About Me

  • I'm CEO of Newspeg.com, a social news-sharing platform. I've spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies. You can read more about me here.

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« Be Prepared | Main | Hyper About Local »

September 11, 2008

Comments

Rocky

Mark,

Good point on the specialization. I think a key undervalued asset is the business section. In many cases that information is more valuable to people outside the market than those inside the market.

Some thoughts on that on my blog:
http://blog.agrawals.org/2008/09/11/slice-dice-repackage-and-resell/

carl

really good advice. that's why i come here often.

cowpesh

I think you nailed the essence of what newspapers should be doing. But the problem as I see it, sadly enough, is a generational one. This has frustrated me to maddening heights and made me go hoarse from screaming over necessary changes to our newspaper's web site, when too often I'm met with blank stares from my bosses who just ask, "What's wrong with it?"

We're in an era right now where the old guard of newspaper editors, publishers and the like are attacking the web in a very haphazard way, like demanding that we tack web video onto wherever possible, even if it doesn't make sense with the story. So what we get is a newspaper web site framework originally constructed to only mirror the print edition now looking like a gaudy Christmas tree overburdened with different ornamental features, videos, banner ads and jumbled content that strains eye and the whole underlying site architecture.

Yet the argument I and other (young) reporters have been making is: why aren't we focusing on improving the overall accessibility and function of the Web site first, instead of cramming all these features and items on there that get lost? We're too busy worrying about adding American Idol-type contests, daily wire updates and wire video to the site instead of taking the holistic approach of redesigning the site to be the most efficient and user-friendly.

The way I and other young reporters see it, our local newspaper web site should be an indispensable fixture in residents' lives. We could easily corner the market on event listings, discussion forums, community blogs, photo sharing, reader input (submitted photos, first-person account of events, etc) and local history. Instead, we focus on the McClatchy wide mandate to drive up page views every day, even if those views are hollow and don't represent repeat visitors. The underlying pattern driving everything online is apparent by this point (personalization, customization, organization, interaction and easy ability to share) yet we're still behind that curve.

I call it a generational gap because some of us realize that all we have to do is copy what works elsewhere on the internet. People like Wikipedia because they feel a part of the creation process; they like Flickr because sharing photos is intensely easy; twitter, facebook and the like are popular because they encourage information sharing and group conversation. Google, as you pointed out, is king because it's simple, useful and uncluttered. Meanwhile, we're still fighting with the bosses here because our search function hasn't been working properly in months. For some of us, that seems like one of the most basic functions a newspaper web site can fill: easily accessible information and background data. Yet here we sit, being strangled with our frustration.


Angela Connor

One of my favorite topics, Mark.
I will chime on on the aggregation part. I honestly believe that if you are viewed as the ultimate source for credible information and lead users to that information via aggregation, they will come back for more. the lines of competition are so blurred now anyway, so why not embrace this? It only makes sense.

Working Reporter

Mark:

I really like several of your ideas here. Your suggestions for simplification and specialization are spot on, in my opinion, as is your call for embracing innovation and redesigning for visitors who arrive through search.

But, at the risk of being accused of being a one trick pony, I'd like to ask: Do you have any clear idea of how these ideas translate to revenue?

Imagine a hypothetical newspaper -- the Pottsville Gazette -- that incorporates all of your ideas. How many full-time reporters do you believe it could support? How many editors? How many IT specialists? Receptionists? Ad reps?

My understanding is that the models that come closest to your vision -- HuffPost, TPM, a couple of others -- support single digit staffs and require a nation-sized audience to do it. Not much help for regional or local journalism. Many other Web 2.0 sites, such as YouTube, are simply not profitable.

If the model you're talking about can support a paid staff -- even just a few -- I'm all for it; we can scale up from there. But if the model works, it begs the question -- why haven't those sites emerged? Is everybody just that backwards?

Or do we need to think outside not just the Guttenberg box, but the Yahoo box as well?

Mark Potts

Working Reporter: I'd suggest you read the archives of this blog, which have dealt with potential revenue and business models at length. You might also look at the Crossing the Chasm white paper I wrote, which also looks at business models. Almost all of the things I'm suggesting are being done with some success in many different places. We're still in the very early stages of the transition from print to online, and it will take time for the most effective models to play out. But if newspapers cling to the old ways and don't try--very aggressively--to build new strategies, products and models, they will die.

Tom Altman

Are you sure the problem is content? I'm starting to be convinced the problem is not with the news and content - but the advertising department.

We have to SELL it different. I'm not sure that people dislike the newspaper's site. It's that no one wants to try and sell it - and if they do...they sell it like they did print.

Mark Potts

Tom:
The problem is All of the Above. Content and advertising are intertwined, and both need to be improved--I've written about that before. The right content brings eyeballs that can be monetized through advertising. And newspaper sites need to move beyond traditional advertising forms (and advertisers and sales techniques). They have to become smarter and more aggressive about contextual ads, search advertising, and reaching out to the countless small businesses in their market that they're not reaching because they're too expensive in print or because they don't have strong local online products those advertisers can target. So yes, the lack of sophistication among newspaper sites isn't just about content--it's also about advertising revenue.

Working Reporter

Mark:

I've been a reader for years and read the white paper long ago. (Reread it recently.) You've had lots of great ideas, and some I've disagreed with, but if you've ever done a revenue projection like the one I discuss above, I've missed it. Which I'll readily assume is my own fault -- but if you'd like to point me in the right direction with a link, I'd be grateful.

I'd also be very interested in any examples you can cite of newspapers making these ideas pan out financially. As I mention, the only models I know are working -- TPM, HuffPost, etc -- support pretty tiny staffs and minimal content production. If there are publications making this work, I'd definitely like to see them, because -- frankly -- I know a lot of publications that could stand to learn some lessons from any success stories out there.

Thanks!

Mark Potts

Working Reporter: I make my living as a consultant advising newspapers, media companies and Internet companies about strategies, products and business models. Therefore there's a limit on what I'm able to say publicly on the blog--and on what I'm willing to give away for free. I think the blog speaks for itself on these issues, but I have to have my own business model, as well.

Working Reporter

Mark:

I'm not sure how pointing your readers toward sites that are making money off the ideas you advocate hurts your business. I assume you have some kind of non-disclosure issue. But it's your blog and your business, and I certainly respect your right to talk about what you wish.

I'll keep reading, with an interested and open mind.

In the meantime, perhaps in some future post, I'd be interested in your thoughts on the FT's business model: http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/532328.php

Mark Potts

I've written repeatedly about paid-subscription models for online sites, similar to what the FT is doing. The Wall Street Journal is said to be making upwards of $80 million a year on Web subscriptions; ESPN, Consumer Reports and others also are finding solid revenue streams there. Many Web newspaper executives, however, are convinced that online subscriptions don't work. I think not nearly enough experimentation and innovation has been done in this area. But it's not a magic bullet; it's one of many strategies that will have to be considered and employed in concert to bring in significant amount of online revenue. Where there are public success stories in this and other revenue-generating strategies, I will continue to write about and link to them.

Working Reporter

Mark: I completely agree -- newspapers should experiment with all ideas, paid and unpaid and, for that matter, online and off. Whatever pays the bills -- so long as something eventually does.

Thanks for your answer.

cowpesh

I think there's some revenue opportunities out there -- the rub is that they require newspaper editors to scrap everything out and start again from scratch to create a new Web site that fits the new model (instead of trying to get mileage out of the defunct model). And as we all know, newspaper people are so used to be comfortable in their market dominance that starting from scratch is anathema to them.

Sam Shepherd

I completely agree Mark - we're not all doomed. But we will be if we don't start to do things differently and innovation in advertising will have to grow at the same time as innovation in news content. I think it's about time that advertising became part of the editorial decision making process - we never see an ad rep in conference, but when you're deciding how to package a story online, why shouldn't there be someone there who can say 'I know, let's sell a video ad on the end of this story to *these* companies' or who'll be able to suggest content related promotions?
There is a long way to go when it comes to newspaper content but if advertising doesn't grow with it then we'll be fighting a losing battle....

Peter

>> First sentence: "Newspaper Web sites, the theory goes, are the future of the industry."

Mark, I don't know where are you from, but it seems to me that this worldview has USA origins. For example, here in Europe print newspapers are doing just well and prospering. Web journalism has it's advantages, but judging the overall product quality (internet newspaper vs print newspaper) and customer experience, I wouldn't say web is "better" or that it is "a future". I believe this is only opinion of USA journalists.

In my opinion, what needs to be fixed is the quality of the newspaper in terms of independence. I marginally watch USA media, and judging from European standards, I think they just lack one of the key journalistic quality, which is independence. Now I mean both so-called old media (MSM) and new ones like Huffpost as well. You can see very quickly what their political position is and usually they go quite aggressively against the other party.

Here in Europe, such kind of journalism would not survive as well - people would label it as party newspaper and dismissed it. So this I see is the core problem - quality of print newspapers is going down. Now new media came to exploit the advantages of the internet, but that I think will not "save" journalism. We just need to return to true journalistic values (independence, truth seeking, balanced coverage), and people will start reading them again.

Ken Okel

Great analysis of the situation. At too many newspapers, people who knew a lot about print were suddenly working on online endeavors. You wouldn't want a chef trying to be a mechanic on your car.

Mike VN

Mark - one point of yours that I question is the slimmed-down home page.

I remember Steve Outing making this same point a few years ago.

Yet some of the most successful news sites have lengthy, link-rich home pages. For example: lefigaro.fr, which has just become the most popular news site in France; vg.no, which has long been the most popular news site in Norway; and dailymail.co.uk, which has just had a staggering increase in traffic after the relaunch of its website.

Rich Klicki

Mark:

Once again, great points. While I agree newspaper web sites are too newspapery, I tend to think some compartmentalization is necessary (business, sports, entertainment, etc.) as this provide some easy navigation for readers. But there's certainly room for more or different ways to get readers around your site.

As to the staffing worries some of your readers were concerned about, that is where aggregation comes in. The key is to take your existing staff and resources and focus them on what you do best, which should be local news. If you aggregate the rest, you are still providing your readers with a broad spectrum of information without exhausting or wasting existing staff.

In my blog, I often point to Poynter's Romenesko as an excellent example of someone who doesn't produce original content and has tremendous brand loyalty. I'd bet if Jim had gone solo instead of joining with the non-profit Poynter, he'd be able to sell his blog as an "industry intelligence" memo.

I still think there is a revenue model hiding somewhere in this. But we need more publishers who are willing to take a leap of faith and experiment more to find a winning combination.

http://rrklicki.blogspot.com

Jeff

Just an example: German newspaper Die Welt (http://welt.de) saw traffic increase from 35 to 163 million page impressions per month from March 1007 to March 2008. In the same period page views for Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet (http://ab.se) increased from 170 to 324 million. Both these websites have a great number of links on the front page and, if I understand correctly, "no place to look". Still they are very successful. Comments or thoughs about this? Thanks for a very interesting blog btw!

jackparsons

I know this is an old post, but I've bookmarked it and gone back over it a few times.

I worked in a newsroom for five years. Unfortunately, I think the people that really need to see this post aren't the ones who are reading. Because in all of that time, I was on one side of the legendary "wall" separating advertising and editorial, and the people that paying advertisers have to deal with -- sales, and by extension executive -- were on the other side.

About five years ago, a friend of mine was doing a theater show and wanted to advertise in the Chicago Tribune. In most businesses, you want to attract customers (of course) and make it as easy as possible to separate them from their money. That last part can get a little tricky, but I use iPass for toll booths, I swipe my debit card at the fuel pump and while I don't have an MBA, I'm guessing these folks have realized that making it easy to pay = more money.

Not so at the flagship newspaper of TribuneCo. Did you know that just to submit a print ad, I had to sign up for some third-party service that reportedly "handles" all print advertising? Rather than just email the ad to my rep, I actually had to go to a third-party company, sign up for an account and submit it. The catch: the first 3 ads submitted, I think, were free, after which we would have had to pay. Thank goodness the show had a short-run!

I don't bring this up as part of an agony column, but as an example of just how incredibly backward things had gotten. The old way of submitting ads was to either mail something camera-ready or have it messengered over. Now, this remarkable technology came about which translated everything into 1s and 0s and made it so someone in Outer Mongolia could submit an ad 10 minutes before deadline. It took a genius to try to make that as difficult as possible. It's well known that the more steps you force a customer to make between handing over the money and taking it, the fewer customers you'll have -- some will drop off in the process.

Needless to say, none of the local alternative papers I also dealt with had the same system, and probably more customers.

I bring this up because it's incredible that with this ubiquitous worldwide network linking all of our desks together, TribuneCo. is still making it as difficult as possible to give them your money. I wanted to place a display ad in the Trib, so I went to, naturally, chicagotribune.com (I strongly encourage anyone reading this old post to stop here, try this on their own, and then come back and see how off-base I am.)

The link is placed prominently but I still had to "find" in the page to locate it, as it's above (and seems at first and second glance to refer to) a rather superfluous doppler radar image of Chicago precipitation (who would actually go to a newspaper website to find out if its raining out right now?)

Next I experienced a hilarious across the board failure in just about any measurement of web usability. The first page prominently displays a log-in and password field in the upper left hand corner. This, I think, is unnecessary, as I was able to by-pass it, but I almost was going to close the browser window and leave -- why would I want to go through selecting this junk and validating by email just to give someone my money, and before I'm even sure I want to do so?

Over the next few pages, I came across clickable links that didn't really click (continue button at the bottom), web page titles that are meaningless (something called DASS is now saved in my bookmarks. I don't think I'm ever going to be able to think of "DASS" when I'm looking for a link having to do with "advertising" in the "Tribune"), complete pages with only 1 link to choose and meaningless "products" that didn't help me at all. I live in Chicago, and to me, "local" means the city of Chicago, but "TribLocal" is offering me advertising in the northern suburbs. Why? I have no idea, but it's the only option under "Display Only" advertising, which is, from a cursory reading, what I thought I wanted.

I have no idea (and after this, no desire to find out) if all Tribune papers are using the same hokey system. But I'm shocked by their ability to take something admittedly challenging and make it downright absurd. Google deals with millions of people through AdSense, with a minimum of human contact and dealing with a product ("keywords") which has been in our vocabulary for less than a decade and have therefore a learning curve which is far more steep. This is simply buying a damned ad -- what people have been doing for more than a hundred years!

In the end, as someone that builds websites and other media, I simply gave up and called the switchboard. For the first time in a long time, something on the computer actually left me feeling like my parents staring at the flashing "12:00 AM" display on our VCR when I was a kid. Our parents couldn't figure it out and it didn't have any actual use to a VCR unless you were remote taping, so they gave up. How many people do the same when trying to buy an ad in the Tribune?

So this goes way beyond "envisioning" newspapers and all of Lee Abrams' weird monologues or all of the Zellophobes' diatribes. Fundamentally, someone at TribuneCo at some point decided that they could do things their way, and if you don't like it, you can take your money elsewhere. My two experiences trying to (I'd like to stress again) give them my money roughly five or six years apart suggest that it's still deep in the company's DNA, and no ownership, no matter how profane or shocking or evil or even pleasant will be able to easily excise it.

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