My article last week about the failings of Northwest newspaper Web sites drew a lot of comments, from casual and dedicated newspaper readers and even a few editors. I'd like to call your attention to a few of them here and also plug a Seattle event about the future of the online news business.
Monday, Sept. 17, at 6:30 p.m. the Washington News Council will sponsor a panel discussion, "Today's News: A 'Webolution' in Progress," at the Central Library downtown. Merrill Brown, the founding editor of MSNBC.com who now is an advisor to NowPublic, will moderate. Panelists will include Cory Bergman, digital media director at KING-TV in Seattle; Josh Feit, news editor of The Stranger in Seattle; Robert Hernandez, senior online producer for The Seattle Times; Alex Johnson, senior producer for MSNBC.com; Joan McCarter, a Seattle-based blogger for Daily Kos; and yours truly. TVW will tape the discussion for later broadcast and streaming. I look forward to learning a few things.
Meanwhile, editors have weighed in on my article about what's wrong with Northwest newspaper Web sites. One of my complaints was about the firewall that some employ to hide some or all content from non-paying readers. I happen to think it's an annoyance that shuts out occasional readers who might otherwise become regular ones. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, which is on the leading edge of the "Webolution," segregates some content but offers a whole lot free. Editor Steve Smith explained their policy:I have always been somewhat puzzled by the criticism of this strategy. You wouldn't expect the newspaper to drop a free paper on your driveway seven days a week. Why should the very same product be free online? On the other hand, the daily paper, which is stale almost the moment it comes off the press, constitutes only about 20 percent of our website's content. All breaking news sits outside the fireall. We also post stories aimed for print on the web as soon as they're done and they are free. Our blogs (which also break news), multi-media, photo slide shows, etc. are all free. Our entertainment section, calendars and so on are all free on that section's separate website.
S-R Online Director Ryan Pitts commented that the newspaper is in the middle of a major technological refurbishment and redesign that will address my complaint about poor display of still photography. I really hate the phrase "get it" with reference to the Web, but these guys in Spokane really do, and I look forward to seeing what's next.
From Tacoma, News-Tribune online Editor Mark Briggs took issue with my premise in general and a few things in particular, both in the comments on our article and in his blog, Online in the South Sound.Working in the online newspaper world for the past seven years, I can safely state that Washington state is blessed with some of the best online newspapers in the nation. The web sites for the Seattle Times, Spokesman-Review and News Tribune have all received national awards in the past couple years for their online presence. (A few years earlier, the Herald in Everett even picked up a few national nods for innovation.) And the P-I, in my opinion, has one of the better newspaper web sites in the country with massive offerings of photo galleries, robust reader blogs and first-rate staff blogs. Of course, we could all do better. We make the most of our resources and technology, but there's always room to do more. Mr. Taylor, however, misses most of what makes our sites worth visiting with his rather uninformed critique published today.
Briggs says I'm wrong about the paper posting articles after I get up at 5 a.m. True enough, you can get them via RSS around 1 a.m. But I swear that until recently the home page wasn't refreshed until much later. (After Briggs posted his protest, I asked Dave Neiwert, our assistant editor who filled in for me for a couple of weeks last month, if I was imagining this late update of their home page, and he agreed that the News Tribune site was static until well after news articles moved via RSS. In any event, it's apparently not the case now.)
Briggs continues:Additionally, he looks at this feature from a print-first view. We're not waiting for the print deadline to publish news; we post news constantly all day. Friday, we posted 16 new stories by 5 p.m. ... and last year we hosted an estimated 50,000 comments on our news stories. Our blogs feature even more robust discussion and last month accounted for almost 15% of our page views. But he doesn't give us any credit for blogging either, even though our Seahawks Insider blog has won national awards the past two years.
Briggs is correct about all of that, and I regret not including the News Tribune as an example of a site that gets a whole lot right.
But I think given what readers in the Northwest do to make a living (software and Web services, online commerce, games, microchips, very complex machines), we in regional media should strive for a higher standard than the rest of the country. Moreover, while the local papers might be better than their peers elsewhere when it comes to electronic dissemination, readers don't really care about that. The gal who goes to the News Tribune for local news also reads The New York Times or The Washington Post. The bar is very high.
So what are the barriers to excellence? They are substantial. A reader commented that newspapers shouldn't charge for online news because the overhead is so much lower than that of a printed edition, which eats up a lot of material and involves lots of big machines and people to produce and distribute the product. This is true to a point, but as Spokane's Smith said, there are still very high costs related to creating the content, and if you can't raise enough revenue to do that, what's the point?
There's another expense that people give short shrift, and that's the cost of programming. Believe it or not, just about every newspaper or newspaper chain creates, or at least greatly customizes, its own software to present content on the Web. There are very few turnkey software solutions out there that do everything a newspaper needs to do online, fewer still that can handle the volume of data a daily newspaper handles, and integrating the various best solutions to specific tasks is unbelievably time-consuming, and time is money. It's as though everybody had to design and build their own printing press.
Meantime, the software decisions that were made five years ago might be a burden to improvement today. Or the folks at world headquarters have provided the local operation with really bad tools. The solution is to make better decisions and throw a lot of brains at the problem, and that costs money, a lot of money.
So while newspapers watch their print advertising revenue shrink, they're faced with technological challenges outside their core competency. How much to invest in software development and integration? It's a huge factor in what a Web site can offer readers, and I'm not sure local and regional newspapers are investing enough in IT to hang on to their market share.
Maybe there needs to be a major open-source software project for news – something far more ambitious than, say, Drupal.
One last note, and I promise we'll stop writing about this, but we're about to close Crosscut's online survey of readers to collect opinions about Crosscut. We don't have a lot of legacy technology or content, and we'd like your help in helping us decide where to go now that we're up and running.