Still at Newspapers 1.x

I’m late weighing in on the New York Times’ reported decision to drop Times Select. But not on calling it a bad idea in the first place. Nor on offering alternative ways of looking at both problems and opportunities for newspapers in a networked world.

Rather than just point to what I’ve already said (in my now-mothballed old blog), I’ll just repeat it here:

  1. Stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There’s advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow’s fishwrap behind paywalls. (Dean Landsman was the first to call this a “fishwrap fee”.) Writers hate it. Readers hate it. Worst of all, Google and Yahoo and Technorati and Icerocket and all your other search engines ignore it. Today we see the networked world through search engines. Hiding your archives behind a paywall makes your part of the world completely invisilble. If you open the archives, and make them crawlable by search engine spiders, your authority in your commmunity will increase immeasurably. (This point is proven by Santa Barbara vs. Fort Myers, both with papers called News-Press, one with contents behind a paywall and the other wide open.) Plus, you’ll open all that inventory to advertising possibilities. And I’ll betcha you’ll make more money with advertising than you ever made selling stale editorial to readers who hate paying for it. (And please, let’s not talk about Times Select. Your paper’s not the NY Times, and the jury is waaay out on that thing.)
  2. Start featuring archived stuff on the paper’s website. Link back to as many of your archives as you can. Get writers in the habit of sourcing and linking to archival editorial. This will provide paths for search engine spiders to follow back in those archives as well. Result: more readers, more authority, more respect, higher PageRank and higher-level results in searches. In fact, it would be a good idea to have one page on the paper’s website that has links (or links to links, in an outline) back to every archived item.
  3. Link outside the paper. Encourage reporters and editors to write linky text. This will encourage reciprocity on the part of readers and writers who appreciate the social gesture that a link also performs. Over time this will bring back enormous benefits through increased visits, higher respect, more authority and the rest of it.
  4. Start following, and linking to, local bloggers and even competing papers (such as the local arts weeklies). You’re not the only game in town anymore, and haven’t been for some time. Instead you’re the biggest fish in your pond’s ecosystem. Learn to get along and support each other, and everybody will benefit.
  5. Start looking toward the best of those bloggers as potential stringers. Or at least as partners in shared job of informing the community about What’s Going On and What Matters Around Here. The blogosphere is thick with obsessives who write (often with more authority than anybody inside the paper) on topics like water quality, politics, road improvement, historical preservation, performing artisty and a zillion other topics. These people, these writers, are potentially huge resources for you. They are not competitors. The whole “bloggers vs. journalism” thing is a red herring, and a rotten one at that. There’s a symbiosis that needs to happen, and it’s barely beginning. Get in front of it, and everybody will benefit.
  6. Start looking to citizen journalists (CJs) for coverage of hot breaking local news topics — such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and so on. There are plenty of people with digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones and other devices that can prove mighty handy for following stories up close and personally. Great example: what Sig Solares and his crew did during Katrina.
  7. Stop calling everything “content”. It’s a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the ’90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online. It’s handy, but it masks and insults the true natures* of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call “editorial”. Your job is journalism, not container cargo.
  8. Uncomplicate your webistes. I can’t find a single newspaper that doesn’t have a slow-loading, hard-to-navigate, crapped-up home page. These things are aversive, confusing and often useless beyond endurance. Simplify the damn things. Quit trying to “drive traffic” into a maze where every link leads to another route through of the same mess. You have readers trying to learn something, not cars looking for places to park. And please, get rid of those lame registration systems. Quit trying to wring dollars out of every click. I guarantee you’ll sell more advertising to more advertisers reaching more readers if you take down the barricades and (again) link outward more. And you’ll save all kinds of time and hassle.
  9. Get hip to the Live Web. That’s the one with verbs such as write, read, update, post, author, subscribe, syndicate, feed and link. This is the part of the Web that’s growing on top of the old Static Web of nouns such as site, address, location, traffic, architecure and construction. Nothing wrong with any of those static nouns (or their verb forms). They’re the foundation, the bedrock. They are necessary but insufficient for what’s needed on the Live Web, which is where your paper needs to live and grow and become more valuable to its communities (as well as Wall Street).
  Lemme unpack that a bit. The Static Web is what holds still long enough for Google and Yahoo to send out spiders to the entire universe and index what they find. The Live Web is is what’s happening right now. It’s dynamic. (Thank you, Virginia.) It includes all the stuff that’s syndicated through RSS and searched by Google Blogsearch, IceRocket and Technorati. What I post here, and what others post about this post, will be found and indexed by Live Web search engines in a matter of minutes. For those who subscribe to feeds of this blog, and of other blogs, the notification is truly live. Your daily paper has pages, not sites. The difference is not “just semantic”. It’s fundamental. It’s how you reclaim, and assert, your souls in the connected world. It’s also how you shed dead conceptual weight, get light and nimble, and show Wall Street how you’re not just ahead of the curve, but laying pavement beyond everybody else’s horizon. It’s how your leverage the advantages of history, of incumbency, and of already being in a going business. (The hard part will be raising your paper’s heartbeat from once a day to once a second. But you can do it. Your own heart sets a good example.)
  10. Publish Rivers of News for readers who use Blackberries or Treos or Nokia 770s, or other handheld Web browsers. Your current home page, and all your editorial pages, are torture to read with those things. See the example Dave Winer provides with a from the NY Times. See what David Sifry did for the Day Fire here in California. Don’t try to monetize it right away. Trust me, you’ll make a lot more money — and get a lot more respect from Wall Street — because you’ve got news rivers, than you’ll make with those rivers.
  * One more…
  11. Remember the higher purpose behind the most informative writing — and therefore behind newspapers as well. To review,
  I don’t think of my what I do here as production of “information” that others “consume”. Nor do I think of it as “one-to-many” or “many-to-many”. I thnk of it as writing that will hopefully inform readers.
  Informing is not the same as “delivering information”. Inform is derived from the verb to form. When you inform me, you form me. You enlarge that which makes me most human: what I know. I am, to some degree, authored by you.
  What we call “authority” is the right we give others to author us, to enlarge us.
  The human need to increase what we know, and to help each other do the same, is what the Net at its best is all about. Yeah, it’s about other things. But it needs to be respected as an accessory to our humanity. And terms like “social media”, forgive me, don’t do that. (At least not for me.

Speaking of news rivers, David Sifry has just created one for the Zaca Fire. Much appreciated.

37 comments

  1. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    “1. Stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There’s advertising money there.”

    Doc, that’s not about advertising money. Newsrooms are focused on events and the daily report. News is the semi-monastic product: What’s important, a big story, what will be popular with readers. It’s territorial, and ads are for another department. The newsroom is fueled by is the Fourth Estate goal of an informed society, and a “No, you don’t…” bunch raised on comic book heroes . The news, the informed populace, the right to know, is journalism.

    Each is member to the degree he or she can

    And the lawyers are important when there’s power at stake, fer sure.

    The thankless job is the breaking news beat reporter who always gets only the first facts of the event (“Shooting at Burger King during dinner hour!”) and not the eventual story. (“Why is everybody else on the other side of the buiding?”)

  2. Some great advice from the Doctor » mathewingram.com/media’s avatar

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    [...] Searls has an excellent post up with some advice for newspapers trying to make their websites better. One quibble: he’s still trying to push [...]

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  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    When I wrote “Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There’s advertising money there”, I was referring to the now common practice of breaking stories into many parts in order to expose readers to more advertising as they jump from page to page. (I’ve seen stories broken into as many as nine pieces.) This is a huge reason why newspapers give away news online that they sell on the street and to subscribers.

    The practices of reporting may be no different than they were in the print-only world, but the display of the reported product is very different. The “other department” now gives away editorial online, for the simple reason that it can sell advertising alongside stories broken into many parts.

  8. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Ah, I see. I associate that most with about.com.

    I agree with lots of what you say. The logistics are hard. And the hierarchies are print people.

    Many of the problems you mention stem from rigid “content management systems” that don’t integrate well with the Web (and don’t talk to the offsite Movable Type blogs at all), and the lack of programmers in newsroom positions to open up other options.

    Unless reporters are writing specifically for news blogs, linking out is awkward. Long urls break in print.

    And finally, staff cuts have those who remain scrambling to cover what they can.

    Can I create a river of news? Our programmer tells me she can’t combine the output to section indexes into one chronological feed. I’ve been able to make rivers of blog headlines, and can import them to the Web site by making a javascript template of x number of headlines within Movable Type, then bringing it in.

    Finally, while I cringe at “content,” too, I can’t come up with a better term. “Editorial,” as you note, is adjectival and, within newsrooms, refers to the publisher’s opinion pages. “Stuff” doesn’t cut it.

  9. Hoover’s Business Insight Zone » What will save the newspaper business? - Hoover's’s avatar

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  10. The Obstructionist » They Print Newspapers, Don’t They?’s avatar

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  11. Jim Bursch’s avatar

    Give people who are ready, willing and eager to pay for the news a fall-down easy way to buy it, free of ads.

    But you have to price it reasonably. I’m glad to pay for the newsroom, but I don’t want to pay for the bloated ad-delivery infrastructure.

    Jeff Jarvis recently posted that he is a huge fan of the television program “Weeds,” but there is no way for him to see the latest episodes, even though he is ready, willing and able to pay to do so.
    http://www.buzzmachine.com/2007/08/13/weeds-spread/

    It’s taken as canon that people are not willing to pay for news, but that is only true when you can get it for free someplace else. People will pay for news that they value and can’t get any other way.

    Right now, the industry simply isn’t structured to be supported by the audience. The reason Jeff Jarvis can’t get his “Weeds” and I can’t get my ad-free L.A. Times is that those producers are geared for advertisers, not the audience.

    This is an industry in the throes of creative destruction, but the new cannot emerge until the old is dead and buried. We are stuck in the eulogy while the grave digger patiently waits.

  12. John Cass’s avatar

    Point 7 struck me as being the most interesting among your list. To me that means what is the role of a paper, and what work should the journalists and editors be doing compared to work that might be generated by bloggers and other collaborators. This is an issue of developing content (sorry to use that word) which costs a lot to produce.

    And Jim’s point about the business model is the other side of the coin. What can a newspaper do to help build their business model. Therefore if we can focus on two issues, keeping costs low while producing the most quality, and finding ways to generate more money we will have a better model for jouranlism.

    I recently found an example of sponsorship on slashdot.org where intel sponsored a forum on the site in a separate website. The company did not want to advertise and thought that chatting with slashdot.org readers made more sense in that environment. What do you think of this idea and other sponsorship ideas?

    Oh, also the Boston Hearld is finding sponsors to sponsor their papers for free for the day at T stops. In order to compete with BostonNow and the Metro. That makes sense to me as well.

  13. Howard Owens’s avatar

    Some paper some where is doing one or more of what you say. Unfortunately, there are none I know of doing it all (though I’m working toward fixing that).

    There are lots of interesting experiments going on throughout the industry. It’s inexplicable that some of these things have taken so long to develop. But there is movement. The odd thing is, there are a large number of newspaper online executives who would agree with everything you say, and did five or ten years ago, but for various reasons, implementation of much of it hasn’t happened or hasn’t been possible.

    There are a couple of really well designed, easy to navigate, fast to load newspaper sites out there. I’ve been involved in getting a couple of them launched.

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    About the word “content,” I agree with you (Sheila and John) that it’s hard, if not impossible, to avoid at this point. I still prefer “editorial,” even if it’s an adjective, because it doesn’t suggest container cargo. But, as Sheila points out, that has other problems too.

    I am going to put myself entirely alone on the business model topic, by suggesting that — in the long run — the readers are going to pay for the paper, or the paper will go away.

    Two reasons. First, in time advertising will fade down, or away, as customers and advertisers find better ways of reaching and relating to each other. Second, in time readers will obtain better ways of paying for “content” than they have now — ways with far more options and far less friction. Ways that allow the paper to relate more directly with its readers.

    If papers look for more money (or any money) only from the same old sources (advertisers), they’ll be up a creek. Because that creek will run dry.

    The editorial relationship that always mattered was the one between writers and readers. In the long run, the same will be true of the economic relationship.

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  16. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    My personal business model stems from some of the same thinking as yours, Doc, but goes in a different direction, because I passionately believe that an informed society needs news to be free. It’s like public education — we need it because widespread illiteracy is feudal, and impedes progress.

    So we need better ways for customers and advertisers to relate right now: F’rinstance, local ads on news sites that offer a sale product you can buy online with an impulsive click.

    With that ad, the business would get a rudimentary inventory system/counter (till x number are sold, like Woot) and a temporary shopping cart for that product.

    When I was a kid, my mom the shopper would take a bus downtown, purchase things and say, “Charge and send it.” The next day a UPS truck delivered the stuff. This is that process online. Newspapers already own similar delivery trucks, should they want to repurpose them. Or it could be handled by other local businesses (like eBay pack-and-ship joints) for these specific products. It’s hyperlocal.

    Without registration — you want the shoppers to come into the store! — the news org would know plenty about you the moment you use your credit card on the site.

    Some people used to buy the Wednesday paper just for the food ads and coupons. Similar shopping traffic could be generated if the ads were useful and fun.

    If many come only for the news, these new visitors to the site — shoppers — could put a market alongside the news, and carry the freight.

    Convenience, reputation, participation: An ads blog could publish them all, so you wouldn’t to reload till the pet store ad pops up for you. Customers could ask for products: “Put tulip bulbs on sale here, please!” would probably get a better response from a local nursery advertiser than Jeff is getting from asking BigMedia for a Weeds feed.

    And it helps local businesses stay in business.

    Newpaper businesses have long held a near-monopoly on the distribution of local advertising. But there’s complex software involved here, and no expertise in brokering commerce between businesses and readers, so this business model is scary, way outside the comfort zone of those who rose in the tradition of selling only display space.

    But that could change in the face of yet-worse fates.

  17. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Whoa: “Put tulip bulbs on sale here, please!” would probably get a better response from a local nursery advertiser than Jeff is getting from asking BigMedia for a Weeds feed.

    Good points, Sheila.

    What you’re talking about here is better relationships all around. Jim put his finger on the problem we have now: The reason Jeff Jarvis can’t get his “Weeds” and I can’t get my ad-free L.A. Times is that those producers are geared for advertisers, not the audience.

    It’s about relationships.

    Most papers’ websites are about advertisers and visitors, not writers and readers. That’s because advertisers are where the money comes from; and when the going gets tough, money talks loudest.

    Your points about “rigid content management systems” at most papers testify to these skewed priorities. Even for print pubs, the new frame or reference — and the one that will be with us for the duration — is the linky world of the Web. The old print-driven models cannot survive. In papers that live, writers will be endouraged (and not merely able) to write linky text. And that text will persist in accessible, linkable archives. It won’t disappear behind a paywall that’s about nothing more than “monetizing content.”

    As long as papers make writers suffer with old CMSes, and continue burying old “content” behind paywalls, proof will persist that they don’t see the writing on that wall.

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  19. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Doc, you know a lot of software creators. Much of what you’re asking could be accomplished by having your buds build the features you want into software for news sites.

    The factory floor is littered with ideas Web producers don’t have the tools to create.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on the just-released Movable Type 4 — it looks like it will let me share my access to the press with other writers and readers.

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  23. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Programmers working on their own time are a very independent breed, and when they write code it tends to be the kind that scratches their own itches. It’s hard for others to tell them what to do, unless it’s for money. Then they might do it. Meanwhille that independence is what gave us Moveable Type. It’s also what gave us WordPress, which is what I’m using now. My the way, Moveable Type 4 is open source, which most earlier versions were not; so I have high hopes for it.

    I also suspect that most of the code required is already out there, in one form or another. What we need is for just one paper, or chain owner, to step up and start rebuilding the paper around the Web, instead of vice versa — and to hire programmers to put together the software pieces required.

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  25. Nick’s avatar

    I’m one of those programmers and you hit the spot with ‘unless it’s for money’. Anyway moveable type 4 is a great success and I have good experiences with it.

    As for the news, maybe the open source ways could be adapted to it, and open the news for everyone.

    Regards,

    Nick
    Open Source Pixels

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  29. Nothing but the Truth’s avatar

    “Two reasons. First, in time advertising will fade down, or away, as customers and advertisers find better ways of reaching and relating to each other. Second, in time readers will obtain better ways of paying for “content” than they have now — ways with far more options and far less friction. Ways that allow the paper to relate more directly with its readers.

    If papers look for more money (or any money) only from the same old sources (advertisers), they’ll be up a creek. Because that creek will run dry.”

    Ummmmmmmmm don’t forget that the little creek called “Ad revenue” won’t always be dry cause droughts come and go.
    Some years you get more rain which in this case will be people from Google and Yahoo while other years you’ll be wondering if it was such a smart thing and have to have emergency plans.

    Some years there will be a storm of the century of internet users if there is lots going on.

  30. Family Tents’s avatar

    My kids are in their 30′s and 40, and none subscribes to a newspaper. That says a lot about the future of the current business model. And deservedly so in today’s world of instant communications. By the time you read something in the newspaper, it is old news. That was acceptable 50 or 100 years ago, but not today. Newspapers need a new business model, but unfortunately for them it seems that the instant news business is already over-populated. The last thing we need is another news feed. The future looks bleak indeed for print news.

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