Friday, December 30, 2005

Newspapering prescriptions and horse sex

OK, what do those two have to do with each other? Bear with me.

First the Rx, this one from Businessweek's John Fine. It follows the theme of a lot of others -- go hyperlocal. But Fine's is worth considering because he takes it a bit further, proposing, for instance, that newspapers produce free quick reads (ala the Chicago Tribune's RedEye or the Washington Post's Express) and then jack up the price (for both subscriptions and ads) of the "real" thing to reflect its premium value. He also would move all stock and TV listings online, etc.

Again, the idea isn't totally new. About two years ago a consultant wrote in Ifra's newspaper techniques (it's a members-only site, so that's the best link I can do) that newspapers needed to critically look at all their sections and jettison those or parts of those that were not profitable. But unlike some other longish tomes of late, Fine's quick-read list has all the elements, and when folded properly will neatly fit in a publisher's wallet.

In his blog, Fine solicits further reader input with some common sense suggestions:
  • Don't kneejerk to the idea that newsrooms might have to be smaller
  • Ignore any union problems for now (everything negotiable anyway, right?)
  • Assume a paper product will be around for a while, or explain (don't just assume, as too many commentators do) why newspapers will disappear quickly.
Now to the horse sex.

Fine is one of many who have latched onto Seattle Times' columnist Danny Westneat's only somewhat tongue-in-cheek observation that a story about a man dying during his sexual escapade with a horse drew by far the most reader interest on the paper's Web site.

"What's more, four more of the year's 20 most clicked-upon local news stories were about the same horse-sex incident. We don't publish our Web-traffic numbers, but take it from me — the total readership on these stories was huge.
"So much so, a case can be made that the articles on horse sex are the most widely read material this paper has published in its 109-year history."

Of course, that again will stoke the give them what they want vs. what they need debate.

Fine notes on his blog what he calls a "weirdly serious column" by Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell about the story. "I totally don't buy it. Readers is readers. Like they say: if it walks like a horse, and it quacks like a horse . . .," Fine writes.

But while I think Mitchell could have used a lighter touch, I don't think his overall point -- that not all Web clicks are equal -- is off-base at all. He's also a bit too dismissive in suggesting much of the traffic might have been driven by the Drudge Report (I'll bet more than a little bit of that local traffic came via Drudge, too). But under Fine's prescriptions, that those clicks from Timbuktu aren't worth as much makes perfect sense.

So Mitchell's broader point -- be much more analytic when dealing with Web readership stats -- is well-taken.

(Original pointers and further comment from Peter Zollman at Poynter's e-media tidbits.)


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