that; after all, I’ve been harping that “reporters should blog” for a long time — because I’ve long thought and still do that online-exclusive content is critical for newspaper websites, and newspapers for too long relied on republishing content that originated for the print product.
Of course, online needs exclusive content: there is little point in having a rolling deadline if you don’t use it. But Outing says a technique that is too often missing is the breaking-news blog.
He complains about his local newspaper in Boulder, Colorado, not doing a breaking-news blog for a page 1 story about a threat to the local high school. “The paper’s editors treated it like a normal newspaper story, gathering the facts and publishing the next morning — choosing not to share right away what they knew with anxious parents who needed information,” says Outing.
Crazy. But why a blog? Why not just go for a web first policy like that adopted by the Hemel Hempstead Gazette in the UK when the Buncefield oil terminal blew up at the end of last year? I wrote about this for Media Guardian.
To suggest that a blog is a suitable reaction to a breaking story where your audience needs fast information is typical of too much of the woolly thinking around about the purpose of newspaper blogs. We really have to do better than that if newspapers are to avoid that “downward spiral”.