Participants had views and experiences to share about the intersection of mainstream media and the Internet. Edited excerpts of some of those comments follow.
“Web Sites Increasingly Scoop Their Parent News Outlets for Content”Conor O’Clery: Another fundamental question is whether companies make the Internet edition a rolling newspaper. People are going to access the Internet edition at any time of the day or night in different parts of the world. Should you involve the reporters in the newsroom in getting away from the idea that they just do one big story for one big edition of the newspaper? Or should they be involved in providing news, breaking news, for the Internet edition? I’m a business correspondent, and I go online to The Wall Street Journal during the day to get a heads up on what’s happening in the markets because it provides a rolling newspaper service. This raises two questions: How do you finance this? And what is the role of the reporter in the newsroom? Should that reporter be utilized by both the newspaper and the Internet edition or should there be a wall between the two? Most newspapers now are ending up with two sets of staff; sometimes with opposing interests.
Steve Ross: I actually have the best data on the Internet and newspapers because I do the Middleberg-Ross survey. I’ve got seven years worth of data. As of last fall, only about 45 percent of the newspapers sampled never allowed the Internet to scoop the newspaper. Our pre-survey sampling this year says it’s down to about 30 percent. These news organizations are not thinking it through well. If you talk to editors around the country, they’re slowly being converted from a belief they held that if the paper came out in the morning and something happened at 10:00 in the morning and they put that on the Web, no one would read it on the Web except for the local radio station and TV station, which would then scoop them. And what they think they’re now finding, on the basis of remarkably little data, is that enough of their readers are getting the stuff from their Web site by 10:00 that it’s worthwhile for them to break the news.
From the reporter’s point of view, no question that the tendency is that the reporter that does the Web site also does the newspaper. And the Chicago Tribune has been a pioneer in that, along with the St. Petersburg Times and The Kansas City Star. There are plenty of examples to now say that you can afford to do more reporting if you can distribute that reporting through multiple channels. Therefore, that’s a good thing, even if you’re not adding to staff and driving reporters crazy or you’re picking up more commodity stuff from around the world rather than doing the reporting yourself.
Phil Meyer: The underlying concept that newspapers need to grasp is how to use the Internet to add value to their product. It’s not a separate product, it’s a way of adding value. In 1978 at Knight Ridder, we brainstormed all the possible ways that electronic home delivery could add value to the newspaper product, and some of them still aren’t being exploited by newspapers today in the age of the Internet, which is absurd. A few years ago, we had a 22-inch snowfall in Chapel Hill, which is an event that happens once in a hunred years. I thought, “I wonder what schools are going to be open today?” I went to The News & Observer Web site and they had a story saying there might be snow tomorrow. So I went to our local TV station’s Web site, and they had a list of all of the closings, schools and every other institution, in alphabetical order, and I could scroll through it quickly and get the answer immediately. There are lessons there and one is that newspapers are too slow to adapt. But the other is that integrating the two operations to add value is the only way that newspapers are going to survive. It’s not how we deliver the news. It’s not keeping the old framework that’s important. It’s exploiting the new technology.
Ross: It’s not just the Internet. With all the cable channels, your newspaper can be on cable. Your newspaper can be part of television. Television can be part of your site. Radio can be part of your site. The Web is morphing into more of a kind of interactive television thing. There are about 12 different levels of stuff going on there. I think about it because I’m a journalism professor and Phil thinks about it because he’s a journalism professor. We have to train our students not just for their first job, but educate them for the 21st century. So we’re looking ahead and saying, “Five, 10 years from now, what’s your job going to be like? And what kind of skills are you going to need to do your job?” And there are about 20 news organizations in the country, about half newspapers and about half other things, that we use as models. The Chicago Tribune is one of them. And the interesting thing to me is that their stock price hasn’t done all that well this year.
Meyer: But that’s a sign you’re doing the right thing.
Susan Reed: Why can’t newspapers turn the tables and say, essentially, “We have access to this information. Why can’t we be a local Internet service provider?” Why can’t they take advantage of it as technology and use it to their own advantage?
Tom Wolzien: They’ve got about a year to do that because Digital Cities is geared for AOL to move massively into the local markets. And if newspapers want to do that as a stand-alone, rather than working through AOL, they have a very limited amount of time to pull it off.
Bart Adams: One of the things that has scared some local newspapers away from being on the Internet service provider is we just figure that AT&T could come along and kick us out of business any time they wanted to. They’ve got all the technology gurus. They have the capital. And for a small paper, getting into a situation where we have to support Internet service users for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that just wasn’t practical for us. It still seems like the key is going to be the information and still trying to figure out some sort of Internet model that works for a small paper. It seems to be quite difficult.
Our Web site actually does a little bit better than break even. But the only reason it does is because we automatically charge every line advertisement extra for being on the Internet. What if we didn’t have the Internet and we just went ahead and charged that extra little bit anyway? We probably could have gotten by with that because no one seems to mind the fact that we charge a little bit extra for the Internet, and some of them probably don’t care whether their ad is on the Internet or not. All they care about is results. And whether or not the results come from the print product or from the Internet—I suspect most come from the print product—I don’t know to what extent the advertiser checks that out.
“Should Newspapers Offer Internet Access?”
– Gregg K. JonesThe point is we haven’t figured out a good way to make money off the Internet. And if we limit access to our Internet product basically to people who subscribe to our product, well, the TV Web sites don’t do that. Nobody has to pay to get on the TV station’s Web site and see what schools are closed. As small papers, we haven’t even figured out how to charge. When we started doing the Internet a couple of years ago, we’d see what other newspapers charge for their banners and everything, and the numbers seemed completely arbitrary. I’m sure ours are, too. If we were to charge so much per thousand page views, we could probably charge more for a banner than what we do. We’re certainly going to have to reexamine how we’re charging advertisers for the reach we give them through our Web site. But, as a whole, I don’t believe smaller newspapers can come anywhere close to figuring out how to charge for advertising on our Web sites.
Alex Jones: My family owns a small group of newspapers, with our flagship paper The Greeneville Sun in Greeneville, Tennessee, circulation 15,000. We are in the Internet access business. By offering very good service, by having a human being on the phone, by being local, we have been able to do very well in this business. Are we going to be blown away eventually? Perhaps. While the capital investment of getting into this is not that great, the advantages are considerable:
- First, it’s a good business because people pay you just like they pay AOL, once a month, for the access.
- Second, when subscribers call up, when they turn on their computer they get our Web site with our news. It’s about us, and it guides them through the filter we provide for them. They go first to the Web site that belongs to them in their community. This matters a lot.
- Third, we are also in the Internet design business, in the home page business. We are doing things that take advantage of the fact that this is a growing world that our local community cares about and that the business people in our community care about.
- Fourth, we have access through this to people who want to do classified advertising in a way that merges an Internet and a newspaper’s classified ad section.
One thing I want to emphasize is just because you’re small doesn’t mean this is not a genuine opportunity. This business has been a very good one for us this year because of the hit we’ve taken on advertising. Because we had this business, it’s made that hit we’ve taken much less.
- Bart Adams is editor and publisher of The Daily Record in Dunn, North Carolina.
- Alex S. Jones, a 1982 Nieman Fellow, is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
- Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is a professor of and Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Conor O’Clery is the international business editor in New York for The Irish Times, published in Dublin.
- Susan Reed, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, covered the Balkans as a producer for CBS News from 1992-1995.
- Steven S. Ross is co-director of the Institute for Analytic Journalism at Boston University and the author of the eight Middleberg/Ross Media Surveys, a comprehensive survey of media cyberspace use.
- Tom Wolzien is senior media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., a Wall Street research and investment management firm.