Several journalists who have been involved with Internet journalism sites shared their experiences with the participants, some of whom also had ideas and questions about how publications and cyberspace might connect in more dynamic and profitable ways than they currently do. Edited excerpts from their remarks follow.
Teresa Hanafin: When Boston.com was started in 1995, a conscious decision was made to have it be a separate company so it could innovate. I have no real connection to anyone at The Boston Globe and that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that we are able to make decisions that we feel are smart for an online audience, and we’re not fighting for the same pool of money, so we’re not hampered by budgetary restrictions. The disadvantages are that most people at the Globe view the Internet as a threat to their core business. My biggest challenge as the editor of Boston.com is to be a preacher in the newsroom: When I ask Globe reporters to give us content—breaking news during the day—I often have to spend time convincing them that they are not “scooping themselves,” but beating every other radio and TV station in town, as well as the Herald.
We started out separately, but because of practical and economic considerations, we actually are drawing closer together. The New York Times has spun off a separate company called Boston Works with the specific goal of trying to at least hold our own against Monster.com. I don’t know if it’s realistic to try to take them down but, in New England, I think Boston Works and Monster are about neck and neck in terms of the number of recruitment ads that we have online. (It’s a combination of the Globe and online-only ads that Boston.com solicits.)
A lot of experimentation is going on with new advertising models. We definitely have to diversify streams of revenue. There is no intention of giving up advertising as the basic revenue model, but rather trying to be creative with it. Certainly we are experimenting with paid content. Boston.com did “@bat Insider,” a Red Sox newsletter that cost $9.95 for the season. And The New York Times has started “Glory Days: Baseball in New York, 1947 to 1957,” in which they archived their articles and photos and multimedia content from those glory days of the Yankees. But advertising is really the way to go—not the traditional banner, but more creative ads. Just the other day I was shown a new type of banner that when you cursor over certain elements of the banner, there are drop down menus. And the menu drops down right over the content on the home page, which is a little chilling for those of us who are in editorial, but at least it’s a new model.
Lisa Stone: Women.com was launched as a series of different online sites for professional women—Women’s Wire, Prevention.com. They built a system for tracking page views per visit for each of the users. And, at that time, this was quite unusual. So when I got there in 1998, after a short stint at Web TV and some time at CNN and the Oakland Tribune, I was a serious hard newsy and wanted to do this kind of journalism for professional women. I quickly found that the kinds of page views that were driven by a 3,000-word piece on body image by Mary Peacock were substantially less than the 200-word bits on job opportunities in high tech for women that we had in our job finder tool, which we eventually ended up working on with Monster.com.
I got a serious lesson in how people experience the Web. They don’t read it, they click it. When they’re reading the newspaper, they’re very interested in knowing how Osama bin Laden’s foreign policy is affecting America. But when they’re online, what they want to know is how is he going to kill me—that sense of personalization. Also I found out that the audience is very much interested in hard news. So we were able to build a series of tools on health, on finance, and on other things where it wasn’t just a rate of return on manicures and horoscopes. People would dive in, and we were able to raise page views per visit from five to 10 in a 30-day rolling period. The challenge is in figuring out ways to work with sales. Even if the pages are there, who cares if you can’t sell them?
Ken Doctor: The last piece of it in advertising is retail advertising. They are now less threatened by all the e-commerce companies that threatened to put them out of business in the last two or three years. Now retailers are all looking at the Web as another channel of sales and distribution. We’re talking to those retailers about their needs, and they’re paying for us to digitize their print ads. Where it starts to get interesting is where you can make those ads searchable, so if you want to buy a refrigerator and didn’t keep your stack of pre-print ads, you go to an index on Wednesday that has refrigerator ads with price. We’re at the beginning of that, but I think that is where the business is right now. Phase I is about repurposing well. In phase II is the question of how we innovate. How do we bring in tools that Monster figured out three years ago, integrate them with our content, and really be able to get the revenue into the Internet enterprises so that we can innovate? That’s overall where we’re at.
Bob Giles: Most newspapers spent more than 100 years creating brand. In the case of Boston.com and Knight Ridder Web sites and others, the newspaper has given up the brand identity as the headline. I’m interested in the thinking that goes into that and also whether your research shows that those Web sites that have retained the brand name like The New York Times and The Washington Post do better than those that don’t.
Clark Gilbert: We did just that. We put in dummy variables for branding. Did you retain the brand exactly? Did you do some derivation or did you do something entirely new? The ones who did something entirely new performed the best; the ones with some derivation were second, and the ones who retained the print brand did the worst. What you did see was some co-branding. So you’d say The Boston Globe’s Boston.com. You’ve built trust around The Boston Globe brand, but you’re saying Boston.com will do something else for me that the newspaper does not do.
Giles: Is that a reflection of public perception about the lack of innovation on the newspaper’s brand name?
Gilbert: I think it’s both. It’s perceptions with the external market—what we’ll expect when we come to the site. But it’s also a reflection of what they have going on in that organization that you don’t see in someone who’s used newspaper.com. You’ve got both things going on simultaneously.
Phil Meyer: Can you envision a future where we get to the top of the learning curve and newspaper people have forgotten the hang-ups that keep them from fully appreciating and exploiting the Internet and where there could be an integrated product that would be the most efficient way to use the resources of both? Isn’t there positive synergy now?
Gilbert: I don’t think the newspaper is going away in five, 10 years. But that’s also bad news because the established model is going to be viable for a while and that will allow someone else to start to capture what’s new and valuable over here. Can you simultaneously embrace both? My guess is that the integration will have to be modular with the interface between the organizations allowing the two organizations’ rules and decision-making and culture to remain intact while allowing interaction to occur. In almost every case I’ve seen, however, most of the interface destroys the new venture.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter: By integration, you really mean embeddedness—that the new venture was embedded versus separate. Integration actually is a very positive model. Integration doesn’t necessarily mean ownership, it doesn’t mean control. It means you know how to coordinate and connect activities. And that’s the idea. In media conglomerates today, forget about online, in general synergies are a joke. They’re a myth. In an earlier book, I called that “desperately seeking synergies” after [the movie] “Desperately Seeking Susan.” New ventures have a whole different set of issues. They need patient money, not regular measurements, investment, not cost containment. They need the intensity of a team that’s still developing knowledge that’s not routinized. Therefore, you can’t have a lot of movement in and out of the venture or you begin to lose what you’re building.
So they’re different and so they need that identity and autonomy. But if they’re not going to be connected and integrated in some way that they add value to the brand or derive something from that mainstream organization, what’s the point of doing it there? It would be better off as an independent startup without the resources of the big companies.