We feel like taking all our clothes off, dancing to “The Rite of Spring,” and we wouldn't normally do this kind of thing.
There. You have just read NUblog's contribution to the guilianist global effort of Getting Back to Normal. Paradoxical? Of course.
But aren't online newspapers a paradox?
You buy a paper for the news. Yet the Web is generally more effective in distributing news. Taken to its logical conclusion, newspapers would cease to exist. You cannot even argue that pulp editions work nicely on the bus where an online version works not at all. Ever seen anyone read Metro or another of the content-free commuter daily papers? We read newspapers on the bus to get us doing something, not so that we are specifically reading. (We suppose the corollary activity is surfing while at the office: We're doing something, but that something is not work.) Serious in-transit readers read books and magazines.
We will spare you a tedious and well-trod discussion of payments and revenue models. We have, however, defended shovelware before (largely on the basis of one-stop-shopping searchable convenience) and are known supporters of original Web content. Since those are pretty much the only options online, and since newspapers are the genre that can unite the two, why the heck aren't online newspapers so vastly better than pulp editions that they really do kill the latter off?
A not-unextensive survey by Clark Gilbert reveals that newspapers are kind of blowing it:
- Online papers were generally discouraged from scooping the print edition. On an ascending scale of permissibility from 1 to 5, the average score was 2.7; at least one score of 1 was registered, and nobody reported over 4.
- Gilbert sees the data more optimistically: “[M]ost papers allowed their Web site to scoop the paper unless the paper had an exclusive over other media.” Combined with raw numbers, that sounds like discouragement to us.
- What's wrong here? The whole point of an online paper is to respond quickly. The only argument against online scooping is cannibalization of sales of the subsequent pulp edition: Readers will know the story already, or, in the nightmare scenario, will have heard about it from another source tipped off by your own Web site. In that case, the pulp story must do what papers always have done in the shadow of live TV news and provide Sober Second Thought.
- News sites are generally timid with online-specific features, which Gilbert exemplifies as audio/video feeds (ick), “enhanced text” (Smart Tags?), photo galleries, polls, and “chat/discussion.” None of those features was used more often than not, even something as simple and conventionally newspaperish as expanded photography. We know of only one paper that specifically limits the coverage it shoots for a story: Any photo that isn't actually published gets nuked from the digital camera. We compare this practice to the burning of Alexandria, and in any event every sane publication shoots reams of photos for every shot actually published. We loathe the word, but repurposing? hello?
- Papers are also clueless about customization. Gilbert reports the data poorly, failing to tell us how many papers offer customized feeds in the first place while stating that 4.6% of readers on average sign up for it, and never more than a quarter of them.
- But the idea is a non-starter. It is simply too difficult to configure customized news, and you are faced with the twin albatrosses of not enough highly-specific journalism you actually want and too much high-specific journalism ever so slightly different from your goals that you definitely do not want. (Not the portal paradox, shurely?!)
We will continue to spare you a tedious and well-trod discussion of payments and revenue models, though Gilbert seems to think that newspapers somehow have a chance against eBay and that city sites actually make money. That whole shibboleth was taken down a notch lo those many months ago.
We figger it’s real simple: Newspapers need to give us everything in the pulp version is capable of and as much of what it is incapable of as possible. Now, will that make money?
Posted on 2001-09-24