One of the basic challenges for today’s newspapers is this: The fundamental context around which their Web sites are built is broken.
In my last post, I offered a tongue-in-cheek tour of the pain of redesigning home pages. But that tour didn’t address a problem with which papers are still coming to terms: Many readers no longer come to them through the home page or the section pages, despite the amount of hand-wringing done by editors, designers, developers and business folks over such pages.
The very nature of the Web atomized newspapers, making the single article the basic unit of the newspaper. With the physical paper out of the picture, Web newspapers knew they had to create a new context for articles, and most soon grasped that making a paper work online demanded more than simply transforming print sections into navigation tabs. The online audience was different, and needed a different context. (Compounding this challenge was the fact that papers also wanted to cater to print readers making their way online. At the Wall Street Journal Online, we had to figure out a name for the paper’s “Weekend” section that was recognizable to print readers but also informed online readers that the section wasn’t just updated on Friday and Saturday. Good luck with that one.)
Such debates are beginning to seem quaint. Today the article remains the basic unit of newspapers, but the problem of context has utterly changed. Readers do still come to articles through a paper’s internal Web navigation, but the much larger audience that’s being pursued finds individual articles through search, or through third-party news aggregators, or through links emailed by friends, shared on social-networking sites, or tweeted as shrunken, transformed URLs.
The atomization of the article is now complete, and it’s left newspapers grappling with the unhappy realization that greater traffic may not translate into greater revenue or reader loyalty. Too many page views from searching, aggregation and sharing are “drive-by traffic” — instead of exploring a paper’s other offerings, a reader consumes an article and is gone, perhaps never to return.
The logical goal, at least within the traditional newspaper framework, is to convert more of those drive-by readers to repeat visitors and then to members of a vibrant community of readers. But reaching that goal has to begin with an understanding of the different ways readers arrive at an article — and that’s lacking. Most papers still treat all readers as if they’d burrowed down to an article through the home page, but that’s true for fewer and fewer of them. The old context is broken, to the extent that it ever worked, and needs to be replaced.
But with what?
I’ve been thinking about that this week, and I think the answer is with as many different contexts are there are different-sized audiences.
When it comes to devices and services, newspapers are realizing that they have to go whereever readers want them to be — whether that means Facebook, Twitter or the iPhone. But the same logic has to applied to readers’ arrival — they have to be treated in as many different ways as there are decent-sized audiences that produce them.
A reader who arrived at an article because it scored high in search results might respond to articles, pages or other content related to those search terms. A reader who came via a Facebook link might respond to other articles his Facebook friends have (publicly) shared. A reader who arrived through a Most Popular list might be enticed by snippets of other articles on that list. What works in one case probably won’t work in another — and few if any readers are going to be engaged by the default navigation of a newspaper site they may have never visited.
And in every case, the newspaper should offer dramatic, in-your-face branding for drive-by readers. I’d love to see a paper survey such readers — because I bet in a depressingly large number of cases, the readers won’t even have registered what site they were just on.
I firmly believe that the long-term strategy for papers adapting to the age of digital news is to rebuild the reader communities online that they once anchored in print. But that strategy has to begin with treating readers properly whenever and however they arrive.
The veteran minor-league manager Rocky Bridges once quipped that “every man thinks he can do three things better than any other man: build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.” It’s a good line, one I might update for our age by going gender-neutral (of course) and subbing out “build a fire” in favor of “design a home page.”
I should know — I’ve been through at least three substantial redesigns of newspaper home pages, more than enough to teach me some hard truths:
- People who aren’t involved with the project but have power over it (“stakeholders,” in meeting-speak) excel at tearing things down, but the next workable solution proposed by a stakeholder might be the first.
- Focus groups are smorgasbords from which points are cherry-picked to support agendas. You could spend a lot less money and get the same effect by writing random things on flash cards, only nobody would get to eat free candy and doze off in the dark behind the one-way glass.
- Everyone will take a hard line against cluttering the home page with other departments’ me-too links to services no reader wants. These links will all wind up on the home page anyway.
- It’s a terrible moment when you realize you’ve learned how to navigate the spread of Cosi sandwiches to find the kind you like.
- It will be obvious early that there isn’t enough room on the home page for everything that everybody thinks needs to be there, but any effort to talk frankly about this will be dismissed as negative thinking.
Too often that’s the process, and a newspaper that follows it tends to wind up with a camel. Except the committee that designed a wacky-looking horse usually also loads it up with so many links and widgets and gimcracks that the poor beast can hardly walk. (By the way, I’m not picking on my old paper — or any other one, really. These unhappy truths are the same pretty much everywhere, and the problem is the process, which is simultaneously the fault of nobody and everybody.)
Anyway, the last problem — not enough room, not enough willingness to admit there’s not enough room — is the biggest roadblock to escaping a home-page redesign. A common response is a Hail Mary to the design team to break the impasse by coming up with … something. This also tends not to work — confronted with an impossible problem at the 11th hour, somebody comes up with some fiendishly difficult mechanism that leaves the developers gaping in disbelief, makes the project later, and is then subverted by annoyed editors.
Having been through this, I’m reluctant to criticize anything “below the fold” on a home page, and my heart reflexively goes out to any Web publication that unveils a redesign and then spends the next three weeks getting cuffed around by readers demanding that it be changed back. I know the bitter trail of PowerPoints and wireframes and half-eaten cookie plates the people involved have traversed, and what it’s like to reach the end of the journey only to take a beating.
Yet now and again I see something and my eyes light up. For the latest example, look at the top of the home page of Ars Technica. After some pretty standard stuff (horizontal navigation, various arglebargle crammed into the banner), it moves to a mediabox-style presentation of “big art” designed to attract the reader’s eye, along with headlines. But when you mouse over a photo, a summary of the article springs up over it.
You can learn more about the story without clicking into it. Neither the art nor the summary is chopped down because of the need to leave space for the other. The summary appears where the reader’s attention is already focused, engaging him without distracting him. It’s a good trick, one that serves readers and publishers alike.
Will it solve everything? No — but it’s pretty neat. Wish I’d had it — and the option of wasabi roast-beef sandwiches — back in my own home-page meetings.
Over at Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts offers a terrific seven-point plan for newspaper innovation. As Mark himself notes, there’s nothing particularly new in his advice. But it’s thoughtful and well said, and bears repeating, because it’s a way forward instead of an invitation to stare into the abyss or a call to rebuild what’s been pulverized. These are turbulent times, and we need posts like this to make sure we keep on moving instead of hunkering down.
The only thing I’d add to Mark’s plan is implicit in a lot of what he proposes, but I think also deserves emphasizing: We should be investing and experimenting in community-building. Newspapers need to grow online communities around their refocused content, creating the digital equivalent of the offline communities of readers for which they were once social glue and civic habit. Only by doing that can newspapers trade the minuscule returns from search’s drive-by traffic for repeated views from a loyal, engaged community. And only once those communities exist can newspapers find new ways to make what they do pay.
Am part of a lively gang of Twitterers at the Editor and Publisher/Mediaweek conference. We’re on lunch break now, but you can follow along at #IMConf, or here.
Tomorrow I’m headed to New Orleans for E&P’s annual conference and show, from which I’ll blog as I’m able and as events warrant.
If you’ll forgive a navel-gazing detour, though, this trip to New Orleans will be rather evocative personally. You see, I got my start in journalism as a 20-year-old summer intern for the Times-Picayune in 1989, and it’s amusing and a bit embarrassing to recall just what a rich shade of green I was.
I arrived with nowhere to live and only a vague awareness that I would need to find a place to do that — my solution was to get a copy of the classifieds and tramp concentric circles around the French Quarter looking at the very cheapest listings. As everybody but me could have figured out, this led to some illuminating adventures in real estate. On Day Two of this odyssey, I wound up ascending the shaky stairs of an apartment building on Iberville behind an improbably squat, massive woman who was wearing a muumuu whose colors had leached out around 1979 and smoking an enormous cigar. If memory serves (I was a little shell-shocked by then), the room she showed me was spectacularly squalid, one of several off an even more squalid hallway with a common bathroom. As she made halfhearted representations about the selling points of the room in her broken-glass-and-gravel rumble, the other doors on the hall opened one by one, Whack-a-Mole style, and the faces of young men appeared for a split-second before disappearing again. “Rent’s due in cash first of the month, no exceptions,” she said, then whirled around with her cigar trailing an arc of smoke, to bark “BECAUSE MOST OF WHAT WE GET AROUND HERE IS STRIPPERS AND QUEENS, AND THEY DON’T PAY!” At which point all the doors shut and it became extremely quiet. I decided this wasn’t quite what I was looking for and wound up (through typical dumb luck) subletting a beautiful, furnished railroad apartment on Esplanade from a Times-Picayune reporter who was away for the summer, but part of me wishes I’d taken the Iberville room. I certainly would have had plenty to write about.
I missed out on the Iberville life, but that summer I started to learn my craft from some awfully good and amazingly patient people. Jim Amoss kindly gave me a chance and then remained friendly and supportive while I repaid him with the kind of gaffes that 20-year-olds don’t register at the time but their older selves remember wth horror. Kris Gilger was the first editor every kid reporter should have — she was ferocious and exacting and I was scared to death of her, but she was also a fearless advocate for her reporters, no matter how wet behind the ears they were. Jed Horne would sit me down daily and quietly but firmly poke holes in my story and help me fill in the frustrating gaps between what I’d written and what I’d been trying to say. They, and many others in that newsroom, helped me find myself as a reporter and a writer and as a person. They were tough when it was called for, and endlessly encouraging, and kind to my mistakes.
Leaving New Orleans in the fall of 1989, I assumed I’d be back for a career there, following the obvious progression from youthful writer of long, deeply moving features to whiz-bang young novelist to learned gray sage. That never happened, for various reasons, though I did return for a second summer as an intern, and I did get to write some of those features. OK, at least they were long — I’m not sure about the “deeply moving” part.
I’d never imagined that I’d wind up in Washington, D.C. working for trade publication specializing in indoor air quality, of all things. The subject was about as exciting as I’d expected, but it was invaluable experience — I wrote more than 20 stories a week sometimes, learned the basics of laying out a paper and always had to think of what we did as a business. I had no inkling that from there I’d wind up in New York City, rewriting skeletal wire copy about something called mortgage-backed securities for an online experiment started by the Wall Street Journal. (In 1989 I doubt I’d even heard of the Internet.) I had not the faintest idea that my WSJ.com stint would turn into 13 years of being a reporter and an editor and a manager and a projects guy, that I’d get to write a weekly column about technology and a daily one about sportswriting, and that I’d be given an education by way of never-ending experiment in making a newspaper work in the online world. I didn’t dream that being a New York Mets fan could lead to blogging about that team for a surprisingly large audience that would become a cherished community. Nor could I have imagined that I’d find my way to EidosMedia, where I’d work with world-class technology to produce newspapers for a new era and help editors at those newspapers work more efficiently to meet that era’s challenges and find its opportunities.
My 20-year-old self would have found that career path bizarre, but then it’s a rare 20-year-old who understands that most career paths will have plenty of unexpected loops and turns.
Anyway, it all began in New Orleans in 1989. Now, in New Orleans in 2009, I’ll be eager to get some clues about where this industry is going. But I’ll also, inevitably, be thinking back to how I began, in that same place, literally half my lifetime ago.