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.


Josh Yockey said...

If a newspaper can provide a better restaurant directory than Google, it's certainly not too late to notify the neighborhood.

No, but the if requires a lot of scrutiny. How can a local paper provide a better restaurant review service? One way is by providing better technology, but this is simply the opposite of what local papers can do. Technology encourages efficiency and consolidation, and every paper in every metro in the country hiring developers to design a restaurant review section would be suicidal.

So if it's not better technology, it must be better content. But how can a local paper guarantee it has better restaurant reviews than the aggregated reviews on consolidated sites, and do so without superior technology? I'm not sure it can.

Score x for restaurant y by reviewer z is simply not that complicated a piece of information, and it can be stored and aggregated anywhere in the world and be equally useful.

A paper can certainly be more attractive to local advertisers by cleanly defining the market of its readers, but advertisers won't care if the readership drops, and increasingly localized online advertising will more efficiently solve the same problem.

I don't think you can get away from the clear advantages that local papers have: 1) a significant number of people don't want to read local news online, and 2) they have a team of professional journalists to cover the local region, and a team of editors who can make local prioritization decisions.

What I expect to see in the medium run is those teams of professionals increasingly using third-party, centralized technologies to handle the work of presenting the content to their readers, letting them focus on the content.

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