Newspaper websites still doing things half-assed

Editor & Publisher has a special article on the lessons learned by newspapers’ online ventures. There are 12 in total, but they can all essentially be summed up in one:

The Web isn’t a free lunch. You have to put real effort into it before it can succeed.

But you need details, so let’s get into them. So here’s my take on those 12 lessons.

  1. Blogs can backfire. (Translation: Don’t create blogs that aren’t interesting)
    • Don’t duplicate blogs already out there that you can’t match in quality. Celebrity blogs, industry insider blogs, etc. Instead, use blogs for local subjects, and subjects your reporters will have exclusive, unique information on. (For example, The Gazette’s Habs Inside/Out blog is one of dozens of Habs-related blogs, but the only one that consistently provides original content because of the reporters’ access to the team.)
    • Don’t run blogs by unknown people doing regular things, unless those people are really good writers or can provide a truly unique insight.
    • Don’t put lots of money into a blog until it’s been proven successful. It costs very little to start them up, so test the waters first.
    • Don’t have blogs by columnists who already have carte-blanche in the paper (unless it’s a situation like Mike Boone where it’s on a different subject). Most seasoned columnists struggle to come up with original stuff for the paper as it is. The blog posts are going to be even worse.
  2. Techno can pop. (Translation: Test your website thoroughly)
    • I really can’t stress this enough: Run some usability testing on your web design. Have real people sit in front of a computer and find information. Hopefully you’ll quickly learn how your design needs to allow people to find information quickly, and all that clutter is just wasted space.
    • Being useful is more important than looking cool. Those Flash animations and dynamic menus and stuff may wow the managers, but if they impede surfers from finding their content, then they’re counter-productive.
    • Keep an eye on how people use your site. If bloggers are linking to the “printer-friendly” version of your stories, then it’s probably because your article pages are too complex.
    • Link related stories together. In a newspaper, related stories are usually run next to each other, but websites rarely think to have the two article pages link to each other or to previous related articles. Use things like tags for this purpose. Link letters to the articles they reference. Link editorials to the issues they discuss.
    • Kill the popups, please. Video pop-ups, printer-friendly pop-ups, image gallery pop-ups etc. are great, but they annoy visitors and make it hard to link to them directly, which would send more traffic to your site.
  3. Reader reactions can often turn ugly. (Translation: Any unmoderated discussion longer than a couple of comments will degenerate into name-calling and ugliness.
    • See Godwin’s Law. The only subjects that generate a lot of response are controversial ones. And those are the ones that will get people to start making irrational arguments and making comparisons to Nazis. There are ways to mitigate this (like Slashdot-style user moderation), but otherwise you have to maintain an iron fist and kill the trolls.
    • Allow (moderated) comments on every article if possible. Every now and then someone will be able to provide another perspective, a correction, a clarification, more detail etc. that would be useful to readers. Really useful comments for more articles are rare enough that moderation is probably a good option. For the more controversial debates, consider having a formal forum.
    • Don’t rely on profanity filters. Users will quickly find a way around them, and even then they don’t protect against dangerous speech, just specific words. Monitor any user-generated areas very closely and deal with undesirable content quickly.
    • Don’t take users at their word. If someone says they’re Joe Smith, that’s no guarantee it really is Joe Smith. People like to pull pranks, so don’t trust them, especially when they’re posting something unflattering. (Some websites get around this by using an initial instead of a full family name.)
  4. Not everyone wants to chat. (Translation: Live is for TV. Your website is a reference, which will be used at all hours.)
    • Don’t waste so much time scheduling “live chats” with celebrity guests or popular columnists. People aren’t going to schedule their lives around their Internet use. Instead conduct an interview and then post it for people to read when they want.
    • You’re not IRC. No matter how great your chat service is, people aren’t going to treat you like a portal for everything. Concentrate on services related to what people are going to come to your website for: news, articles, local listings.
  5. There’s a limit to “local, local, local”. (Translation: Use local where people want local.)
    • Don’t try and duplicate Google or the Yellow Pages or YouTube or anything else that’s going to be better at finding stuff in your area than you could try to be.
    • Don’t provide locally-created content for things that aren’t location-specific. Recipes, diet tips, dating advice, etc. are things that you can syndicate for a lot less than it costs to create them. Focus on things that need to be done locally, like local event listings, local laws, restaurant reviews, local politics, etc.
  6. Pay to Play? Not everywhere. (Translation: Very few people pay for content online.)
    • Don’t charge for things like wire service stories that can be easily gotten elsewhere.
    • Expect nobody to come to your website if your original content is subscriber-locked. Instead, they’ll go to (and link to) a competitor’s site that doesn’t have the restriction.
    • Information wants to be free. Expect bloggers with access to cut-and-paste liberally from your paid articles for the benefit of their locked-out readers.
    • Everything you consider charging for online, someone else will provide for much cheaper or free.
    • Don’t try to extract more money out of paying paper subscribers. They’re already paying you, so give them full access to the website.
  7. Print lost in (web) translation. (Translation: Newspapers and websites are different. Don’t do the same thing for both.)
    • Don’t just copy-and-paste articles from the paper version online. Create hyperlinks, link related articles, and make use of other powers of the web to enhance the quality of your content.
    • Use the proper medium for online “extras”. Don’t shoot a video if it’s just a talking head saying something that could be better summarized in a transcript.
    • Don’t put newspaper people in charge of web content. Find web professionals and get them to build your web strategy.
    • Use websites to provide in-depth information beyond what’s in the paper. If you reference an important document, link to it. If you have an important interview, put up a complete transcript or an audio recording.
  8. Choose podcasts and webcams wisely. (Translation: Technology won’t make crap interesting.)
    • Put effort into multimedia. Edit out the boring stuff. Use proper lighting and audio. Don’t just use some idiot with a cellphone camera.
    • Nobody spends serious time looking at live webcams, unless they’re in co-ed dorm rooms. Use them only when people would want to get a live picture for something useful (like a traffic camera)
    • Provide detailed summaries of podcasts, since audio isn’t searchable by search engines.
  9. Dude, where’s my obit? (Translation: make finding things easy.)
    • Look at your paper’s table of contents. Everything on that list should be links on your homepage, in a list in a menu (not at some random point on the page).
    • Monitor what people click on and what pages they go to. Make popular pages easier to find.
    • Make your website’s structure easy to learn. The easier it is to learn, the easier it is to navigate and take advantage of. Time how long it takes visitors to find what they’re looking for, and try to reduce that time.
    • Have a search box on every page, and make sure it works properly, especially for finding news stories from that day on your site.
  10. Be delicate about databases. (Translation: be careful about putting personal information online, even if it’s technically in the public record.)
    • Pretty self-explanatory. Think of how information you put up could be used negatively and assume it will be.
  11. Split sales staffs don’t succeed. (Translation: See #7)
    • Even in advertising, you need web professionals to deal with your websites.
    • Don’t repeat the same mistakes better websites made years ago. Keep pop-ups, pop-unders, automatically-playing audio/video, Java apps etc. to a minimum (i.e. zero).
    • Don’t “throw in” one medium in exchange for another. Web and print advertising have different purposes, and should be used differently.
  12. Want traffic? Be careful what you wish for. (Translation: Don’t assume your servers are good enough until you’ve been on Slashdot, Digg, Fark.com and BoingBoing all in the same day.)
    • Keeping pages simple helps keep bandwidth low. If your pages are complex, consider having an emergency plan that cuts off non-essentials when traffic is too high.
    • Be serious about your web hosting. Don’t go on a $5 a month plan that puts your site on some 15-year-old’s laptop in his parents’ basement. Make sure your server is dedicated and has 24/7 support staff.
    • Test your servers’ resilience before it becomes an issue with simulated loads and failures.
    • Keep proper backups (and test them!) in case your servers go down. Unless you can absolutely guarantee uninterrupted service from them, don’t rely on those same servers for any newsroom-related activity (otherwise, during a high-traffic event like an election, your productivity will grind to a halt).

Follow those tips, and maybe your worst problem will be readers complaining that the paper version isn’t as good as what’s online.

3 thoughts on “Newspaper websites still doing things half-assed

  1. Pingback: Fagstein » Constructive criticism for old media online

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