The bad and the ugly of Northwest newspaper Web sites

We're asking for your input with a Crosscut reader survey, so we thought we'd offer some advice ourselves – to the regional papers we're reading online.
Crosscut archive image.

Hey, where's the picture? Somewhere else.

We're asking for your input with a Crosscut reader survey, so we thought we'd offer some advice ourselves – to the regional papers we're reading online.

As our publisher, David Brewster, mentioned a couple of days ago, we're conducting Crosscut's first annual reader survey, and we'd appreciate your feedback. The response so far has been great, but the more the better, sample size and all that. Bring it on! Mission not yet accomplished!

People have been clicking on the online survey and also leaving comments on David's earlier post, and as is usual here on Crosscut, the level of civility and thoughtfulness is inspiring.

All the feedback got me thinking about the past five months since we launched Crosscut, and I thought it might be helpful if we provided some feedback, too – to some of the other Web sites we've been reading. My biggest concern lies with the mainstream newspaper sites, having worked in print for more than 30 years. I want them to thrive. They're the journalism outlets doing the heavy lifting. But their business model is in crisis, and they aren't reacting fast enough to the online onslaught.

Every day, I get up at 5 a.m., walk across the hall, and start reading the news from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, Montana, and Alaska. I also quickly scan the national papers for news about the Northwest. Yes, during this early portion of my workday I am in my bathrobe. You would be, too.

I choose up to a dozen top stories I deem essential or compelling, write headlines and summaries, and post them in the far-left column of every page in a feature we call Top of the News. Lesser but noteworthy stuff I post in Clicker, a more-frequently updated news tool which can be found at the top of the home page and, in its entirety, on this page.

Later in the morning, our assistant editor, David Neiwert, logs in and picks up the scan of news and blogs around the region and continues to update the site. Crosscut gets up at 5 a.m. and works all day long so you don't have to! Oh, did I mention we're conducting a reader survey?

So here's what I'm finding: With a couple of exceptions, newspaper Web sites in the Northwest are doing their content a great injustice. One could conclude that the editors running these sites aren't online news consumers themselves, because a lot of what they're doing makes no sense at all. But the truth probably is they know exactly how screwed up their sites are and are doing their best in the face of insufficient tools, lack of staff, and incompetence back at corporate headquarters.

We readers don't really care what their excuses are, though, do we? Let the flogging begin.

  • It's not news until we get around to posting it: How dare you expect to read the news in the afternoon or evening. These are morning papers! That's when the news will be ready for you.

    An exception is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which posts articles as they clear the copy desk in the late afternoon and evening. Bravo! The Seattle Times, otherwise the best local-newspaper Web site in the region, doesn't get this. While breaking stories get posted as they're available, routine news and features go live sometime after midnight, all at once. Why?

    The News Tribune in Tacoma freshens its site even later, sometime after I get up in the morning, so I check it last. Not the best way to influence the regional agenda – or the D.C. congressional delegation. But the worst example of timelessness is the Eugene Register-Guard, which posts the news at noon. On purpose. Let that be lesson to those of you who don't subscribe to the dead-tree edition.

  • If you aren't a paying subscriber, we don't want you as a reader: Or we're going to let you read only some of our stories. The Spokane Spokesman-Review and the British Columbia edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail do this. If you don't want the Spokesman-Review print edition, you can pay $7 a month to get full online access. Otherwise, you can only read the top stories. Besides this being an odd price point, it's kind of a regressive policy for a paper that otherwise is an online innovator. I can watch the daily news planning meeting for free, live, but I can't read all the stories?

    Some of the smaller papers limit all content to print subscribers or charge for online access. These include the jointly owned Lewiston Morning Tribune ($7 a month for online only) and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News ($6 a month). Maybe this is working for them revenue-wise, with those fees more than compensating for fewer advertising impressions, but it's not working for me. The Skagit Valley Herald used to do this but recently opened its Web site to everyone. Smart move, I say.

  • Do not discuss amongst yourselves: Few newspapers let readers comment at the bottom of articles. (A notable exception is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) The most important, distinguishing content on a newspaper's Web site usually is behind glass. Attention newspaper editors: If you don't let your readers comment on and discuss your news stories, someone else will. It's already happening on blogs and news aggregation sites.

  • We can't be bothered to post all these pictures: This is a real puzzler. Papers as big as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Spokane Spokesman-Review don't post all of their photos online, or do so in postage-stamp form, or only on index pages. The P-I has been improving in this regard, but the S-R's failure to leverage photography is particularly puzzling, given its willingness to experiment with live and edited video. The Oregonian in Portland has great photos online, but they reside in a special tool apart from the stories they illustrate. The Web is giving new life to still photography. It's low-bandwidth content you already have in electronic form. You're paying a lot of people to take these photos. Let us see them!

  • Hey, now that we have blogs, we can post all that stuff that wasn't newsworthy enough to make it into the real paper: Too many newspaper blogs are cluttered with rewritten press releases and get-a-load-of-this time-wasters. Break some news! For a lesson on how to do a newspaper blog right, read Geoff Baker, John Cook, David Postman, and Todd Bishop. Frequent, fresh, informative. Often their posts wind up becoming conventional news stories, because they're actually practicing journalism with their blogs. Baker stands apart in the way he engages his readership. Alternative newspapers like The Stranger and Seattle Weekly often beat the dailies with news on their blogs, which are in some cases the most-read online content they offer.

OK, Crosscutters, add your thoughts below about these and other journalism Web sites in the Northwest. And if anyone out there at a paper I've mentioned wants to explain, this is the place to do it. If you want to comment about Crosscut, go to David Brewster's earlier post.  

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