The 'well hole looking up' problem
What if all the words written on on the journalism and new-media blogs about how the future is digital and everything needs to be "Web first" and we need to be totally rethinking the way we write, report and present news -- well, what if it was wrong?
Yeah, I'm being provocative, and I don't totally believe that. But what if the "public," whoever that is, wasn't quite as excited about all this technological change and brave new world stuff as we are?
Hang with me a minute. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I work with a smaller paper whose leaders are concerned about the future and want to move into the digital arena more forcefully than they are now. (I'm going to hold back the name of the paper for now, but down the road hope to do a series of posts about how things progress.)
I was there the other day, and my first question was a simple "why?" Why do you think it is so critical to rush headlong into video and interactive and rearranged workflows, etc.? Well, circulation is dropping, they said.
Yes, but wrong answer.
I could have given them 18 strategies right then and there for improving their digital presence. And every one of them could have been wrong.
The problem: They had no real idea where their subscribers were going. Were they going online? Or were they just dropping out? Maybe, in a cruel twist of logic, the most effective thing they could do would be to
What? But that goes against all we keep reading and hearing and ....
Except, if you don't know where your subscribers are going -- or where your potential audience is -- in terms of technology and information consumption, you can't make intelligent decisions.
Yeah, yeah. Spare me the "you gotta try different stuff" and "good enough is good enough." I know the mantra by heart. I preach it every day in class and at meetings around the country.
But part of the news industry's problem --and that includes all us digital soothsayers -- is that it suffers from the "looking up the well hole" syndrome. In short, it has no view of the horizon.
But instead of climbing up out of the hole and checking, too many journalists and newsrooms tend to guess (long known as editor's instinct) or assume. Yes, the national surveys show an online nation, one that supposedly gets the news more and more online. But when I get down on the ground, I don't always see it. When I talk to editors, many have no real clue what is happening to their readers, how those readers are getting their news, or even if they are getting it at all. When I talk to people in bars and malls, you'd be surprised at the number who are not switching the paper for online; they are simply switching off. Some say they might take the paper again if it were just a whole lot easier to use and got to the point with stuff they needed to run their daily lives (insert your favorite "hyperlocal" link here, but they don't always say that, either).
I was prompted to think about this once again by a recent post and a comment to a separate post.
The post was on Mindy McAdams' blog where she counseled patience and empathy for the technologically impaired among us. She began: I was recently reminded that not every person who uses a computer every day understands the instruction “Minimize that window.” I'm not sure there was as much sympathy as antipathy in the overall thread of post and comments, but whatever.
The comment was to a post by Pat Thornton in which he talked about the need "to build cool shit." Marc Mateo wrote:
I have lots of those friends, too. When you are in the middle of all hell breaking loose, it's easy to forget that your collaborators may not be following your lead quite as much as you might think.
But if we build cool shit, we may just have piles of cold shit.
I came to the realization after a newsroom conversation today that I have two distinct “classes” of friends: those that are “connected” and those that aren’t.
It’s the ones that aren’t that I suddenly found interesting.
They’re not some gaggle of technological luddites or anything, they are by and large normal people with normal lives… who have never heard of Twitter. They don’t blog and they don’t follow blogs either. They use computers, they have broadband connections, they find things with Google, but they go days before checking their email. They have mobile phones but they don’t send text messages. They don’t fear technology… but they don’t wallow in it either.
It is to these people that our “cool shit” can be meaningless.
And I worry. I worry because they far out number my “connected” friends. Do they know something I don’t?
We haven't even really begun to see some of the massive changes; when TV goes digital and all that bandwidth opens up for mobile applications, the pace of innovation in the mobile space will be dizzying. (Personally, I'm betting eventually on a Dick Tracy-type wristwatch computer, but one that projects a digital space onto another surface and can pick up your finger movements along that surface for navigation, thus providing ultra mobility but also a decent-sized viewing area.) And any media company that doesn't have someone thinking about a mobile strategy (and obviously a lot don't, based on the condition of their Web pages) is just*plain*dumb.
But it's good to remember, sometimes, that everyone isn't like us. Listen - and learn.
The Readership Institute adds to the discussion by asking whether time spent on site (or page views, for that matter) really capture what Web use for news sites is all about.
In our recent work with teens and young adults we heard many times that they go to news sites to get the news. That's it. They're not interested in spending time on these sites doing anything else. If that's the case (and it seems to be - wait for our report in July), newspaper sites are at a disadvantage compared to many other sites when it comes to how much time people spend on them. Shouldn't these sites be measured in terms of how well they serve their audience? How quickly people can find what they're looking for? How well they lay out issues, or provide added value to the news of the day with digests, timelines, maps, data banks, etc.? Just because you can measure time spent - across media, which is nice - doesn't mean you should, or that you only rely on that measurement. Newspaper sites are in essence trying to compete in a race that is not their own, and risk handicapping themselves by letting others define them.