Monday, September 11, 2006

A new metaphor for journalism

I write a monthly column for press associations around the nation that this blog accompanies and is eponymous with. Normally, I just have the link on the rail and don't bring the column over (too often, it's the other way around, I fear, with my borrowing liberally from the month's blog posts). But I wrote one for this month that with all the turmoil in the industry I thought would add something to the conversation. For your consideration:

Common Sense Journalism
For September, 2006

I always think of the good metaphor after I give the talk, and so I was driving home after speaking to a press association seminar and pondering one of the questions when, of course, the idea came to me.

The question: “How can I use the Web to drive people to the paper?”

“You probably can’t,” I replied. Washington Post focus groups of the types of readers we’d all kill for – young, urban professional, lots of disposable income – made clear they want the news, but not the “paper,” even if it’s given away. If you define your journalism by the physical product, you’ve got problems.

That’s difficult for many of us, because we love “the newspaper,” but we really have been using it as a metaphor for the larger meaning of a well-staffed, multifaceted news operation.

So as I was pondering the question, it occurred to me the problem is that newspapers still too often define their business by their production line. They set up the presses and then tweak the product to conform. Sure, we’ve redesigned, narrowed the web, introduced color. But it’s all inside the restrictive framework of our press configuration.

Ford, or Procter & Gamble – or even the companies that make the presses – do it differently. They design with features their customers want. They monitor what their customers tell them.

Then they redesign the production line to make it.

The Internet is the new metaphor for that flexible journalism production line. No longer as journalists – editors especially, but reporters, too – can we just tweak inside a rigid configuration. We must continually respond to what our users tell and show us. In our Hartsville Today citizen journalism project, for instance, we didn’t have a place for NASCAR stories. We had high school, college and recreational sports, but nothing for the pros because we really hadn’t thought of it. User behavior set us straight on that, and we need to correct it.

Newsrooms have entered an era where the Web producer and the IT person have become as important to your journalism as the press foremen, where editors and reporters need to know how to use RSS feeds, tags and similar monitoring devices.

And the question needs to change from how do we drive people to the paper to “How do I drive people to my advertising?” in whatever form.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to put fins on the Cadillac. But adding a Chevy might bring the volume that keeps us viable. And even the Cadillac production line gets remade from time to time.

It means thinking broadly and flexibly about how the solid journalism we already do attracts an audience that is more aggregate than homogeneous. So how can we realize more value from those differences?

For instance, most local publications see little value in out-of-town Internet visitors. That’s a “run of press” view that misses an opportunity to monetize such traffic. Think flexibly, and you realize obits are potentially of great value to out-of-town visitors. If Aunt Mabel dies, all the relatives and friends from far-flung places will likely check in.

But how many sites either put their obits behind a subscription wall or fling the door open. Why not put in a low barrier that’s easy to surmount: A short, tasteful ad (video if possible, but not necessarily) for a florist, for instance, to get access, and then the ad becomes an “order flowers” button up top as the person reads the obit. If you are concerned about losing paid obit revenue, then provide the “notice” form this way and leave the longer obit to a higher-priced tier.

You help the florist reach an audience it can’t easily otherwise and expand its ad base as a result. You both benefit.

As I looked at newspaper Web sites to prepare for my talk, I was struck with how rigid many are. One, for instance, wanted to sell me photo reprints. But I had to be a subscriber to even look at the photos available. So if I’m from out of town – or even from across town – and not a subscriber, but I really want the photo of my sister’s kid playing Little League? You get the idea.

The Internet is a social medium. People increasingly get their news by referrals, so make sure there is a way to e-mail at least a link to a story. Only about half of the almost two dozen smaller sites I looked at had that. A comment area for each story is nice, but there are understandable legal uncertainties. But if you have a list of agency and school links on your site, as many sites did, and an agency name comes up in a story, at least link back to your list of links. Too many sites still tend to compartmentalize everything. That’s the old metaphor.


At 9/11/06, 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug: I think you have certainly hit on a key concept and one I think about often even as I sit, stand or find another way to deliver in a college classroom.

The question of what is the product is, I think, dead on. You mentioned the NASCAR oversight with hartsvilletoday and I think of this whole discussion we have had of citizen journalism or citizen story telling. Again, what is the product and how will the audience use it and then let's decide how we are going to package and deliver it. Anyway, I think you are on to a good metaphor.

In some of the talks I have had about these press web portals and particularly the experimental ones like hartsvilletoday I am thinking more and more that joining those sites with a major local search engine could be a new way to generate the optimized search engine advertising that is now driving a lot of businesses. Even with the high price of gas people don't worry about heading from Spartanburg to Columbia for a football game day of tail gating and football. Heaven know the roads are full between the low country and Clemson on those home Saturdays. So, niche men's stores with good selection, quality and service could be in vogue within a fairly good radius. Restaurants providing a unique night away from the mundane and even coffee houses that provide eclectic conversations might be just the target for this search engine on the sites that would pull real customers spending real money after learning about the service, the food, the movie through the sort of unreal cyber find.

Okay, so it will take someone who knows the business to figure out how to make it pay but if funeral homes can sell slide shows to the bereaved (and I think they are fantastic additions to the grieving process) then newspapers can probably find some effective ways to use search-engine advertising on their web worlds.


At 9/15/06, 2:01 PM, Anonymous Tolovemoon said...

I am learning so many things other than just improving my writing skills from reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your wonderful ideas. I am now rethinking my website over. I want to share my own personal views as well as my community with local businesses and news. I hope to advertise my home business and become a better citizen journalist. I believe I will.
Thanks again, Peace!


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