I've spent seven years working as a writer and editor for Slashdot's parent company. During this time I've been to at least a dozen mainstream journalists' and editors' conferences where the most-asked question was, "How do we adapt to the Internet?" You'd think, with all the smart people working for newspapers, that by now most of them would have figured out how to use the Internet effectively enough that it would produce a significant percentage of their profits. But they haven't. In this essay I will tell you why they've failed to adapt, and what they must do if they want to survive in a world where the Internet dominates the news business.I'm going to use the Bradenton Herald as an example, not because it's a bad newspaper but because I live in the middle of its circulation area. The Herald is a typical Knight Ridder small-city newspaper in every way except one: it serves Manatee County, an area with a fast-growing population where most new residents are old enough that they grew up reading newspapers every day. Despite these favorable factors, the Herald's circulation has declined by 3.5% in the last year. Of course, newspaper circulation declines are now normal rather than exceptional. Other newspapers have done far worse, with the San Francisco Chronicle recording a 16.4% drop in the last six months alone.
Readership vs. Circulation
Much of the Chron's circulation decrease was because it stopped giving away free papers. The Boston Globe also stopped a giveaway program and suffered a circulation decline as a result, although only about half as big a loss as the Chron's, but the Globe's marketing people have said that only half of the loss came from stopping the giveaways, and blamed the rest of it on the usual suspects, notably TV and the Internet.
These figures only measure paper newspaper circulation. They don't include Web readership, which generally seems to be trending (slowly) upwards on newspaper Web sites. Circulation figures can also be misleading because they only measure the total number of newspapers distributed, not the kind of people who read them. And readership quality can often be more important, in a business sense, than quantity. This is especially true for those newspapers (namely, just about all of them) that rely on advertising for the bulk of their income.
By definition, anyone who reads a newspaper online at home can afford a computer and an Internet connection, which means they aren't at the very bottom of the economic pile. Online readers are also likely to be more open to new experiences, products, and services than those who don't feel they need to use the Internet -- which by some estimates may be as many as half of all households within the Herald's circulation area, which has a higher percentage of retirees than all but a few other U.S. counties.
Journalism professor Douglas Fisher and media executive Alan Mutter have both talked about intentional circulation losses on their blogs. In his post, Fisher says, "The industry evolves to the point of small, expensive print publications and most of the 'mass' news on the Web somehow. Then, as we evolve toward paid content online will come issues such as whether a certain amount of 'base' information should be free for every person -- sort of like a public utility of information (perhaps presented as a social utility necessary in a functioning democratic society)."
Meanwhile, when newspapers talk about readership vs. circulation, they're typically trying to estimate how many people read each copy of their print product (pdf download) rather than come up with a total picture of their publication's readership, including its online presence. This is a mistake. Instead of treating their Web sites like unwelcome stepchildren, newspapers should turn them into their primary method of news delivery -- and teach their reporters, editors, and ad sales people how to work effectively with this new -- to them -- medium.
1. No matter how much I or any other reporter or editor may know about a subject, some of the readers know more. What's more, if you give those readers an easy way to contribute their knowledge to a story, they will.
Imagine a newspaper with a space for comments below each story on its Web site. This Slashdot story has comments directly attached to it, not tucked away from public view the way the Bradenton Herald's site hides reader comments on Bulletin Boards that aren't directly connected to any of the paper's articles or editorials. To make matters worse, the Herald's Bulletin Boards require a separate login to post. Even if you're a logged-in reader you must put in your username and password again to use them.
As a result of these posting barriers, you hardly see any reader comments on the Herald's site, and what few there are seem to come from a small group that posts over and over. Even the Herald's single (hard to find) blog, maintained by token hip-dude entertainment reporter Wade Tatangelo, draws so few daily comments that you could count them on the fingers of one hand -- and usually have four or five fingers left over.
By contrast, the Washington Post's Web site has two blogs, Achenblog and The Debate, prominently displayed on the Opinions page that almost always draw 100+ comments per post.
A truly Web-hip newspaper would not only allow but encourage reader comments on all of its stories, not just on a blog or two. With thousands of readers as fact-checkers, mistakes would rarely go uncorrected for long, and if there was any perceived bias in a controversial article, reader comments would make sure the other side got heard. Even better, a reader who witnessed an event the paper covered would be able to add his or her account of it to the reporter's, which would give other readers a richer and deeper view of it.
2. Not all readers know what they're talking about.
While some readers know more about any given topic than a professional journalist writing about it, most don't. Some, indeed, post anything about anything, including misleading or false information. This is why Slashdot has a moderation system, and why all newspaper Web sites need to have moderation systems in place before they allow reader posts attached directly to stories. Slashdot's, which is built into the code that runs the whole site, is probably too complicated for most newspapers, but everyone (including newspaper publishers) is free to download, use, and modify it. For those who don't want to use the code behind Slashdot, there are many other free (and proprietary) content management programs available that have similar -- and often simpler and less geeky -- moderation features built into them.
3. No matter what you do, some readers will post malicious and/or obscene comments
Slashdot removes posts only in response to Cease and Desist orders or legitimate copyright infringement complaints. We find that malicious or obscene posts are usually moderated into oblivion almost immediately, because our readers -- hundreds of whom have moderation power at any given moment -- have a sharp eye for stupid stuff.
A mainstream newspaper might choose to remove blatantly disgusting posts, which would take some staff time. There would also -- inevitably -- be second-guessing and complaints, including whines from readers who believed their posts were removed because they didn't follow the [fill in political party here] line, not because they used offensive language.
Moderation never makes everyone happy. Someone will always feel the rules are too loose, while someone else will believe they're too tight. And moderates -- I mean moderators -- will always get flak from ____-wingers who think they're biased. But these problems shouldn't stop grown-up newspaper people from soliciting and publishing readers' posts. They should already be accustomed to bias accusations.
4. What if readers post comments that advertisers don't like?
This is a problem, and one to which some newspapers are extremely sensitive --not just over readers' comments but sometimes over their own reporters' stories. A 1999 Washington Monthly article had some examples of how newspapers sometimes cater to advertisers instead of their readers. Allowing readers to comment on stories, and allowing them to post anything they want (other than obscenities, blatant hate speech, and personal attacks) increases readers' faith in the newspaper, which makes it a more effective advertising medium in the long run because some of that trust will rub off on advertisers that support it.
The Business Side of a Newspaper Web Site
Slashdot, like almost all other Web, broadcast, and print media outlets, depends on ad revenue for most of its income. For the first few years of its existence as a commercial entity, major advertisers were afraid to buy ads on Slashdot or other free-wheeling, community-driven sites. They worried that every time they touted a product, all the customers they'd ever irritated would post bad things about them. It's impossible to run a company of any scale without having at least a few dissatisfied customers, no matter how good your products and services are, so this was not an unjustified fear.
Luckily for Slashdot (and our parent company), many companies have learned that they are going to get criticized online whether they like it or not, so at the very worst, running ads on pages where they get slammed gives them a chance to tell their side of the story.
Keyword-based ad placement helps them do this. Imagine making software that's often knocked for its security vulnerabilities, while competing software is available that costs little or nothing and doesn't share your product's problems. You'd want to run a Get the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) campaign on every Web page where the competing product was being discussed so that you could tell people who are (obviously) interested in the competing product how awful it is, and why they should buy yours instead.
On a local newspaper Web site, a developer intent on replacing pristine wilderness along a scenic river with ugly condominium towers in the face of opposition from local citizens' groups could run a keyword-targeted campaign explaining why their buildings would be better than a swampy, mosquito-ridden riverfront. They could stress the fact that they would reduce the population of turtles, spiders, alligators, shore birds, frogs, and other annoying wildlife, and that runoff from their chemically-fertilized landscaping would help keep local fish populations down by contributing to red tide, thereby reducing the number of smelly fishermen infesting the area.
Other, more sensible, businesses would use the same tactic -- keyword ad placement -- to sponsor discussions in a positive way. An obvious example here in Florida would be resort property owners linking ads to tourism-related stories and the discussions attached to them. With geotargeting becoming common on the Web, ads aimed at visitors could be visible to all of a Florida newspaper's online readers, while ads for a local business would only be shown to local residents -- unless the local advertiser was canny enough to realize that Florida has many thousands of seasonal residents, and that reaching these snowbirds through the local newspaper's Web site before they come South is a great way to get a leg up on competitors.
Some other ways to exploit the Web that newspapers don't seem to do well:
- Print-them-yourself coupons. This is lots cheaper than putting coupons in a print newspaper. Many newspapers boast that today's paper contains $___ worth of coupon savings. Why don't more papers make this boast about their online editions? TV stations could do this on their sites, too. This would be an entirely new source of revenue for them, since there is no way to put a coupon in a TV spot.
- Online ad circulars, similar to the paper ones that pack print newspapers on Sundays and holidays. The print ones are expensive to produce and deliver, especially in color. Online circulars would be far less costly.
- Selling sponsorships for community calendars and other "public interest" sections that should be on every newspaper's Web site -- but often aren't or are produced in too scattered a manner to be useful for readers. C'mon, newspaper (and local TV) people! A well-organized, database-driven events calendar is easy to produce. If you don't have one (and sponsors for it), you should.
- Sponsored, "free to individuals and small businesses," local classifieds. craigslist and eBay are busily taking the classified ad market away from newspapers, with Google getting ready to help them with this effort. The Poynter Institute's Steve Outing suggests that the best way to beat back this threat is to "Turn newspaper classifieds into an active and interactive community, instead of just static, dull listings. A cold-hearted newspaper classifieds database could well be smothered by Google classifieds. A local-focused interactive community may be less vulnerable."
I believe the future of not only classified ads but of local news gathering and distribution is the "local-focused interactive community." According to this article, craigslist founder Craig Newmark agrees with me. So do plenty of other Web entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who are busily building and financing "community" sites.
Local newspapers should have dominated all of this interactivity from the beginning. They had the name recognition and -- through their print editions -- the promotional muscle to make their Web sites into unassailable community hubs. But they didn't, and now they're reduced to playing catch-up.
If the Sarasota Herald-Tribune had followed through on its plans to incorporate reader-written blogs into its site, Suncoastblog.com probably wouldn't exist. This group blog is an admittedly lame effort, barely begun, put together by several people in this area (including me) who thought it would be nice to have a local site that might eventually cover events and places that don't make their way into the local papers. We know the Herald-Tribune, whose circulation area overlaps the Bradenton Herald's, had thought about hosting reader blogs at one point, because they asked readers to submit blog ideas several months ago. I submitted one and never heard back.
I also submitted a local computer business column concept to the Herald. I came up with it because the Herald has a Sunday business page it calls "Digital Manatee," on which I have never seen anything other than out-of-town wire service material even though there is more than enough local computer and Internet business activity to fill a weekly column, and enough local computer and computer service vendors to surround that column with profitable advertising.
The Herald's editor didn't respond to my proposal. I've written three computer-oriented books, and thousands of articles that have run online and in print all over the world, but I am apparently not worth even a polite turndown from my local paper's editor. No problem. A week later I was having lunch with a couple of local entrepreneur buddies. I told them what had happened. They suggested an online computer business magazine instead of a Herald column, and offered to finance it on the spot, out of their pockets.
I don't have time to start a new publication. But I am in a position to help someone else start one, and to write a story or two for it now and then. Financing's in place. So is a domain name. So at some point the Herald and Herald-Tribune may have (yet) another niche publication competing with them. It won't be a big competitor, but its ad revenue will come from lucrative business-to-business accounts you'd think a local newspaper would be eager to lock up with a weekly (or more frequent) column for local computer-using business people.
This doesn't mean the Herald has a bad editor or that another small paper would have reacted differently. I use this anecdote only to point out that it is now easier to start an online publication than for even a highly-qualified outsider to get his or her work into a local paper. Is it any wonder that local blogs and other online niche publications are springing up like mad? And as a corollary, is it any wonder that newspaper circulation and influence continues to decline?
Newspapers need to open up more to the communities around them. They need to stop confining their interaction with readers to advisory board meetings and questionnaires, and allow readers' stories, opinions, and thoughts to become an integral part of the newspaper itself. They should not allow readers to alter the newspaper's own words, as the Los Angeles Times did back in June with their laughable wikitorial experiment. Moderated comments are a much better way to give readers a voice. So are journals that allow (logged-in) readers the same level of freedom they'd have with their own blogs, but also give them the cachet of being published on a "major brand" Web site.
'Local' is the Key Word
The Herald, Herald-Tribune, and many other (if not most) local newspapers seem to think that they are still their readers' primary source of national and international news, just as they were 20 years ago. So that's what fills their front pages most of the time, with local and regional news stuck in a "B" or "C" section.
Welcome to the Internet age, local newspaper (and TV) people. I can and do get my national and international news from the New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, Al Jazeera, Fox News, CNN, and other online media that cover faraway events better and faster than you ever will. I turn to you for local news. You tell me more about last week's home invasion robbery on 11th Street East than they ever will.
It's time for local newspapers to become truly local; to feature local news on the front pages of both their Web sites and print editions, with only a few out-of-the-area stories up front, augmented by an above-the-fold story list that tells readers where to find national and international news on their inside pages.
Add readers' stories and comments to the mix and you suddenly have a local online community, not just a newspaper. This will not take work away from professional reporters, photographers, and editors, who will still be the foundation of local news-gathering. In fact, increased interaction with local community members will probably give them more work than ever, because they will find themselves inundated with news tips and story suggestions they never would have found on their own. Some of these story ideas will be dreck and some will be invaluable. It will be up to the newspaper's editors to find the (rare) nuggets in the huge pile of dross they will need to sort through every day, and up to the newspaper's reporters to follow up on them.
One important thing a community-oriented, Web-based newspaper must do is credit readers for their story leads unless they specifically request anonymity. Another good idea is to pay readers who submit news stories that are written well enough that they can run with only routine editing and fact-checking. Those readers are, in effect, doing a reporter's work, and they should get some sort of compensation for it. Some may even turn into stringers capable of covering government meetings and other events when staff reporters aren't available, and a few of those stringers eventually ought to become staff members. After all, if a newspaper is going to be about, by, and for its local community, shouldn't that community be its primary recruiting ground?
Newspapers Will Not Die
Some newspapers (and newspaper chains) will probably not survive the shift from news-as-monologue to news-as-dialog. Most will, although those that wait too long to adjust will have much of their audience, influence, and ad revenue taken away by more agile competitors.
The smartest newspapers will follow my survival recipe or come up with their own way to become an integral part of their community instead of a building full of people who have been sprinkled with Secret Journalism Powder that makes them better and smarter than their readers. These newspapers will not only survive, but prosper. They may even become the prime outlets for bloggers in their communities, which will increase their readership and ad revenue. Extreme ____-wing bloggers won't want their words associated with the hated Mainstream Media, but most others will be happy to have a widely-read, influential outlet for their work.
Eventually, I expect print newspapers to become "snapshots" of their Web editions taken at 1 a.m. or another arbitrary time, poured into page templates and massaged a little by layout people, then sent to the printing presses, a pattern that has potential for significant production cost reductions if handled adroitly. From that point on, their paper editions will be distributed the same way newspapers are now.
Senior citizens and others who can't afford (or don't want) computers are and will continue to be a viable market. So will commuters who use public transportation. Then there are those -- a substantial part of the population -- who simply prefer reading words and looking at pictures on paper to seeing them on a screen. They will still want physical newspapers, even if they are not as up-to-date or as complete as what they'd get on the Web.
However it is delivered, text will not go away anytime soon. For a fast reader, it is the most efficient way to take in large quantities of information. Most people speak at a rate of between 130 and 200 words per minute. Most college students, according to a Virginia Tech student guide, can read non-technical material at 250 to 300 words per minute, and can increase that reading speed significantly with a little thought and practice. Listening to a city council meeting at 150 words per minute takes much longer than reading a meeting transcript at two, three, four or ten times that speed. Now have a skilled reporter -- whether a staff member, paid contributor or volunteer -- write an intelligent summary of that meeting, and even an average reader can learn what happened there in a few minutes instead of slogging through a two hour audio or video recording.
The Web version of that summary can be posted without waiting for the printing presses and delivery trucks to roll, and can have audio or video snippets embedded in it, but there is no reason not to make the text portion of it available on paper for those who prefer it in that form, unless the paper's editors decide so few people are interested in a city council meeting that it doesn't deserve a spot in the print version -- and tracking page readership on the Web version of the paper before the paper edition goes to press should give those editors a good idea of what they should and shouldn't put on paper.
Printed newspapers will have a significant following for many years to come. They may or may not become "expensive," as Professor Fisher predicts, but they will likely become smaller than they are now, and subscription sales efforts will probably be targeted more closely at groups unlikely to have Internet connections, especially senior citizens.
On the Web side, it's likely that newspapers will end up keeping most of their content free, with specialty sections (and posting privileges) reserved for logged-in users. Whether they'll be able to charge for some or all of their Web content is questionable. I paid $50 for a year's subscription to the NYT's Times Select program, and I don't think it's a good enough value that I'll renew my subscription when it runs out. I would be more likely to pay if I lived in New York and that subscription, in addition to what it gives me now, offered access to additional features like complete transcripts of government meetings. Indeed, I would happily pay at least $30 per year to the Bradenton Herald for a well-organized Web edition that gave me what I now get in the paper edition, plus government meeting transcripts and other useful subscriber-only features.
But if I paid for an online subscription to the Herald, I'd probably drop my subscription to the paper edition. I'd still be the same person, with the same interests, earning power and spending habits. The only thing that would change about me, from the newspaper's perspective, would be my news delivery preference.
The challenge for local newspapers that beef up their Web editions at the expense of their paper versions won't be to keep (or add) readers, but to teach advertisers that the Web, not paper, is the best way to reach their most lucrative potential customers.
This may not be easy, but it will be a lot easier than explaining to advertisers why they should keep spending money in a newspaper that has fewer readers, and less influence, every year.