From Editor and Publisher http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/stopthepresses_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003156892 Why Aren't Newspapers Breaking Out of the Box?Why does the newspaper industry, for the most part, have so much trouble adapting to the changing of the media environment brought on by the Internet and digital communications technologies? Some newspaper new-media managers and workers talk frankly about what they see as their companies' flaws.
By Steve Outing
(September 25, 2006) -- What's wrong with the newspaper industry? Why does it, for the most part, have so much trouble adapting to the changing of the media environment brought on by the Internet and digital communications technologies? What are newspapers doing wrong -- what are they failing at -- that's causing stock valuations to plummet, investors to revolt, readership to slide, and advertising to drift off to other (newer) media?
Over the last decade-plus of writing this column (and other related activities and employment focused on the news industry), I've met lots of smart people people working at newspapers on the online side of the business. My sense is that in many (but not all) cases, these people possess a good vision of where newspapers need to go in order to survive in the coming decades.
But some of that vision -- perhaps much of it? -- is not allowed to be translated into action, into transforming the companies. (So you don't accuse me of over-generalizing, there are some newspaper companies that have allowed online visionaries who they've hired to truly push the envelope.)
So, I thought it would be interesting to hear some uncensored thoughts about what newspaper companies are doing wrong from the online side of the office. I asked newspaper new-media managers and workers to speak freely about what they see as their companies' flaws.
And I guaranteed them anonymity if they requested it, so they were free to criticize their employers. Everyone took me up on that offer.
The problem at the top
A common theme ran through the responses I got from newspaper online folks: A huge part of the problem is that newspaper companies are still being run, mostly, by people from the print side -- and who, though they may attempt to understand interactive media and the needs and media habits of young people, aren't effective at moving their organizations in a radically different, and necessary, direction. That's because they're still too tied to the print business and thus are unwilling to go in directions that might damage it, even if in the long run placing more resources and executive energy into new lines of (digital) business at the expense of the print edition is the right way to go.
Several of my anonymous respondents suggested that more newspapers need to put online editors in charge of the entire news operation. Wrote one: "Doesn't it make sense that the editor who is responsible for a 24/7 news product also oversee the once-daily version of that?"
That's perhaps a radical thought to many newspaper executives. It argues for putting online at the top of an organization, with the print edition being but one delivery channel for the company's editorial and advertising content, and thus underneath a central news operation that is responsible for "the news" and distributing it out to various channels.
I suspect that most news executives would agree that this is the direction the industry eventually must go. But the crux of the problem is that for many newspaper executives, it still seems to them as though it's too early to put online at the top of the corporate heirarchy. After all, the industry is still in a position where print revenues -- even though they may be on a slow decline -- remain massive, while online revenues continue to grow nicely but still represent a minority percentage of the overall business.
But those visionaries in the online divisions think that the time is NOW for online editors to take charge. Print-hardened top editors don't and perhaps can't fully appreciate the extent of changes that must be made within newspaper companies, so it's time for online editors to step into those top positions.
Wrote one correspondent: "Allowing print-side editors who have been damagingly slow to the new media dance to continue to run the show and call all the shots makes about as much sense as continuing to keep the operations (print and online) separate."
Online thinking applied to print
Related to that, I heard complaints about online departments and divisions still being in silos. One on my respondents put it well:
"I think the real problem is that the online staffs everywhere are viewed as change agents in an organization, and they can make great progress with online editions. But they have no voice about how to change the print edition. And this won't change until someone makes the bold move to put an online editor in charge of the entire news operation." (It's worth noting here that USA Today in late 2005 did name Kinsey Wilson, who headed up USAToday.com, as one of two executive editors for the entire USA Today editorial operation.)
That's an important point. Online staffs -- who historically have been the people within news organizations with a penchant for innovation -- tend to focus exclusively or mostly on online issues. But with online integrated and at the center of the news organization, these innovators can spend some of their time on all of the company's channels, including print.
Try this as a starter step: Invite as many people as can get away from the online department for a day to a brainstorming session with top print-side executives. Hire a facilitator to pick the brains of the online people as they are charged with coming up for a plan to redesign and reinvent -- yes -- the print edition. The outcome could be interesting and important for the future of the paper product.
I'd take this even a step further, and set up a second session where print executives hold a free-gripe session, and get to hear online folks' complaints and suggestions about what should be done at the corporate level but is not.
Double (or triple) the programming staff!
I heard about sparce programming staffs, which is silly, when you think about it. Newspaper companies that expect to succeed in the Internet space need to emphasize technological innovation much more than they have so far. And that's not going to happen with overworked programmers barely keeping up with existing demands.
One online manager at a mid-sized U.S. newspaper wrote to me: "I'm incredibly frustrated by the fact that we have only two web programmers who are overwhelmed with daily and weekly production chores, in addition to trying to find time for development work. We have dozens of very cool things that we could be doing that are just sitting in a long waiting line. We need to double, at least, the size of our programming."
A related complaint came from another mid-sized U.S. newspaper, where the content management system (CMS) "fails to address the breadth of content we deal with on a daily basis," requiring the staff to write hacks to get around the system's shortcomings and restrictions. "Sure, restrictions breed creativity. But hacks will only get you so far in this business," said this staffer.
Worse, the newspaper's web publishing relies on tables as part of page markup. "Using tables at this point in the Internet's evolution reeks of ignorance," he said. "CSS has been around for years, and there are plenty of resources and business cases to support its use."
Why is this paper, part of a national newspaper chain, so backward technologically? "Our corporate parent is responsible for the code the CMS spits out, and their standards for HTML proficiency seem to be low."
Wow. That's pathetic. It seems pretty clear that there remain plenty of newspaper companies that have yet to get up to speed when it comes to being web publishers.
The need for more technology hiring at many newspaper companies is clear.
Making the audience pay; does it make any sense?
One of my correspondents bitched about his paper's policy of putting exclusive content behind a pay wall -- a complaint that I concur with heartily. He wrote: "I think the business types are convinced that if we give things away we will lose money. I have tried to make the argument that allowing people to link to and comment on stories, columns and other content makes them worth MORE rather than less, but I'm not having much luck."
That's an arguable point, I suppose, but I still support giving away most content and figuring out how to effectively monetize it. We live in a Google economy, where a wealth of news and information is at our fingertips. There's simply too much available, so easily and free, for it to make sense for most news companies to charge for most of their content. It's far better to focus on search engine optimization and smart marketing methods to drive traffic, and let advertisers pay the bill. Leave the paid content to that that is truly unique and worth paying for.
(I continue to believe that NYTimes.com's "TimesSelect" program, which puts the New York Times' popular op-ed columnists and other columnists behind a pay wall, is a bad idea. The Times would be better off, in my view, by building a massive worldwide online audience for its famous columnists and selling that to advertisers. And no, my correspondent above does not work for the Times.)
The writer above also complained about his newspaper's "intimidating and hard-to-use pay system that requires readers to pay exorbitant sums to buy "packs" of articles, regardless of whether they only want one."
Yeah, that's another of my newspaper pet peeves. Too many newspapers remain stuck in old thinking when it comes to selling archived content. I'd rather see free archives supported by contextual advertising revenues, or at least that combined with reasonable prices for viewing archived articles rather than absurd $2- or $3-per-article charges that turn away many potential paying customers.
Let's ACT on the research
Finally, another respondent blamed the newspaper industry for ignoring important research, especially that of the Readership Institute. "Generally speaking, the industry, with a few notable exceptions, pretty much ignored the research and recommendations of the Institute, both for newspapers and, later, online. As a result, the prognostications of the research are coming true, and faster than even the Institute predicted."
"The truth is out there. Indeed, it is still sitting on a shelf at a lot of newspapers, like most of the research we never pay any attention to. ... As a result, we deserve what we get, like a 50 percent drop in stock values for public companies, punishment from investors who obviously recognize we had the tools to fix things if we wanted to, but decided to blow it anyway because of our inability to adapt to a changing market."
Time for big change
Obviously, there's a lot of frustration among new-media people employed at and managing newspaper online departments and divisions. Do they have all the answers? Probably not. But I got a sense from my little "frank talk" experiment that some of the ideas and complaints expressed to me are being conveyed by online team members and managers to newspaper top executives -- but they are largely ignored or resisted.
Given the state of decline of the newspaper industry, perhaps it's past time to give online leaders a chance to take the reins of newspaper companies and try out some radical ideas for publishing in the Internet age.
Steve Outing (email@example.com)