Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Newspaper Thinks About Bloggers

Pioneer Press associate editor Mark Yost wrote a very nice article this morning about the blogosphere: The blogosphere's here to stay. (hat-tip to Mitch for finding it)

Would have been a bit more “man bites dog,” if someone other than the “new blood” at the Pioneer Press had authored the piece. Still, nice to see such an article published in one of our traditional media sources.

And it was nice, as far as it went. It just didn’t go very far. The basic thesis of the editorial was that these blog thingies aren’t just a fad. Okay. But what does that mean?

Yost begins to hint at some implications at the tail-end of the article.

For instance, Saint Paul [of Fraters Libertas] wondered why more Letters to the Editor aren't available online than in the paper. That's an excellent idea that, as letters editor, I know is somewhat limited by resources.

But I'm going to explore that, because I think the letters should appear quicker, which would make them more of a dialogue than a commentary.

I’m not going to pick on Mark Yost too much, because to the extent that idea engaged him and made him rethink the way newspapers do their thing he’s proceeding in the right direction. But I will point out that this idea ought to be only one of two or three-dozen others editors at the Pioneer Press ought to be debating, and they ought not be waiting for some bloggers to spoon-feed them.

Even more important, they ought to be weighing all of these ideas against three different paradigms:

  1. Their traditional printed product (which they can’t afford to abandon)
  2. Their online electronic product (which they ought to see as their future)
  3. Transition ideas which bridge the two (their competitive advantage over other electronic publications at the moment)

The biggest flaw in the newspaper business these days is the word “newspaper.” The long-term trend is away from paper and onto electronic media. The current market says a newspaper company needs to have both. These companies are accustomed to thinking of their newspaper product, and the restrictions and practices required to produce it, as being of primary importance. The needs of the electronic product are treated as novel and/or secondary.

But the electronic medium presents opportunities and challenges that “newspaper” businesses are proving slow to understand, making them vulnerable to competition. Here are just a few items waiting to clobber newspapers that fail to adapt:

1. Geographical independence. Publish your “newspaper” on the internet, and someone in Taiwan has access as easily as someone in Saint Paul. Are newspapers doing anything to try to compete for those potential new readers? Are they doing anything to compete against other electronic “newspapers” their traditional readers now have easy access to (to say nothing of news-sources like blogs)?

2. Fewer Content Restrictions. Traditional newspapers are confined by the size of the printed page, the cost of paper and ink, distribution costs, and many other factors which have lead to publishing standards constraining content. Electronic media have few similar restrictions. As a result, content provided in newspapers frequently appears thin and shallow compared to native electronic content (blogs, online journals, etc.).

3. The hyper-link. Traditional newspapers do a terrible job utilizing hyper-links. Hyper-links are quickly becoming the online standard for providing sourcing, background, and reference for serious publications. Newspapers which fail to do this are as lacking in depth compared to basic blogging as a 60 second evening newsbite is compared to a standard newspaper article.

4. Specialization versus generalization. Newspapers traditionally attempted to offer content about a little bit of everything, assuming a subscriber used them as their main daily news-source. This is neither characteristic, nor necessarily desirable in an online reader. Online readers are likely to get news from many different sources in a given day. The value of reading the same national AP article published at the Pioneer Press site, versus half a dozen other newspaper sites is questionable. Rather than featuring stories available in greater depth elsewhere, newspapers should be trying to identify areas where they can be the expert source to which people turn. The most obvious place this should be for a local newspaper is to focus on original local reporting. But surely, innovative newspapers will not stop there. They need to find what they're particularly good at delivering and focus effort there.

5. Competition for eyeballs. Newspapers are accustomed to thinking about their readers in terms of anyone who picks up the paper. This is too imprecise for the electronic world. They need to pay attention to which specific items are drawing the most traffic. Is their sports section drawing 90% more traffic than their national news section? Is there a particular columnist developing a national following, while others draw only locally? Tracking the way eyeballs are falling on specific pages means more than adjusting advertising revenue. It is of crucial importance in adapting their online product to attract a new kind of readership.

A point many newspapers are failing to grasp is that the online readership is not going to wait around for them to catch on to this. What's more, there is nothing that necessarily indicates that a company good at delivering a print product will ever become adept at delivering a quality electronic product. The warning newspapers ought to be taking from the blogosphere is far more than "there is some new competition." They ought to be taking warning from the way the electronic medium is changing publishing, reader behavior, and brand loyalty.


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