Reinventing the Newsroom

Second Verse, Same as the First

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on May 29, 2009

So a bunch of newspaper barons (is there a vaguely annoying collective name for such a group, a la “pride of lions” or “murder of crows”) met behind closed doors again to talk about how to make people pay for online content. Last time they were in San Diego; this time they were in Rosemont, Ill. Which is another distressing trend for the newspaper industry: At this rate, next month we’ll hear the barons are drinking room-temperature mini-Cokes in a half-ballroom in some hotel in Newark.

As before, I imagine there was a lot of talk about a lot of potential payment models (subscriptions, micropayments, tip jars, a tax on ISPs), I worry there was plenty of saber-rattling about aggregators and middlemen (Google and Yahoo and blogs, oh my), and I hope there was some brainstorming about new things (maybe UGC, video, Twitter, getting a cut of Web-based transactions). But what I fear is that there wasn’t a lot of talk about the real problem — about the need to make newspapers a satisfying Web experience that will attract the kind of loyal, engaged audience around which you can build new business models. That’s the foundation that needs to be repaired — or better yet, rebuilt completely.

Last week I wrote about the need for newspapers to find new contexts for the article, based on the different ways readers can arrive at a single article, and lamented that too many papers still treat the article only as part of the article/section/paper model they carried over from print. If I’m reading about GM’s planned filing for bankruptcy protection, I may be showed breadcrumbs that I’m in the automotive section, or national, or business. But it’s increasingly unlikely that I came to that article by starting with the home page and working my way through the site navigation. Maybe I searched Google for all the coverage I could find about GM’s plans. Maybe I came in because I was reading an aggregator’s feed of stories about Detroit. Maybe a Facebook friend shared a link. If I fall into any of those categories, breadcrumbs and navigation links and the like are noise; I’m looking for signal.

I’m not against charging for content, and I don’t believe it’s impossible or necessarily inadvisable to do so. I’ve written before that the Online Journal’s hybrid model should be better understood and more seriously considered by other publishers. But to that, add a pretty huge caveat: I think that’s a losing battle while most newspapers remain unsatisfying Web experiences.

Before you even consider charging subscription fees, trying micropayments or what have you, fix that problem. Throw out the print paper as a starting point — it’ll just distract you. Instead, take inventory of the news, photos, maps, event listings and other pieces of information your potential readers need. Make sure they can find that stuff, whether or not it was created by your own writers, editors and artists. Give it to them when they need it and how they need it, and figure out when and how and why they’re asking so you can anticipate what else they might need. To that, add ways for them to talk with you and with each other — not just by letting them comment, but by letting them meet and mingle around your information and add their own, or easily take your information to where they already meet and mingle. Explain to your writers and editors and artists that their responsibilities include being part of that conversation, and promise that their voices and personalities won’t be muzzled.

Sites that do those things are vibrant communities that attract new people and become habits for readers, including me. My daily rounds include several of them, covering everything from Star Wars and technology to baseball and Brooklyn. They’re places I’m loyal to and engaged with and care deeply about — and would pay to support if asked. But much as I love journalism and much as I devour news, I can’t say the same about very many newspapers.

5 Responses

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  1. said, on June 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I worked my way through about four newspaper stops before I realized it wasn’t me, it was them. The bigger the paper–and I stopped before I got anywhere worth mentioning–the more out of touch they were, using buzzwords and programs and stuff from journalism school rather than anything most people were interested in. The web wasn’t something that a lot of people saw as an alternative for news then (it was ’96). The papers somehow didn’t see that their model was in peril as they were busy buying up each and forming mega-companies. Four generations of journalists in my family and I walked away and never thought about going back for a second.

  2. paulbradshaw said, on June 5, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Trying to remember where your headline lyric is from – Pavement?

  3. reinventingthenewsroom said, on June 5, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Hi Paul, casting back through what’s left of my memory, I think I nicked it from the Ramones….

  4. paulbradshaw said, on June 5, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    It may be more than one band has used it – apparently Herman’s Hermits have…

  5. reinventingthenewsroom said, on June 5, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Dear God, I hope I didn’t nick it from Herman’s Hermits.

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