Sunday, February 26, 2006

Reinventing news for a search-based world

On OJR, Robert Niles has a fascinating suggestion for completely rethinking online news: replace inverted-pyramid newspaper articles with staff-written wikis. (For which he suggests the delightful nickname "stikis." You heard it here first, dear reader.) Why? To attract search-engine traffic.

I'm suggesting that -- instead of distinct daily takes -- news stories could be covered with encyclopedia-style articles that staffers would update with new information whenever available. How many more inbound links would such an approach get?
Inbound links, of course, being the current currency of the search-driven Web.

I see two obvious problems with the suggestion:

1) the writing required would be so different from that used in the print product that editorial resources would be taxed, and
2) the lede would be perpetually buried; that is, readers would have trouble figuring out what parts of the news are new.

Though the second problem might be avoided with constant rewriting and clever formatting, my hunch is that self-contained news stories will remain the dominant delivery device for news. They're simply easier to pluck relevant details out of. This isn't to say that local papers couldn't launch parallel stiki or wiki services for their coverage area. But I doubt extensive stikis are likely to be worth their while.

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Using tags in local newspaper archives

How can small papers get the most out of their archives? Folksonomy is sexy, but most Web audiences are too small for it to work well. However, old-fashioned, top-down tags can be a useful tool for the many local papers that, like many Web newcomers, still sort their Web content with print principles in mind.

(Yes, has added links to all its stories. Yes, this is a terrific promotional move for a national paper. No, it's doesn't add as much to local papers, because they aren't looking for national readers. But yes, local papers ought to consider offering it merely as a service to readers.)

But here's something more important that small papers could easily do with minimal staff effort: make a list of a couple dozen possible "tags" for stories. When any story is sent to the Web, a staffer can glance over the list of tags and check any that apply.

A newspaper in North Carolina might write frequently about the pork industry. Does the print edition have a section entirely for the pork industry? Of course not. And as a result, the paper's Web site doesn't, either. But it should! A small set of staff-written tags are easy ways to build topical archives -- whose index pages (available in RSS, of course) can then be used to cluster non-news content for the target audience, such as topical blogs, off-site links, and of course targeted ads.

What's more, a tag system, unlike a print-style tree categorization, lets stories fall into multiple categories. And it can be used to easily locate similar articles, which have similar combinations of tags.

Readers should be able to navigate newspaper Web sites in various ways: search, vertical brosing (feature section->movies page->Brokeback Mountain review), and horizontal browsing (Brokeback Mountain review->Oscar preview). A staff-maintained tag system is one way to facilitate that.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

It's not too late to prevent Wal-Martization of the Web

Local newspapers shouldn't yet be running up white flags in the battle for local mindshare.

Responding thoughfully to my recent argument that local newspaper sites must do more than merely gather news, Chris Tolles of comments:

One word --WAL*MART. The idea that a set of local monopolies are going to be maintained in the long run, with the audience increasing its rate of online adoption (where there is little or no brand for a loot of local papers) is a bit of a stretch. ... How often does the average 25 year old start looking for a restaurant review on the home page of the local paper, vs. Google?
Chris makes a great point about long-run consolidation. (Hence, by the way, the modest title of this blog.) But I think he overestimates the adoption rate -- and the Google loyalty -- of "the average 25 year old." If a newspaper can provide a better restaurant directory than Google, it's certainly not too late to notify the neighborhood. This goes double in small markets, which are less mobile -- and therefore potentially more loyal -- than the big one that I assume Chris lives in.

Most local papers have cash flowing out their armpits. Rapid reinvention as local information sites could head off the encroaching Wal-Martization of local content. (This might be engineered at the corporate level.) And that would go a long way toward keeping newspaper brands alive -- and their news operations viable -- for many years to come.

Chris's original post closed with the following vision for newspapers (my emphasis):
[N]ewspapers need to build the products their audiences and advertisers want, rather than basing their strategy on a capacity for great journalism and printing pages of classifieds. ... The successful newspaper business of 2010 might look a lot like the successful newspaper business of 1910 – and the connection to Pultizer won’t be his prize, but rather his business methods.
I've got no problem with changing the business methods. But maybe the difference between Chris and I is that I'm not ready to give up those prizes. And I'm not convinced we have to.

Not yet.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Saving the suburbs from bowling alone

The Web gives local newspapers a chance to fill a social vacuum that's arisen in small towns and suburbs across the United States. One Illinois paper is setting out to do it.

The (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald is the quintessential suburban newspaper. Penetration is weak, but they make up for it on volume, distributing more than 20 zoned editions to a sprawling footprint across Chicago's wealthy west and northwest suburbs.

Character? Some. Soul? Um.

Beep, the family-owned paper's new publication for 18-34s, wants to give the suburbs a soul. Not only does it aim to introduce local folks to one other online -- log in to see the pleasantly quirky user profile page -- it wants to become a social resource for hundreds of thousands of young suburbanites who feel alienated or lonely in the atomized modern world. It wans to let them know that they aren't alone, that things are happening near them. And it knows that -- unlike in the big city -- the perfect distribution model for the car-addicted, shrub-encrusted suburbs is the Web.

This is not a trivial service to readers, or to society.

Though the who-attended-whose-party "community pages" of newspapers across the country are treated like vestigal organs, just waiting for their elderly readers to go blind, local papers shouldn't turn up their noses at the past. Those were -- remember? -- the glory days, for newspapers as well as American society. The social institutions of the 20th Century have crumbled, but human thirst for physical interaction hasn't. As the prime clearinghouses for local information, newspapers can use the distribution power of the Web to help people find each other again, and build institutions for the next hundred years.

Beep and its peers have an inspiring vision for the Web, and though I'm not affiliated with Beep, I'm proud to say I played a part in its creation.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Yahoo says "no thanks" to local news

Newspapers shouldn't celebrate the news that Yahoo doesn't want to compete with their newsgathering service. They should treat it as a warning.

As the Local Onliner reported the other day, Yahoo News boss Neil Budde told the Software Information Industry Association that he's happy to rely on local providers for local news:

"We’re not getting into the local news business," said Budde. ... "[O]riginal content will be a small part of what we do." Mostly, Yahoo just wants to be a "remixer," like a dance club DJ, he said.
Unfortunately, the local newspaper business is not the dance music business. As I've argued, merely reporting the news doesn't make money. Financially speaking, the crucial service newspapers provide today is connecting advertisers with the proper audiences. Yahoo would love to take that job itself by becoming the portal through which everyone encounters news.

Big profits for Yahoo. Long, slow decline for newspapers.

The better solution is for local papers to devote themselves to remaining the premier portals for information on their local area. They've done this in print for years. Now they just need to do it online. And, as Yahoo knows, news content alone won't be enough.

(By the way: I know blaming a missed update on a PC malfunction is so 1.0, but that is indeed the reason I was absent last weekend. As a result, I'll be playing catch-up with extra posts over the next few days.)

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

WSJ's excellent adventure in Bismarck

Not a moment too soon, the Wall Street Journal jumped in its time machine today and headed to North Dakota, concluding in a profile of the Bismarck Tribune that papers with less than 100,000 circulation exist in this country, and they're doing pretty well.

"Mass media still is 'mass' in rural America," says Pat Finken, president of Odney Advertising.
Note the rumblings of trouble, though:

"One of the reasons that the newspapers out here hung on longer than most is that the people out here, because of our rural nature, were more reluctant to adapt to the Internet," says Steve Scheel, chairman and chief executive of Scheels All Sports Inc.

That is changing. Scheels, a family-run business based in Fargo with 22 sporting-goods stores, has about 3,000 employees, a little more than half of whom are 40 years old or younger. The company took a poll recently, Mr. Scheel says, and almost no one in that age range got the local paper at home. At the same time, the response rate to the company's newspaper ads is half of what it was 10 years ago, he says. So increasingly, Mr. Scheel is skipping newspaper ads and reaching out to customers directly through email.

I hope this coverage helps clear the fog between both parties: media commentators, many of whom seem nearly blind to the different economics of smaller markets, and small publishers, many of whom seem in denial that the metro dailies are a window to their future.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

A vertical search for national news

The Associated Press's CEO "can't imagine" why national news outlets haven't teamed up to wall off their news content within their own search engine. I'm skeptical about such a plan, but it's related to my earlier post about walling off local news content.

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Walling off the local news garden: A-OK

Unlike national news outlets, local papers have good reason to be tempted by last week's talk about withholding news content from search engines.

The story stirred up a predictable tizzy among futurists. Newspapers' job is "to inform the public to what’s going on," wrote Chris Tolles in an intelligent but presumptuous post (not pegged to the search engine story, but quite applicable). Search engines, wrote one Techdirt contributor, are merely "making that content more valuable by making it easier to find."

Alas, these generalizations don't fit small markets.

What Tolles describes is the job he thinks newspapers should do . . . in the future. But don't mistake his prediction for a sustainable business model. Today, newspapers do much more than provide news content: they sort, prioritize and distribute it; they pair advertisers with content that fits their needs; and in small markets they even design the damn ads.

Someday, maybe, a model will arise to support pure newsgathering operations of decent quality. But until then, mere reporting simply doesn't pay for itself, especially at the local level, where there aren't enough rich people to support philanthropic drives like NPR's or enough outlets to support economies of scale like the AP's.

Moreover, whatever Techdirt may assume, local newspapers have a very different relationship with Google News than Agence France Presse does. Unlike national outlets, local newspapers have little use for non-local traffic. Non-local readers who stumble in from national aggregators don't fit a local newspaper's niche; visitors won't be buying locally, so they only dilute the value of the paper's pageviews.

As I wrote yesterday, local papers need to become the dominant information-and-connection brand within their communities. They won't do that with news alone, and they certainly won't do it with news outside their niche.

So what's the harm in opening local news content to search engines and news aggregators? Don't laugh: competition. Unlike national outlets, local papers retain near-monopolies on original reporting within their niche. This eliminates a major value aggregators and search engines provide consumers: diversity. Until local papers no longer have the dominant local news brand, small papers who hand their headlines to a local aggregator are asking people to start turning to another brand for the news.

As Carl Howe argues, newspapers provide the increasingly valuable service of cutting through all the crap. (Several of these links, by the way, come courtesy of Howe's own post on this subject.) Newspapers judge what's important to their audiences, and arrange it accessibly. This is as important as newsgathering itself. But aggregators like Newsvine aim to do the same thing better and cheaper. If they succeed, they'll use that advantage to demolish the brands of local papers. And when that happens, Newsvine won't be paying for the level of newsgathering that newspapers now do.

If, however, local papers can quickly co-opt the innovations of aggregators and search engines and tweak that technology for local use, they have a fighting chance at remaining the dominant local information brands. That should be their goal.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

The local future of vertical search

There's a key difference between local and national news outlets that has so far insulated small newspapers from online competition but which will eventually leave them even more vulnerable than their bigger brethren.

Unlike national and regional papers, local papers are niche media. They cater to the tiny number of people who care about, for example, Gadsden, Alabama. Nobody else in the world keeps as many boots on the ground in a small- to mid-size community as the local newspaper.

That's why many newspaper corporations are urging their editors to emphasize local news on their Web sites even more than in their print products. Simply: on the Web, we have competitors for our national and global content. But in small towns, local news content is still back in the happily monopolistic 20th century.

This brings us to search. Search engines let you keep a few big brands in your head, and rely on them to find content from lots of other brands. But Google and the other general-interest search kings don't target niches well. Yes, googling "gadsden auto sales" is easier than tracking down the Gadsden Times' classifieds, but the quality is inferior: anyone with an ad in the paper has their information up to date and tells you exactly what they're selling. And a Google Local search is good at tracking down retailers, not connecting you with local peers.

Local news is even harder to get from a general-interest search engine. (Aggregators like Newsvine may one day have enough users to work in smaller markets, but they're not very useful when there aren't very many news outlets to grab from.)

So search is a great way to find things, but general-interest searches are too imprecise to seriously compete with local newspapers. What will threaten local papers--or, phrased differently, what people want but aren't getting--are "vertical" local search engines, which are engineered to turn up local results for given searches. Search engines that users visit in order to find local results.

Vertical search is hot in niche media, and rightly so. "If Google is going to be CBS, I want to be Turner Broadcasting," says LookSmart CEO Dave Hills, whose company offers engines for subjects like sports, food, and fashion as well as a few big metro areas. Existing vertical services like LookSmart, Oodle, the still-primitive Google Base and even the ugly, user-unfriendly Craigslist are all quite scalable. They will take over small markets eventually if local brands don't own those markets first.

And if they do move in, small papers will be devastated, because local advertising, unlike national or regional advertising, is seldom about brand-building, which can occur through accidental encounters with display ads on a news page. Local advertising is about connecting people with stuff they're looking for. Someday soon, somebody will build a better Craigslist, and the bottom will really fall out of classifieds. But major metro papers can weather that collapse more easily than small-town papers.

For now, those small newspapers have the dominant online mindshare in their communities. There's no reason they can't use this--quickly--to dominate local vertical search.

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"The heart and soul of journalism is being decided right now."

If any one article captures the depth and breadth of the trouble facing newspapers--and calls news-lovers to arms--it's this AJR piece, via Romenesko.

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A nonprofit national newspaper?

The other day, my friend David asked me whether I'd ever heard anyone talk about a nonprofit national newspaper, supported in part by philanthropy, a la The Atlantic or NPR. Perhaps the distribution costs would be too high, he wondered, but what about an online newspaper? This is what I told him.

The more common debate at the moment (and I don't know why it hasn't happened to a greater extent before) is reprivatization. Some small nonprofits, like the Anniston Star, already exist. And the impending Knight-Ridder collapse has led to talk about some sort of union or employee ownership, which would be cra-zee.

The biggest impediment to a national nonprofit daily would be distribution. USA Today took 5 years of free stories from across the Gannett empire to massage its distribution model into profitability, and nobody has that kind of cash flow except private corporations. (USA Today still moves a huge share of its ink through single-copy sales, and most of those are hidden in the fine print of hotel bills. It's not high-quality circulation, but they make up for it with their high-quality demographic of traveling businesspeople. So it works, but I'm not sure there's room for more.)

Even NPR is just a content provider, something like the AP, not a full-fledged distribution organization. It sloughs that work off to its less financially secure member stations.

Of course, the Internet is the heaven to which distribution models all dream of going when they die. And Salon actually comes close to being a nonprofit Internet newspaper. (Nonprofit in the sense that it never turns a profit.)

The basic problem with an Internet newspaper, even a nonprofit one, is that online ads make too little money to support a daily newsgathering organization of national quality. If even a break-even model is going to be found for the Internet, I think for-profit companies are going to have to find it, because nobody else has the money to spare.

All that said, if my nightmares come true and newspapers gradually slice their news operations down to TV station staffing levels, there will be a big upmarket opening for a few companies (perhaps the New York Times, some satellite-distributed version of NPR and a few other big papers) who will continue to provide quality news for the few who can afford it. A nonprofit newspaper might be one of them.

So: I am pessimistic.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

About The Medium Run

This is a more-or-less-weekly blog about local newspapers and their hopes for an online future, written from the perspective of a print guy turned online guy for a small, respectable daily in the Pacific Northwest. Because that guy is me.

Here are my assumptions:
1) Newspapers are generally in big trouble, because before long the Web will do everything that print does, except better and cheaper. However
2) Most local newspapers are still near-monopolies, both in news and advertising. So they aren't currently in big trouble. But
3) They will be. Moreover
4) If newspapers fail, the people that replace them will be uninterested in or incapable of original reporting, the crucial community service good local newspapers provide today. Therefore
5) Newspapers need to rapidly learn how to do on the Web what they've been doing in print--except better and cheaper.

Here is where I stop:
1) 2040. I don't have a damn clue.

If I have one wish for The Medium Run, it'll help counteract the general disregard a lot of media thinkers have for newspapers outside major metro areas. If the city slickers aren't going to look out for us, we're going to have to look out for ourselves.

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