If newspaper Web sites are going to successfully bail out their print counterparts, they've got to act like, well, Web sites. Unfortunately, a recent report indicates that most newspaper Web sites are still stuck firmly in the last century in terms of the functionality they offer.
Web users these days are fluent and comfortable with such Web 2.0 tools as social networks, user-generated content, blogs, etc. But many of these features are still slow to be adopted, much less exploited, by newspaper sites. And in many cases, where these features are being used, they're not being used to the full extent that online visitors find on many other sites.
You've heard of Web 2.0? This is Web 1.0. Maybe Web 1.1, at best.
There are some bright spots in the study of the nation's Top 100 newspaper sites by The Bivings Group (PDF copy of the underlying study here). If nothing else, Bivings found general improvement in newspaper use of Web 2.0 features over the past year. But that improvement comes with caveats: While 92 of those papers are offering video in some form, only 31 of them actually produce it themselves, for instance. Ninety-seven percent offer RSS feeds, though Bivings notes that not a single one of them is monetizing those feeds with advertising. Ninety-five percent have blogs of some sort (well, at least one blog), but only 22 percent offer any sort of blogroll list of links to other sites, in keeping with newspapers sites' quaint, prudish, Victorian reluctance to link to anything they can't control. Get over it, for crying out loud. Links are practically the core definition of the Web.
The scorecard on other features is much less encouraging. Lists of most-popular stories? Just 51 of the 100 sites have them. Article comments? A paltry 33 percent. User-generated content? Twenty-five percent. Social networking features? Um, five papers out of 100. Gee, that's smart, since those MySpace and Facebook thingies have proven to be so unsuccessful in the marketplace.
One more piece of Web 1.0, or actually Print 1.0, thinking is on display in the study: The number of newspaper sites requiring registration somehow increased over the past year, to 29 of the top 100 (wow, that number seems low, based on the registration walls I run into all the time), from 23 last year. Unless you're charging for content (gee, there's a concept) or wisely requiring readers to register to post comments or content, registration is just an annoyance that doesn't help anybody.
If newspapers want to know why they're getting left behind in the new, online world of media, they need to take a look in the mirror. As this study sadly illustrates, newspapers are getting swamped by their online competitors because their Web sites are still pretty much print products pasted on a screen. They're clinging to Web technologies (and site designs) that were outdated years ago, and they're apparently afraid to experiment with, much less aggressively adopt, features and technologies that are commonplace in the 2007 Web experience.
There are exceptions, notably WashingtonPost.com, USAToday.com and a few others, that are boldly adopting the latest technologies. But too many newspaper sites seem stuck in the last century. One reason papers are getting hammered is because they're too bland and conservative in print. It appears that attitude has infected the part of the business in which they need to be innovating and leading. Evolve, for crying out loud—or die.