Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Would Someone Please Save This Web Site?


It's kind of chicken-or-egg question: what's more important to a newspaper -- its print product or its Web site?

My opinion comes down firmly on the side of Web site. Based on my focus group -- me and everyone I know -- lots of people read the paper online, but only a handful actually subscribe. So my opinion is pretty worthless and not grounded in any data. But what someone who matters? Like this guy: Washington Post Chairman and CEO Don Graham. Graham told Fortune magazine: “If Internet advertising revenues don’t continue to grow fast, I think the future of the newspaper business will be very challenging. The Web site simply has to come through.”

Fort Worth's daily seems to have made the opposite choice. It's put most of its effort over the past year into redesigning the print product while leaving its woeful Web site alone. But is that really a good idea? I know that print is still what pays the bills, but online is the key to the future. And Star-Telegram.com needs help.

According to recent research by Nielsen//NetRatings for the Newspaper Association of America, newspapers' online audience is growing at more than than twice the rate of the overall internet audience. Online newspaper readers are also in a higher-end demographic. Four in 10 (41 percent) newspaper's online readers work in professional or managerial jobs, compared with one in three (32.7 percent) of the overall internet population. About 12 percent of those who have visited a newspaper Web site have annual household incomes in excess of $150,000. In contrast, less than one in 10 (9.3 percent) of the overall internet audience earns that much.

Unfortunately, even though the apparent sophistication and earning power of online newspaper readers seems clear, the Startlegram doesn't seem to be working on anything different to capture these readers. Although a Web site redesign is in the works right now, it is expected to complement the print product redesign -- not good news for some readers.

To be fair, the Startlegram and the other former Knight Ridder papers were saddled with a losing online strategy for years -- the Real Cities network. Rather than let each newspaper develop a strategy for its local market, each paper was required to conform to the same ugly, unworkable format. As one former Knight Ridder executive once told me, the company "fucked up everyone online initiative it ever attempted." Mission accomplished.

But what should the future hold for the S-T web site? Let's use another former Knight Ridder paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, as a case study.

Local owners acquired the Philadelphia papers and Philly.com from McClatchy last year. CEO Brian Tierney told the AP that the online ventures still account for 5 percent of the revenue—about $25 million in annualized revenue—and about 20 percent of the profit. Based on the web ops of some other major papers make, Tierney said Philly.com, with 30 million monthly page views, should have revenue of $45 million. That's a lot of money they're leaving on the table. Why should we think that Fort Worth is much different? Right now the key is how to capture that revenue. And nobody knows the answer to that question.

So what should Star-Telegram online do different? Here's a few suggestions:

  • Hire experience: How do you increase revenue from online? Obviously, no one in the newspaper world has figured that out. Why not bring in people from the online world to help out? That what the San Francisco Chronicle is doing and they are feeling the heat from the newsroom. That's too bad. Newspapers need to be more afraid of not trying anything new. And besides, they might learn something. Of course, this guy at BusinessWeek suggests the Chronicle take it a step farther and go online exclusively.

  • Give me local, give me context: Not all of a newspaper's online solutions come from outside the building. Simon Willison really nailed it with his blog post on doing local right. "Newspapers and local websites are a perfect match. Newspapers have the reporters, the relationships and the resources to provide better coverage of their local areas than anyone else could even dream of." Newspapers seem to be forgetting their greatest asset: people. The blogosphere loves to thump their chests about how Old Media is dead. The problem is most bloggers can't afford to do their thing full time. Newspapers pay people to do nothing but write, report and dig. Make the most of this resource. The old ideas of being the first to break a story is over. Leave that to the guy with the cell phone camera. Focus more on knowledge and analysis. Make your product a must-read. Case in point: Mitch Schnurman. Radio Shack CEO Julian Day lives in fear of Mitch. That's the way it should be. Give us more guys like Mitch and fewer lists.

  • Give me a redesign: Give me a Web site I want to look at. A navigation that makes sense. A search function that works. Integrate your online and offline content seamlessly. You know all this already.

  • Comments are an opportunity: Use the comment function to engage your readers. Weed out the flames, trolls, bigots and haters. No anonymous comments. Make them a place where dialogue exists.

  • Get your data on: The databases that accompanied the Guide To Tarrant County Schools were excellent. They made it easy for readers to get a snapshot of what was going on at their local schools. It's the ultimate in "what's in it for me?" Make it easy for readers to access relevant data about the place where they live.

  • Enhance the music coverage: I don't have a complaint about the guys who write about music at the Startlegram, in part because I know most of them and believe they know their stuff. What I do have a complaint with is the format. Take a page from some of the local bloggers like Fine Line, Big D little d, Gorilla vs. Bear, et al. Incorporate streaming audio, MP3 downloads and video into your reports. Produce a monthly mix tape. Local bands want the coverage, you want the readers (and listeners and viewers). Everyone wins. Put together a local band and music database, browseable by band, musician, genre. Be the area's go-to resource for local music.

  • It's 5 o'clock somewhere: Where is happy hour? Ask MappyHour. That is your mission. Just make it happen.

  • Events, Restaurants, Movies: You know, everyone loves slagging the Morning News, but GuideLive.com has databases you can actually use. You know, you oughta look into that. Need another example? Check out Lawrence.com. Simon Willison calls it "the local entertainment site that every city in the world needs, but very few actually have." There's some good ideas there. Steal a few.

  • Time is an issue: S-T editor Jim Witt posted this item on his blog a few days ago. They are focus grouping the redesign (of course) and were talking to a group of "occasional" readers. Here's what Jim wrote: "The good news we learned is that the readers we heard from last night like the new format, and they find it helpful in making their newspaper experience more satisfactory. The one thing we can't give them, though, is the TIME to read the paper more often. That's the number one problem they said they have -- no time to devote to reading the paper." Time really is the key to everything. If you can offer essential information in a way that is time-efficient to use, you will have readers. Remember, you no longer compete against just other news outlets -- you compete against everything.

  • This is just scratching the surface, I know. If any of you guys see something I missed and something I just plain whiffed it on, let me know. Otherwise, get after Startlegram. You've got a lot to fix, guys.

    2 comments:

    jason.s said...

    Yo, Steve-O! Good summary of the issues surrounding the paper.

    Many of the former KRD-led sites have the same issue, which is that they were instructed by the parent on how they had to design. Now under new parent McClatchy, the templates and management are loosely-defined in a way that makes your plan possible.

    The biggest problem? Your No. 1 *and* a lack of resources. It's not that certain papers don't want to get the right people, it's that many potential hires are hard to bring in due to a number of things (like fear of being in an industry that appears to be losing value).

    It takes a strong, confident personality to lead in these areas, and one has to have the seemingly opposite abilities to push yet be patient internally. Heh.

    Another KRD example -- Charlotte.com -- has just been approved to do some radically different things next year, and the process now will begin. As is probably happening with Craig in FW, we'll go as fast as we can given what we have.

    I think the industry finally knows what has to be done -- it's a matter of knowing a) how to do it and b) having the right publisher and parent sign-offs.

    Take it light,
    -Jason

    Steve-O said...

    Thanks for your input, Jason. You were just the guy I had in mind when a wrote No. 1. I know that the S-T is working on redesign as we speak. My frustration is that I think this should have already happened by now.

    I think some of the resources issues may be alleviated with the coming of "integration" -- the combining of newspaper and online staffs and having newsroom employees help support the Web site with more online content, copy editing, photos, cutlines, etc. I have no idea if this is on the table in Fort Worth (or Charlotte) but I have to believe it is coming and soon.

    If you are looking for a turd in the punchbowl for all this talk, read this guy. He doesn't seem to think that online can generate the necessary revenue anytime soon to support current newspaper staff levels. Yulp!

    I'm an optimist though. I think the real answer is what's behind door No. 3 -- a much smaller print product that is more or less a supplement to a more robust online product operated with much small staff levels. Or maybe I'm just smoking crack.

    I know that people want this content. Someone will find the business model that works.