Survey says...!

Tell us something we don’t know already: Next to no one in England turns to the net as their first source of news.

This, at least, is a finding of a study, which also uncovered the startling truth that 83% of a thousand people polled would not switch to an online-first news diet.

Why should they, anyway? Everyone’s got a telly or a radio. News is very easy to find on the airwaves, even if you don’t have cable or satellite service. We spend our lives online here at, but even we turn to the net as a first choice for news updates only after we hear a bulletin from a broadcast source. (That probably doesn’t even count. Our point is that online news gives us more detail, while broadcast news is a form of genteel push transmission that everyone’s comfortable with.)

Ah, but take heart. Respondents (a full 20%) thought the net made smashing sense for the trade press, and indeed, the Internet can and does cater to every little interest (NUblog passim). Portals are dead, baby. Vive la specificité.

But here’s something traditional newspapers could build on: If 20% of people prefer the net for “vertical-market” information, doesn’t this also mean that some 20% of netters would read your general-interest publication if it included vertical-market subsites? The Globe and Mail newspaper here is plying those waters, with subsites, complete with distinct but too-long and too-Globe-specific domain names, on investing, technology, cars for plutocrats, inter alia. That’s half a step forward. The problem here is the paucity of original content for those subsites. The Globe is merely subdividing the cake and poking a different candle into each piece.

How about setting up vertical-market online papers? There are tons of precedents in broadcasting: CNN’s various international feeds. CNNFN. CNNSI. MTVs in various nations. There’s even the occasional case in print: We read the Nando Times quite literally for years without ever knowing it was related to the News and Observer newspaper, so substantial was its netcentricity and so effective was the verbal camouflage of its name.

If 20% of your readership will look at your site only if it’s topic-specific, even something as cosmetic as a name change might attract those eyeballs. Perhaps topic-specificity can be read as “tightly focused and online-only,” but not so vertical-market as to cater, say, to a single profession.

Listen, if Sun Media can throw together an entire print newspaper in a reported eight days – albeit a throwaway, copycat commuter newspaper that ends up littering the subway system – it is very difficult to believe complaints from old-fart newspapermen that it takes too long and costs too much to start up an online paper. Not only is it entirely untrue in the first place, we think the fact that the opposite is actually the case turns newspapermen off: It doesn’t cost much and does not involve Charles Foster Kane–style massive, heaving, overly symbolic industrial-age printing machinery, so what’s the point?

For a third the cost of setting up a vast portal site, a publishing empire could give birth to a small handful of separate, tightly-run content Web sites staffed by smart people who know the Web. Just why isn’t this obvious?

Let’s assume that half those sites go belly-up. Well, the other half won’t. And you’ve put up comparatively little money. How’s that for return on investment?

Posted on 2000-07-31