There's a lot of time being spent these days chasing old ideas for the online news business that seem new to some people. Meanwhile, lots of smart folks are doing some very good work in truly inventing the future of online news.
Some of these innovators work for traditional news organizations; others work for startups or Web-only operations. These are people who really do have good ideas for the future of news and advertising. Over the next couple of posts, I'm going to take a look at some of the efforts I've seen that seem to be the most interesting.
I'm going to skim over a few things, like Twitter, that have quickly become mainstream, and try to concentrate on products and projects that are breaking new ground–and hopefully can become examples for others to replicate. Some are fairly well-known; others have been too obscure, in my view. But all of them should be more widely adopted. Just about every news site should be doing versions of every one of these, and more.
We're at a point where the news business really needs some bold, imaginative thinking in everything from news presentation to business models. These examples are some of the best of breed. (If you know of others, please add them in the Comments.)
First, from traditional organizations, in no particular order:
- Maps are a powerful way to illustrate lots of information at a glance, and given the Google maps API, it's surprising that they're not used more by news sites to explain stories that literally cover a lot of ground. And not just stories: CinciNavigator, from Cincinnati.com, does a nice job of plotting local information ranging from news stories to crime to business listings to gas prices, all in one place. Obviously, this builds on the great work being done by Adrian Holovaty, first on ChicagoCrime.org and then on EveryBlock (more on that in the next post). But it's surprising that more news organizations haven't provided their readers with this service. Another example: WashingtonPost.com's LocalExplorer, which launched about the same time as the overhyped and disappointing LoudounExtra, and is actually much more useful–albeit more limited than CinciNavigator.
- Another interesting use of maps: the Newseum's Today's Front Pages feature, which plots newspaper front pages on a map (a map with a weird East Coast bias, for some reason). WashingtonPost.com comes at something similar in a very different way with TimeSpace: World, a somewhat confusing mashup of news stories and photos overlaid over a world map. Both of these are actually riffs on work that was done at the MIT Media Lab in the early '90s on world news maps; it's nice to see a good idea finally making the mainstream of journalism!
- Stuck in a traditional one-size-fits-all mentality, many news organizations have had problems thinking about creating great niche sites to target specific audience segments. Gannett, however, has quietly built a network of local sites aimed at mothers that now has dozens of outposts under the MomsLikeMe banner. A recent redesign–which brought the initial sites onto a new platform under one banner–unfortunately cost the sites a lot of their personality. But the MomsLikeMe sites still do a great job of providing a forum where mothers can exchange information, tips, stories, whatever–and where advertisers can reach those moms. The format is much more like a community bulletin board than a traditional news site, with lots of user-generated content. That's a very good thing, because it means authenticity, participation, engagement–and inexpensive content.
- There was a time a few years ago when news sites went a little Flash-happy, creating all sorts of overdone interactive features that seemed to serve their designers' portfolios more than they did readers. Flashmania has calmed down a bit, thank God, and now multimedia presentations are deployed a little more judiciously. A great one is the Please Touch Museum site the Philadelphia Inquirer built to feature the city's new museum for children. Put together by a team led by Frank Wiese, the Inquirer's online projects editor, the site perfectly fits its subject: you want to touch it and find out what's going on. Nice work.
- A lot of print news sites have leapt into video, inspired by YouTube's success into thinking it's the Next Big Thing online. It may be, but not the way most news sites do it. Sure, it's great to put up video of news events, but too many sites try to emulate television and create high-production-value video reports that replicate TV news. Usually, these are boring, and readers avoid them like the plague. And then there's The New York Times' David Pogue, the tech reporter who's made a science out of creating witty, guerilla-style videos that trade overproduction for humor, substance and personality. The results are videos that, like the best of YouTube, get forwarded all over the place and viewed by literally millions of people. Rather than trying to out-TV TV, every print news organization should be showcasing newsroom personalities (and newsrooms always have their share of personalities!) in videos that will entertain as well as inform.
- Speaking of The New York Times, the paper's much-touted team of experimental web developers is doing work that's always interesting, if not always clearly useful. But that's what cutting-edge innovation often is. Two good examples: The enhanced New York Times Extra home page (to get there, click on the green Extra link below the logo; it's oddly not bookmarkable) and a map that tracked popular Twitter words during the Super Bowl. The latter was an interesting thought piece with no real utility, though one can imagine it being more useful for some other fast-breaking Twitter-led story. But the Times Extra home page, which adds related third-party links to Times headlines, is a very interesting example of moving outside the traditional walled garden of news sources and showing visitors what others are writing about the same subjects. Also worth a look: Blogrunner's Annotated New York Times, which takes the enhancement/aggregation idea a big step further. Update: The Times developers have added a blog with links to interesting projects and prototypes they're working on. Well worth a look.
- I'm a big fan of news aggregation; even as traditional editors are complaining about being linked to by Google or competitors, I think it's something every news organization should be doing to establish its site as a one-stop destination for everything on a topic, especially local news. Leverage your brand, local knowledge and editing skills to present readers with an aggregated package of stories and information from all sorts of sources–yes, even your competitors–and you'll be performing a service that goes far beyond whatever you can do with your own content. The NBC owned-and-operated stations have figured this out, and while I'd quibble a bit with the execution–they seem shy about giving source credit where credit is due–efforts like NBCWashington.com site are excellent examples of the power of aggregated local news. Honorable mention: Examiner.com, which has built sites in 60 cities to aggregate local news and supplement it with blog-like reports on specific topics from local "examiners." Examiner.com (on which I did some early strategic consulting) is a bit too tentative about taking advantage of third-party sources and a bit too overreliant on its "examiners" for content, but it's still building unique local franchises that compete directly with local newspaper sites.
- Tribune Co. has taken a lot of heat for some of its management's wacky ideas, but a couple of the Chicago Tribune's ongoing projects are real pathbreakers. TribLocal is probably the strongest effort yet at creating a hyperlocal site that combines professional and user-generated content; as a co-founder of Backfence and close follower of all things hyperlocal, I've watched TribLocal closely and with much admiration. It's expanded to more than 40 Chicago suburbs and seems to be getting traction with readers and advertisers. Tribune's other interesting endeavor is Colonel Tribune, maybe the single must unusual thing being done online by any major newspaper. Col. Tribune is a fictional character created by the Tribune as a sort of host of and guide to the newspaper site and, more significantly, a participant in social networks like Facebook and Twitter (where the colonel has 5,400 followers). If nothing else, the colonel gives a somewhat drab news site a touch of personality.
- Somewhere between hyperlocal and aggregation is GateHouse Media's TheBatavian, an online-only local publication started from scratch in a small community in New York state. TheBatavian brings together a small professional staff, community-contributed content, links to other local media, user forums, a blog-like layout and aggressive pursuit of local advertisers to create a next-generation community news product that's well worth watching. GateHouse digital smart guy Howard Owens has said he's using just about everything he knows in creating and running TheBatavian, and that's a lot of horsepower. It's a good model for what might replace print newspapers in the months and years to come.
- We saw a lot of good Web work come out of the recent election; much of the best of it, like Politico and FiveThirtyEight.com, came from outside traditional news organizations (and will be covered in my next post). But the St. Petersburg Times fact-checked candidates during the campaign with its Politifact site, and has kept up the momentum with an ambitious project to track President Obama's campaign promises. The Obameter is keeping its eye on more than 500 promises, and grading the president on his ability to keep them–or not. Smart bonus: The Obameter is being syndicated as a widget that other news sites and blogs can add to their pages. This sort of thing should be the rule, not the exception, for interesting online efforts.
- The action in news and information innovation is not limited to the Web. The iPhone has quickly become an important delivery platform, and the smarter media companies have built iPhone apps that extend their product and brand to the palms of people's hands. There are a lot of news-related apps for the iPhone, and a lot of them are sadly mundane. But the Weather Channel–whose Web site has never dazzled–has a fantastic (and free) iPhone app that includes forecasts, videos, radar and just about anything else a weather junkie (or even a normal person) could want. Another great iPhone app from a sort of traditional media outfit is Major League Baseball's MLB.com AtBat, which combines scores, stats, video and other goodies into an essential tool for baseball fans; this season's version is said to add live radio broadcasts of games, too. Note to those who would like to see people pay for content: MLB gets $4.99 for AtBat, and it's worth it for such a well-done, useful product.
- And finally, so that we're not completely wallowing in editorial efforts, here's one from the revenue side. Cox has been launching Kudzu business directory sites around the country, and this is exactly the sort of thing that every media company should be building in its local market to tap into small-business advertising. (Disclosure: I did some consulting for Kudzu several years ago.) It's the tried-and-true Yellow Pages business model, with free basic listings plus upsells for enhanced information; readers can add business reviews, as well. But the coolest thing about Kudzu is its alternate Kudzu Virtual House interface, which provides a striking visual navigation of business categories in addition to the usual search and browse access. Again, multimedia used intelligently–with a revenue model, no less!