How newspapers can flourish online

Montreal Tech Watch has a poll running about what you would do if you were running a media outlet and had to decide what to do about its online presence.

None of the answers given satisfied me, so I wrote my own response:

None of the above.

The things you have listed here are exactly what’s wrong with current media thinking. They have no clue what they’re doing online, so they figure they’ll just sprinkle some Web 2.0-ness onto their crappy web properties as if that’ll magically attract more readers and advertising dollars.

Here’s some other suggestions:

  1. Stop crippling websites out of fear that your subscription rates will go down. For $20 a month, very few people will make their subscription decisions based on what stories are free online vs. what needs subscriber access.
  2. Learn Web 1.0 before Web 2.0. Hire people at more than $8 an hour to put print stories online. Link related stories together. When documents or websites are mentioned in stories, link to them. Spend more than three seconds on the formatting to ensure that hard and soft returns are fixed, or that tables don’t look like garbage.
  3. Focus on the content. People go to newspaper websites for articles, not all the gimmicks, badly-produced videos, audio slide-shows and other stuff you throw at us on the homepage. Make the articles prominent in your design, and make finding them easier.
  4. Use word-of-mouth to your advantage. This is one of the lessons of Web 2.0. Make linking to articles easy with short URLs, no pop-ups or crazy javascript toys that cripple the browsing experience. Encourage people to share excerpts from articles instead of threatening them with copyright warnings. Keep them online for more than a week as links to them propagate.
  5. Allow moderated comments on all articles. Approve those that add anything useful to the article, like clarifications, corrections, responses, different points of view.
  6. Get a real domain name and use it. Of the Montreal newspapers, only Le Devoir actually hosts its articles on a website with its domain name. Using canada.com, cyberpresse.ca and canoe.ca might make the corporate bosses happy, but it just confuses your readers and makes them take longer to find you.
  7. Shorten your URLs, or at least have them make sense:
    http://www.cyberpresse.ca/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=CPBLOGUES14

    http://communities.canada.com/montrealgazette/blogs/tech/default.aspx

    These are the homepages of these blogs. Individual post links will be even longer. I’m sure both have cute shortcuts that only their authors really use. But shouldn’t that in itself be an indication that there’s a problem to fix here? (At least Canoe got it right with their redesign: Dominic Arpin’s blog URL is the short (though redundant) http://doa.blogue.canoe.com/dominicarpin)
  8. Put online advertisers on a leash. I have to close web pages with newspaper articles because my CPU time is being gobbled up with dozens of overly-complicated ads desperate to get my attention. Stop these automatically-playing videos, whether they have audio or not. Stop these ads that assume because you swiped your cursor over them to get to the close button that this is permission to take over your computer and block the editorial content. Limit ads on the homepage so people can find their way to inside content (would newspapers put this many ads on their page one?)
  9. Pick a layout and stick to it. I want a simple homepage with links to individual sections. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes while my computer figures out how the 30 sections of this homepage, each with its individual layout logic, are put together on a page that scrolls down for eternity.
  10. Use blogs better. Put beat writers on blogs. Have blogs by experts, not laypeople. Encourage people to visit and comment. Don’t force people to go through your 20-page registration process before they can comment on a blog or story.
  11. Hire professionals if you’re branching out. I don’t want badly-lit videos of talking heads shot by writers.
  12. Encourage, but do not rely on, user-generated content. Yeah, finding people who have been screwed over by companies or the government will be easy. But crowdsourcing is not going to make you money. You still need qualified professionals with the time and skills to do quality work.
  13. Put your archives online. You have huge databases of content that just sits there for some unknown reason. Blogs stay online forever, and you’re just losing ad money and reputation when someone following a link comes to a page that says “this article is no longer available.”
  14. Don’t hire newspaper people to do online work. Hire web professionals and listen to what they have to say. Make them work alongside real newspaper people who can concern themselves with putting out a quality pulp product instead of trying to figure out your online content management system.
  15. Hire me as a consultant ;)

4 thoughts on “How newspapers can flourish online

  1. princess iveylocks

    #1 is so true… I just don’t visit websites like the G&M (who often indexes paid content as free) anymore, because nothing I like is free, and navigating through the dross for second-rate stuff is not worth my time.
    I think you’re exaggerating #6… anyone with half a brain can find “Montreal Gazette” via a search engine. Besides, being portrayed as part of a larger press organization is not only accurate, but attractive to the owners of these conglomerates.
    With the proliferation of syndicated content, it doesn’t really matter whose page you’re on. It’s all the same AP/Reuters/CanWest crap anyway.
    #8 — why are you not using Adblock software in your browser? I thought you were tech-savvy?
    #9 — yes, this is tiresome. I actually don’t want bigger graphics or more pictures, I want easily-accessible information. Taglines have become noticeably shorter, or removed completely, in new designs that focus on white space (not so much a virtue off the page, people…scroll scroll scroll…), and cutesy little headlines tell me nothing about whether I want to click on the damn story or not. Another major G&M redesign flaw.
    #10 — I have no interest in reading a newspaper-sponsored blog. No way. The only for-profit blogs I read are owner-operated (i.e., not subject to editorial control) and rely on ad revenue or product sales for their income. Given the incredibly half-assed job most reporters do of writing and researching actual articles, paying them to scrape shit off their asses and hit “post” is obscenely wasteful.
    (I will make one exception — the folksy-yet-scientific vibe that people like Peter Hadzipetros emulate is hot.)
    #13 — my understanding is that this is quite time-consuming and expensive. Realistically, Steve, where is the demand for this service? I would rather see a sleek, functional website than one that’s clogged with reams of outdated content. Aside from historians and archivists (who surely can access older materials easily via more traditional methods), this seems like a personal vendetta on your part. Not everything can and should be online. Visit a library, I hear the “book” format is quite the popular form of data storage.
    #15 — hear, hear!

    Reply
  2. Fagstein Post author

    I should rephrase #13 a bit. “Leave your archives online”. I’m not talking about stories from 1982 that you’d need to hire someone to type in. I’m talking about stories from two weeks ago that you put online just to delete it a few days later.

    And good stories (I’m thinking more feature stories and stuff that doesn’t date itself so easily) are useful.

    It also related to #4. Word of mouth takes a while. A blog posts a link, another blogger reads that blog and posts a link, and this process repeats itself as others hear about the story and read it. If it’s a particularly good one, this process might go on for weeks, and by then the paper will restrict access to it.

    Just yesterday a friend asked me to look up a story that was eight days old and had been taken off the newspaper’s website, even though it wasn’t outdated at all.

    I think there’s definitely a market for leaving stories online once they’re posted. And what does it cost?

    Reply

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