The problem with online newspapers is this: They are just like offline newspapers. That means they are not particularly interactive, they are barely customizable to individual preferences, they contain mostly outdated information, and they are hardly relevant to most readers’ daily lives.
From the very conception of online services (1970 at the British Post Office Research Laboratory outside of London), the inventors envisioned them to be more than just a new way of distributing the same old information. Led by Sam Fedida, the researchers came up with the idea that led to videotex, a graphical approach to the display of information online that can be said to be the forerunner of today’s online services. The prototype, named Prestel, was first demonstrated in 1974. By later that year, these researchers had identified six classes of services that could be delivered via the new medium.
A bit more than 30-years later, online newspapers still struggle to deliver these services and, for the most part, haven’t figured out how to deliver online news in new ways, either.
The great promise that online journalism brings is the potential to tell stories in ways they never have been told before. Using online technologies it is possible to capture the strengths of the existing news media, eliminate most of the weaknesses, and roll them up into a new medium that can offer news and information in much more compelling ways.
The strengths of printed news are not difficult to enumerate—great breadth and considerable depth. Newspapers and magazines include a wide variety of news, and they are capable of exploring a topic in considerable detail. They can be browsed, offering readers the potential to discover information they didn’t know they were interested in—serendipity, if you will. Print publications also are cheap to buy and extremely portable. A newspaper or magazine can be taken almost anywhere.
Print’s weaknesses are considerable as well. Never is there enough space in a print publication for all the news that might interest its readers. Another is immediacy. By their very nature, print news publications are out of date before they can be read. That fancy color weather map in this morning’s newspaper is at least six hours old and very likely older than that by the time you see it. Print is expensive to produce and distribute. Worldwide, some 80 cents of every dollar newspapers spend goes to some part of the production process—paper, ink, presses, trucks, personnel and the like. It’s not cheap to put a pound or more of paper on tens of thousands of doorsteps every morning.
Print’s other Achilles’ heel is its feedback channels. They are clogged. It is extremely difficult for editors to gauge how well pleased customers are with the product. The measures are few: circulation numbers, letters to the editor, and angry calls to the switchboard (any of us who’ve been there can tell you that the happy readers almost never call).
Broadcast media have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. By their nature, they are more compelling than print because they offer sound, in the case of radio, and both sound and pictures, in the case of television. Radio and television have immediacy that print never will be able to match, but their biggest and most compelling strength is the ability to take us to the action, to make us witnesses to events.
While these are very powerful strengths, broadcast media have major weaknesses as well. The first is time—not time in the sense of the broadcast day being too short, but in the sense of how long a viewer or listener must spend to see or hear a specific item on the news. It’s about linearity. Wanting to find out how a particular event is reported requires being in place before the newscast begins and watching or listening to every second of it, commercials and all, to ensure that you don’t miss the little piece of it that interests you. Another of broadcast’s weaknesses is depth. It is much more difficult for broadcast media to present dense, deep information about a topic than it is for print. And talk about feedback problems. Broadcast station managers have an even more difficult time gauging their customers’ happiness. They have only ratings growth or decline and those angry calls to the switchboard.
The Promise of Online News
The promise of online journalism is the ability to encompass all these strengths and more. Online news has breadth and depth and can be unlimited in its coverage. An online news site has the potential to offer its customers access to every story ever published about a topic. Online news can be browsed and, making it even more useful, it can be searched, enabling visitors to quickly find information about a topic of interest. Online news can have the immediacy of broadcast and, using audio and video, it can have that same ability to make us witnesses to events. Online’s feedback channels are wide open, too, enabling instant response from readers.
Online media also have new capabilities that so-called “old media” never did. They can be personalized—better yet, individualized. The top of your front page of news and the top of mine don’t have to be the same. If you care more about the Chicago Cubs than anything else, the top of your front page could be the Cubs—not how they did yesterday but how they are doing now, today, in the bottom of the sixth inning. If it’s money that matters to you, instead of delivering news about the markets an online publication could report how your personal wealth has changed in the past 24 hours, or the past 24 minutes, if you prefer. Advertising can be interactive, with a restaurant ad, for example, leading to a menu, and the menu leading to a way to make a reservation. Classifieds can feature photos. Distribution is cheap, with no need for presses, ink, trucks, or production and distribution personnel.
Nor does online journalism have to be limited to the traditional methods of storytelling. Databases and spreadsheets, for example, can be used and even can allow visitors to interact with the data to ask questions and often seek answers to their queries. Each part of a story can be told with the medium that tells it best. Words, pictures, audio, video and data—even reader contributions—can be mixed to tell stories in compelling new ways.
I’m sorry to say that none of these ideas is particularly new. The foundation for these concepts was laid back to the 1970’s. What’s wrong with online newspapers is that they have not—and are not—taking advantage of the emerging capabilities of the medium. They are not creative. They are not interactive. They’re too much like newspapers.
The Missing Pieces
The first step on the road to real change is to stop thinking about these new methods of distributing news as if they are newspapers. As a judge of two of the most prestigious international contests for online news sites, I can tell you that the evidence of original thought out there is pretty limited.
Lots of these Web sites, big and small, are very deep and wide, but what makes up these deep, wide sites is repurposed content. At least 90 percent of the content of every news site I’ve seen is “shovelware”—news prepared for one medium and shoveled into another. Broadcast news scripts, complete with bad spelling and capitalized letters, do not make interesting content, nor does a 30-minute newscast offered in one linear chunk. Thousands of wire stories do not make a compelling Web site, either, especially if they are the same wire stories that were published in the paper edition and don’t offer a single hyperlink to additional information or related stories. And far too often the photos and graphics that were published with a story don’t ever make it to the Web.
Then there are letters to the editor. While most newspaper sites publish letters, they’re usually the same letters that were put in print. Why not include the dozens of letters that don’t make it into the newspaper?
Why not publish columnists online who aren’t published in the print edition and other comics, too? Why don’t online music and film sections offer more sound clips and video clips? Why aren’t newcomers’ guides and reviews of restaurants, movies and recordings kept easily available long after publication? This is material that has a long, useful life to customers. Why don’t more media companies offer news on different platforms, such as mobile phones and pda’s? And do TV station gurus really believe it serves viewers to make them go to their Web sites to find a link to some government agency?
In many ways, advertising on media Web sites is even farther behind. Why aren’t real estate ads easily searchable by any criterion, even workshops, garage stalls, lot size, and number of fireplaces? Why can’t owners or realtors be e-mailed directly from the ad? I can count on one hand the number of newspaper sites I’ve seen that offer the opportunity to include a photo with a classified ad. Just in case newspapers haven’t noticed, pictures sell merchandise. Does that help explain why eBay is winning this competition? Does that help us understand why Craigslist threatens newspapers? Consumers want instant gratification. Print and broadcast ads never have offered that, but if news Web sites are to succeed, they must find a way to connect their customers with advertisers, both retail and classified.
Newspapers could have been eBay and Amazon.com and Monster.com, too. They could have done what Priceline did and should have done what Craigslist did. Newspapers even could have done what FedEx and UPS do. After all, delivery cars and trucks roll up and down every street early each morning, seven days a week.
Why have media companies failed to capitalize on this medium that seems such a natural extension of what they do? I can think of three primary reasons.
Media companies have not historically invested in research and development. It’s not in their nature; it is an industry that adopts the inventions of others, not one that paves its own way.
Media companies are cursed by their high-profit margins. That sounds illogical, but the high margins that they’ve been able to generate have led Wall Street not only to expect such profit levels quarter after quarter but also to demand them. But this is a mature industry, one that is not growing. Newspaper penetration has been declining for 30 years, and broadcast has been losing significant market share to cable for a decade, so the only way to keep the profit margins up is to cut costs by shrinking products, cutting personnel, and raising prices. The result: Customers find it easier to do without the product. The entire industry is, in effect, cashing out, as Philip Meyer explains in his recent book, “The Vanishing Newspaper.” Quietly, perhaps even unknowingly, the industry is committing suicide, and the corporations appear to be greedy moneygrubbers instead of public-spirited entities staunchly defending the public’s right to know.
Most troubling is myopia. News organizations are nearsighted. They are suffering from short-term thinking, as Vin Crosbie, an online news industry consultant, put it in a recent posting to an online newsgroup. He wrote: “Newsrooms are concerned just with today’s or this weekend’s stories; ad sales departments with this month’s quotas; marketing departments with the next Audit Bureau of Circulations or Nielsen deadline; general managers only with capital investments that can be recouped within 12 to 36 months, and news corporations only with the next financial quarter’s results. Relentlessly short-term thinking is pandemic in the news industry.” And it’s killing it.
It’s a sad but true predicament, and this sort of thinking prevents these companies from seeing the trouble they are in. Trade organizations, the Newspaper Association of America, for example, continue to cheerlead by reporting that newspaper advertising revenues grow year after year, but they fail to adequately report that the piece of the overall advertising pie going to newspapers continues to shrink. As a result, many publishers and editors have their heads in the sand when it comes to seeing the true picture. And very few news media companies are making any serious investments in new media. Strategic thinking seems short-term, at a time when there is a pressing need for long-term thinking about new business models.
In order to move forward—I fear in order to survive—news organizations must remove the cataracts that blur their vision. They must convince investors that they are worth saving and find ways to invest in the future. They also must take another very big, very difficult step and stop thinking like newspapers, stop thinking like radio and television stations. They must recognize that they sell information, not newspapers or television or radio. They should work to become platform independent and worry about selling the data, not the format. Remember the once-mighty railroads. They thought they were in the railroad business when it was transportation they were selling. n
David Carlson is the Cox Foundation/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism at the University of Florida, director of the university’s Interactive Media Lab, and president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has been involved in online journalism since 1989. Information for The Online Timeline that weaves information along the side of the pages in this section of stories was provided by Carlson and adapted for this use. His complete Online Timeline can be found at: http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/carlson/timeline.shtml.