October 06, 2006

Is there a Newspaper Doctor in the House?

Doc sets out to save newspapers with some clued ideas to keep readers glued to their product--and drive hard copy through smarter online behavior. The problem is, the paper's very business model depends upon a broadcast mentality and aproach. Really I think that has to change -- new ways to make money before the old ways don't work anymore -- in order for behavior to change, even if some papers are still profitable. Because they're profitable by accident--the fact is that old Aunt Marge and Aunt Phil always want to know who's died, clip out the obituaries, ask a relative to make copies, and send them to their contemporaries. What happens when Aunt Marge and Aunt Phil pass through the obituaries themselves, along with their contemporaries?

With or without the money factor, Doc's clues are spot-on, and I might care about my local AJC, and my old hometown D&C, if they took his advice:


First, stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There's advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow's fishwrap behind paywalls. Writers hate it. Readers hate it. Worst of all, Google and Yahoo and Technorati and Icerocket and all your other search engines ignore it. Today we see the networked world through search engines. Hiding your archives behind a paywall makes your part of the world completely invisilble. If you open the archives, and make them crawlable by search engine spiders, your authority in your commmunity will increase immeasurably. Plus, you'll open all that inventory to advertising possibilities. And I'll betcha you'll make more money with advertising than you ever made selling stale editorial to readers who hate paying for it. (And please, let's not talk about Times Select. Your paper's not the NY Times, and the jury is waaay out on that thing.)

Second, start featuring archived stuff on the paper's website. Link back to as many of your archives as you can. Get writers in the habit of sourcing and linking to archival editorial. This will give search engine spiders paths to wander back in those archives as well. Result: more readers, more authority, more respect, higher PageRank and higher-level results in searches. In fact, it would be a good idea to have one page on the paper's website that has links (or links to links, in an outline) back to every archived item.

Third, link outside the paper. Encourage reporters and editors to write linky text. This will encourage reciprocity on the part of readers and writers who appreciate the social gesture that a link also performs. Over time this will bring back enormous benefits through increased visits, higher respect, more authority and the rest of it.

Fourth, start following, and linking to, local bloggers and even competing papers (such as the local arts weeklies). You're not the only game in town anymore, and haven't been for some time. Instead you're the biggest fish in your pond's ecosystem. Learn to get along and support each other, and everybody will benefit.

Fifth, start looking toward the best of those bloggers as potential stringers. Or at least as partners in shared job of informing the community about What's Going On and What Matters Around Here. The blogosphere is thick with obsessives who write (often with more authority than anybody inside the paper) on topics like water quality, politics, road improvement, historical preservation, performing artisty and a zillion other topics. These people, these writers, are potentially huge resources for you. They are not competitors. The whole "bloggers vs. journalism" thing is a red herring, and a rotten one at that. There's a symbiosis that needs to happen, and it's barely beginning. Get in front of it, and everybody will benefit.

Sixth, start looking to citizen journalists (CJs) for coverage of hot breaking local news topics -- such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and so on. There are plenty of people with digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones and other devices that can prove mighty handy for following stories up close and personally. Great example: what Sig Solares and his crew did during Katrina.

Seventh, stop calling everything "content". It's a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the '90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online. It's handy, but it masks and insults the true natures of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call "editorial". Your job is journalism, not container cargo.

Eighth, uncomplicate your webistes. I can't find a single newspaper that doesn't have a slow-loading, hard-to-navigate, crapped-up home page. These things are aversive, confusing and often useless beyond endurance. Simplify the damn things. Quit trying to "drive traffic" into a maze where every link leads to another route through of the same mess. You have readers trying to learn something, not cars looking for places to park. And please, get rid of those lame registration systems. Quit trying to wring dollars out of every click. I guarantee you'll sell more advertising to more advertisers reaching more readers if you take down the barricades and (again) link outward more. And you'll save all kinds of time and hassle.

Ninth, get hip to the Live Web. That's the one with verbs such as write, read, update, post, author, subscribe, syndicate, feed and link. This is the part of the Web that's growing on top of the old Static Web of nouns such as site, address, location, traffic, architecure and construction. Nothing wrong with any of those static verbs. They're the foundation, the bedrock. They are necessary but insufficient for what's needed on the Live Web, which is where your paper needs to live and grow and become more valuable to its communities (as well as Wall Street).

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