Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

Why newspaper Web sites are catered to print readers and the problems it causes

I’m currently doing  a work experience stint with The Daily Telegraph, working on their Web site, telegraph.co.uk. I had a conversation yesterday with the editor of the site about the design. I asked if perhaps the blogs should be more prominent.

He agreed with what I was saying, but we weren’t able to come away with a solid solution. Perhaps over the next few weeks one will emerge. The most interesting thing that came up in our chat was the suggestion that The Telegraph’s site — and the sites of many other newspapers — are designed with the intention of it mimicking the print product.

Data shows that the people who are consuming news on the Web are younger than those who turn first to print. Why, then, are newspaper Web sites designed as digital versions of the print product?

I realized the answer as soon as I asked it: People who consume news on the Web don’t visit the sites themselves. They’re linked in through aggregators and feeds. Often they don’t have to navigate the site because the content they want is delivered right to to them.

What we have is a viscious circle that has the potential for stifling creativity and the evolution of Web news. But it also poses a problem. The data says one thing, but it also says something to contradict it. The industry demands that you have a solid Web site, but the market shows young people like their news highly customized. That often means making the news come to them, not the other way around.

I don’t have a solution for this, but I wanted to get it down while it was fresh in my mind. It’s a strange position to be in. Undoubtedly aggregators will continue to grow and become more widespread. What that means for the actual Web sites of news organizations remains to be seen.

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Filed under: Uncategorized

J-school & Web development: A perfect match

An interesting article was floating around Twitter a few days ago. It appeared in Editor & Publisher and was written by Seth Porges, who is currently an editor at Popular Mechanics magazine.

The subject he addressed was whether j-schools are adequately preparing students for the real world – and in it suggesting they’ve misstepped.

His thesis statement is that j-schools are too quick to adopt new media standards, such as basic Web coding, and are in the process throwing out pre-existing elements of core curriculum that should remain.

In this blog post I take chunks of what Mr Porges said, and give my thoughts and opinions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, student journalism, , , , ,

The next newspaper crisis: poorly designed Web sites

Before CityOnline Magazine went live I decided to test it on a few people. It was a pretty level-one design then (and still is) but it was more or less what the site would look like when it launched.

Each time I would show it, I noticed people would often tell me that the site looked “clean”. That word, “clean”, in terms of Web design, is important because it’s a sort-of loaded term. It also touches on an important issue present in the development of Web sites for print operations.

Pressed further, the consensus on what “clean” meant to them, the response often was that the site was not cluttered and that it appeared easy to navigate. What designer doesn’t want to hear that?

As the print establishment crumbles, beneath the sighs and cries about the death of the once-sacred industry, there’s been a call to action to the Web. It’s the new must-have item: a tricked-out Web site for their readers.

This is a failed strategy.

Here are screen shots of the homepages of a few Web news outlets. Most of them are newspapers. After the image, I’ll explain what I like (and dislike) about the design. My opinion matters insofar as I’m both a journalist and an avid Web user.

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Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, ,

Thoughts from the “Practices in Online Journalism” roundtable

Earlier today City University London hosted a roundtable discussion on its campus titled “Practices in Online Journalism”. Throughout the roundtable I was Tweeting updates using the hashtag #pioj. Here are some of the Tweets, followed by more in-depth thoughts on the subjects. You’ll notice that most of these are just statements unattributed to a single speaker. I’m more interested in what was said than who said it, in this instance.

Gather as wide range of skills as you can so you can show you’re competant across different platforms“.

This subject came up a few different times throughout the session. It’s the idea that students in journalism school today should not be tied to a singular medium. It’s time to face facts that simply being a good reporter won’t cut it in this era of journalism. Fifteen years ago you’d be OK. Probably even as recently as 10 years ago. But not in 2009.

Discussion turned to business models for online journalism. The industry is trying to figure out not only how to be sustainable, but to be profitable, too. But you’ve got to learn to walk before you run, so I suspect the online journalism industry is a good while away from being profitable. I suspect that doesn’t come as much consolation to the 6,169+ who’ve so far lost their jobs in the U.S.

But what if it isn’t the journalism that needs to make money, but the method in which the journalism is distributed? Here’s a note from Matteo Berlucci, CEO of Livestation.

For entrepreneurism in journalism, the money is in the service, not the content

He followed this up by explaining why he prefers to use iTunes to get music over the peer-to-peer networks. It’s because he can get the songs quickly, and transfer them to his Mp3 player in a matter of seconds after purchasing. Matteo suggested that this may be a model for news outlets.

We’ve heard about the iTunes model for news and we know it’s mostly rubbish. But that’s not what Matteo is referring to. He’s suggesting that news outlets, whether their newspapers, magazines, or strictly on the Web, need to deliver the news to their readers in their preferred format and to be able to constantly evolve as their readers’ habits evolve.

The rise in popularity of news on the Web has meant that consumers have more options than ever to stay informed in whichever way suits them. This was another subject addressed.

“People can now comparison shop for news.”

It’s unlikely that someone will have just one place they like to go for news, just as it’s unlikely that you’re only going to go to one coffee shop every day. People’s moods change, their beliefs change and their interests change. Personally I visit about 10 different news sites regularly. But each day I’m exposed to new ones. The ones I like, I’ll bookmark and revisit. It’s not possible for a news outlet to be everything to everyone. Brand loyalty in the news is a thing of the past.

And one final note from the roundtable, this time about prospects for student journalists:

“There’s a window of opportunity for people leaving jschool who know how to do multimedia.”

There’s a now-widely read post from Nieman Labs discussing why young journalists need to get beyond their institutional mindsets. Toward the end it notes that many newspaper editors who have young journalists in their newsrooms are finding that these young people aren’t fitting the stereotype that they should be full of angst, ready to change the industry.

I’m going to suggest that the people who are set to change it, the young people, that is, are still in school. In the next 2-3 years, as they begin to filter through their respective programs and into newsrooms, they’ll be the ones who more fully understand social media, who know how to shoot and edit video, and who want to change things.

Filed under: newspaper websites, social media, student journalism, , , ,

Third Way social media: Let’s outsource it

Newsrooms worldwide are grappling with the implications of having to suddenly become adept at utilizing social media to promote their Web sites. Writers complain that it’s not in their job description; they don’t want to; or they just plain don’t know how.

Because  so many newsrooms remain pretty far in the Dark Ages of new media the task of outfitting an entire newsroom is a daunting task. Some will write up a plan, circulate it around their newsroom and hope it implements itself.

For those in the “hope it fixes itself” camp, you may be interested in who I met yesterday at a media job fair at City University London. During the fair I chatted with two representatives of Agency:2, a London-based social media agency. I was a bit confused about what a ‘social media agency’ does, so I decided to ask.

What they do is assist organizations with their social media needs. Asked if this meant organizations were just outsourcing their social media strategy to them, they nodded in agreement

I asked if their clients set out benchmarks for them and they said not really. The company goes in and establishes their client’s social media footprint, tracks what people are saying about their client, and helps their client remain competitive within the social media sphere. Since social media is still in its experimental stage, everyone — including these social media agencies — is still determining what works and what does not.

An excerpt from their Web site:

We promote brands within influential online communities. We do this by deploying our writers to actively participate within discussions on popular and highly targeted user generated sites such as forums, blogs and social networks. In addition, we monitor relevant conversations within such user generated sites to help brands improve their customer insights and competitive intelligence.

This is an interesting approach. For a news organization that is stretched thin, this could be a viable option. By handing this off to a third party it gives the news organization the ability to both have a social media presence and keep the articles flowing at the same pace.

The are also downsides to this. Namely that it prevents staffers from becoming trained in the ways of social media. This approach also would not work for a title facing severe budget shortfalls and thus cannot afford to employ a third party.

Despite all of that, I do think this could be a real possibility for some titles to establish their social media footprint while they wade through the financial crisis. Once the paper gain its footing, editors can begin to train or hire people to take over the responsibilities of maintaining their social media profile that was built by the third party.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, ,

Crowdsourcing my dissertation subject decision

This is a bit of a break from what I typically write about, but I thought if anyone could help me reach a decision on this, it’s the industry professionals who read this blog.

Many of you already know that I’m currently pursuing an MA in Electronic Publishing at City University London. I came to do this degree because I wanted to gain an edge in the ways of new media, both through shooting and editing A/V, and Web development.

For my dissertation I have two options: I can write a full academic dissertation; or do a project and write a shorter “dissertation” to accompany it. I’ve been thinking about this dissertation for a while. My first ideas were pretty far-fetched and (most likely) involved more travel than I can afford. But I have a new plan. It’s a project that I’m very interested in doing. But I do have reservations.

The project

In February 2008 I had something of an epiphany about my hometown newspaper, The Oakland Press. I realized how badly they needed to launch a Web-based youth-focused news magazine. I know this because I’ve been a resident of Oakland County nearly my entire life. But before going to the paper with this idea, I decided to do a bit of research to see if my theories about the county’s population were at all as I believed they were: young, educated and affluent. Here’s a excerpt from the proposal I eventually sent to the paper:

Today’s Oakland County resident is dynamic, well-educated, Internet-savvy, and young. According to a recent American Community Survey, the 18 to 24 segment of the population grew almost 8 percent between 2002 and 2005, to 91,228. In that same survey, it found that the 25 to 44 age segment represented over 28 percent of the population, totaling 339,210 in 2005. It also found that children in Oakland County made up almost 25 percent if the total population and numbered 297,331 in 2005.1 These same young people are also affluent. According to a recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Oakland County has the third-highest per capita income in the nation, at $52,274. That is up 7 percent from 2003.2 A population that is affluent, dynamic, Internet-savvy, young, and well-educated is unlikely to get their news from a standard newspaper.

I saw this as a great opportunity that needed exploring. Unfortunately this proposal came in March 2008, when the industry was beginning to enter its current free-fall. It didn’t help that the company The Journal-Register Company, who own The Oakland Press, was essentially bankrupt at the time. So new spending in an atmosphere of consistent staff layoffs made getting this project off the ground increasingly unlikely. The paper expressed interest, but not in the idea of me producing it for them. They asked me, in effect, to freelance for my own idea. Obviously I couldn’t accept that.

In the time since I sent my proposal, local media coverage in Oakland County has essentially evaporated. With The Oakland Press experiencing an identity crisis, The Detroit Free Press canceling their regional publications, and a major monthly glossy magazine going belly-up, there exists a vacuum.

With my dissertation project, I’d like to fill that vacuum. My idea, however, is smaller than the original proposal I sent out, of a county-wide Web-based publication. Instead I’d like to go hyperlocal, focusing only on the goings-on of my home communities of Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.

This would be a one-man operation: me. I’ll write the code, write the stories and shoot the multimedia. I’d do this from the middle of May to the end of September. At the same time I’ll be writing the accompanying “dissertation” about the project. I feel confident about being able to develop this because of my background in journalism and, by then, my background in launching online-only news magazines. My second one will launch either by the end of this month or the very beginning of next.

My concerns

It’s important to face facts: The journalism industry is currently in a death spiral. Here in the U.K. the impact is being felt, however the situation is not nearly as bad as it is in the U.S. In the limited amount of time that I’ve been living in London, I’ve been able to afford myself a number of quite lucrative opportunities in the industry and have met very intelligent, well-connected people. Because London is increasingly becoming the global capital once again, the potential opportunities here are more plentiful than they are at home.

There’s also the question of what I do after the project is finished in September. In spite of what the president believes will be the eventual turn-around of the U.S. and world economies, I suspect the trickle-down effect on an individual state basis will take a considerable amount of time. Michigan’s economy is worse off than most other states, so the likelihood that my publication would be bought by a preexisting organization is unlikely, at least in the short term. If the publication is sustainable, I could run it myself. The problem with that is, even running it as a one-man operation, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to even be able to begin repaying my student loans.

Another possibility is being hired by a preexisting media organization following the completion of the project, to work on their Web side. I see that as being the most likely outcome if I did return home to complete this project. But is that what I want? Put all the time and effort into creating a publication, making connections, establishing a rapport, just to leave it?

There’s something to be said for picking the industry up by its bootstraps and “being the change” that the industry needs. What I don’t know is if it’s the right thing for me to do.

What do you think?

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, student journalism, , ,

You know a newspaper doesn’t have a Web strategy when …

As more newspapers in the U.S. continue to pare down their newsrooms and close entire sections, the idea of making their Web sites more than a digital dumping ground for the print product has gained traction. This is a view that every newspaper needs to adopt. But there are great differences between a Web strategy and a print strategy when it comes to the news.

Here’s are five metrics I came up with for determining if a newspaper lacks a defined Web strategy:

  • AP overload
  • If you pull up a newspaper’s Web site and more than 25% of the content comes from the Associated Press, there’s problem. For local titles the AP should be used sparingly, and only when it’s a story that you don’t have the time or ability to turn around into a localized version. Running AP copy on your Web site is a lazy approach and does not serve your readers well.

  • Web content wakes up when the print product goes to bed
  • In the late 90s this approach would have worked well because the Internet wasn’t that widespread and many more people still read newspapers. However this is not the case today. There’s a push-and-pull happening in newsrooms about whether to put print content on the Web. The argument goes that by putting content that appears in the print edition, you’re discouraging people from picking up the issue, which then discourages advertisers. In a community where most news is still consumed through the print edition, that’s a valid argument. But in less rural communities, it’s a non-starter. People refuse to wait for the news. And if you make them wait, they’ll find someone who won’t make them wait.

  • Living a blogless existence
  • Blogs present a potential gold mine of page views if they’re done correctly. Most newspapers have a handful of beat writers, covering everything from schools to courts and the drain commission. If the beat writer is truly entrenched in their beat like they should be, coming up with off-the-cuff blog posts on the subject should not be a challenge. Some will argue that with all the demands of their beat to fill the print product each deadline day, they simply don’t have the time. To which I say: you’re wrong. Blogging isn’t something you can dismiss and assume the need for it will go away. You’ve got to adjust your news gathering and news writing habits to make the time to write a 300-word blog post every couple of days. Your credibility, increasingly, depends on it.

  • Dismal or nonexistent multimedia
  • As the cost of HD-quality video cameras come down, seemingly every month, papers have less reason to not have a full-fledged multimedia section on their Web sites. What often happens is papers will just take whatever video AP will let them use, and then call it a day. People can be trained to shoot and edit video. It won’t be easy at first, but once a few people get the hang of it, they can be the ones teaching others. There isn’t an excuse to run stories online without some kind of multimedia component, whether its a sound slide, sideshow or video. Readers may at first not know what to make of it, but if the quality is good, they will come to appreciate it.

  • All text, all the time
  • A common but easily fixed problem that many newspaper Web sites suffer from is a lack of photography on their stories. It’s common knowledge (right?) that people are more likely to look at a photo before they read a headline. If they think photo is interesting, they will continue to read on. Most of the stories on your Web site should have an image to go with it. Not only does it give more context to the reader, it also makes your Web site appear more colorful and lively. Columns of text and the odd image here and there have the opposite effect.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, , , ,

4 ways a paper’s Web site can use blogs without overstretching reporters

A lot of titles will say that their reporters simply do not have the time to pen a blog on top of their responsibilities as a reporter. I can sympathize with that. But that isn’t a good reason not to have a blog section at all.

Here are four opttions that editors have for maintaining a blog section without having to expend the time and energy of an already over-stretched reporting staff.

  • Guest blogs: Enlist the help of well-known local personalities, in any number of trades or positions, and commission them to write blog posts on specific topics. I visited The Daily Telegraph at its London headquarters last week, and this is exactly what they did. They took the news of the day, then phoned people and commissioned them to write a blog post about this subject. This way you stay relevant, pay only for what you need, and enable your staff to stay on track with their respective beats
  • Bloggers as staff: Hire part-time or freelance-based bloggers to write on specific subjects a few days a week. This gives you the freedom to tell someone when you need a blog post, or when you don’t, but you’re never without someone available to you to write a blog. An added perk over guest blogs is that this person would likely be a professional blogger, or at the very least someone who understands the basics of blogging. Therefore the final product will, likely, be better.
  • Bloggers as interns: Most interns flooding into newsrooms today are what are known as “digital natives” so they likely will already know what a blog is, how they’re supposed to look, and what the difference is between a good and bad blog. Through the interviewing process you’ll be able to find out about their specific talents, insights, and what they feel they would bring to the publication as an active blogger.
  • Bloggers as community members: This is similar to the first point, of bloggers as guests. But what I’m referring to here is the idea of having, say, a person on a city council, or a community’s fire chief/police chief/hospital director being brought in to write blog posts on the paper’s Web site. A sort of “from the source” blog. You do run the chance that these people won’t know how to properly blog, however that could be overcome with only some basic training. This would encourage futher engagement with the community and bolster the title’s image as being that community’s paper, not the paper that reports on that community.

A major pitfall that every editor should be sure to avoid is offering blog posting priveleges to corporate entities. The money would likely be tempting, but when you do that, you will be sacrificing the trust that your community has in the paper.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , , ,

2009: The year of the community journalism boom?

I believe 2009 will mark a dramatic change in the way news organizations approach local news. There has to be a fundamental change in how it is approached. People still want news about their community. They still get excited reading about themselves in the paper, and when they send copies to all their friends relatives. That is still there. But what isn’t there is the relationship with the reader.

For community journalism to succeed, readers have to feel a tangible connection with the publication that represents their community. If they don’t, then why bother?

Where the mid-size titles have failed, smaller, online-only start-ups will take their place. Two examples of this come from the Boston area: Universal Hub and myDedham. These are online-only, hyperlocal news sites dedicated strictly to their communities. There are no AP wire stories or attempts to localize a large national story. The story is born in the city.

With tens of thousands of laid-off/semi-retired journalists now idling across the country, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that a handful of them will get their act together and put out an online, hyper-local product all their own.

A recent blog post by Seth Godin points out that it’s not terribly difficult to start a hyper-local publication on your own. In the post he says it’s all about reaching your local audience at a personal level. He’s right — that is critical to the survival of any community news organization.

Hopefully 2009 will be a watershed year in community journalism. The kind of change that affects the entire industry will come from these smaller titles: If it works for this title with their 20k readers, perhaps we can make it work for our regional title with 200k readers.

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, , ,

J-school’s new media deficit

Last night I joined in the weekly Twitter chat #Collegejourn, the college media’s equivalent of the Monday night @Journchat. Most of the topics you’d think would come up in fact did. One point I brought up was the new media deficit in many j-schools.

Most of the lecturers I had in my undergraduate journalism courses were established journalists, with many accolades and well-regarded reputations. Those are the kinds of people you want to be learning journalism from.

The only problem is that most were established, well-regarded print journalists. Most were either clueless to the advancing new media storm, or were outright hostile towards it. As the industry changed at a rapid pace, those journalism lecturers so entrenched in the ways of print continued to teach the same way they had been for years.

This is a problem.

For j-schools this presents a potential crisis of self. They need established, well-regarded faculty to keep your program’s reputation afloat. Often these faculty have PhDs and have published many research papers in a specific area. They are the standard-bearer of what the program stands for.

But what happens when what your faculty is not teaching students everything they need to be successful journalists? What happens when those who have the skills and knowledge to teach them how to succeed in the new media environment may only have an MA, or in some cases less than that?

The solution is simple and, for some universities, hard to swallow: Hire younger people, PhD or not. If someone is coming out of graduate school with a master’s in new media, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Sit them down and listen to what they feel they could bring to your program to help it remain competitive.

Another option is to begin scouting the Web staff from local newspapers for potential adjunct positions. They’re working professionals in the field of online journalism. They’re exactly what you need.

It’s time to abandon the dogmas that so many j-schools have latched onto and begin to face facts — even if it means fewer PhDs walking the halls.

Filed under: student journalism, , , ,