Local news and the Web

Web sites still are “a source of hope but also of of fear.” Almost half the edi­tors inter­viewed felt that the Web offered more speed in dis­sem­i­nat­ing news and more oppor­tu­nity for errors.

Newspapers have to place a lot of faith in the Web. After all, the Web doesn’t pro­duce rev­enue like a news­pa­per does. People don’t buy a copy of a Web page — few peo­ple are will­ing to cross a pay-wall for local news online, espe­cially when there’s a good chance they can find it else­where for free (prob­a­bly culled from behind the pay-wall and reposted).

Other inter­est­ing results from the PEJ study:

  • More Americans are read­ing newsroom-produced con­tent than ever before, yet news­pa­per rev­enues are shrinking.
  • Newsrooms are grow­ing younger, with more tech-savvy reporters tak­ing over, but these new faces come with less con­nec­tion to their com­mu­ni­ties and beats.
  • Papers now have less con­tent and fewer pages than ever before and focus most of their energy on local cov­er­age, which may be why many read­ers report that news­pa­pers are improving.

So most of the rev­enue must come from online adver­tis­ing, which won’t gen­er­ate much money unless you have a pop­u­lar Web site that draws a lot of vis­i­tors. That means high-quality con­tent online, which means more time invested into some­thing that doesn’t have the imme­di­ate return of paper copy sales.

It’s a vicious cir­cle that can’t be escaped if you’re look­ing at only the short term. Web suc­cess involves invest­ment and wait­ing for the pay­off — not right away, but maybe six months or a year down the road.

My local paper is a per­fect exam­ple of a com­pany that has tra­di­tion­ally looked to do as lit­tle to its Web site as pos­si­ble because it was seen as a money pit, not a money maker.

It per­sisted that way for years until some man­age­ment changes pro­duced a more recep­tive envi­ron­ment. If you visit the link above, you’ll find that the site now sup­ports com­ments from the pub­lic and offers online clas­si­fieds. There’s even a pseudo-pay-wall in the form of an elec­tronic edi­tion of the paper — still paid for through the paper’s cir­cu­la­tion department

Lately, they’ve taken an inter­est in the Web, the sort of bandwagon-mounting inter­est that comes with dis­cov­er­ing a trend late. The result was a sub­tle graphic redesign of the site, a few flash menus, some photo slideshows with nar­ra­tion and the scant begin­nings of online video. It’s a good start.

What isn’t a good start is the paper’s cookie-cutter Web 2.0 sites. These include a can­died forum, a car shop­ping site, cri­sis mon­i­tor­ing in the form of a GasBuddy.com wid­get, a site for the paper’s fish­ing mag­a­zine built on the same soft­ware as the can­died forum and the ridicu­lous pet lovers site (again, built on the same out-of-the-box, instant-Web 2.0 soft­ware from Instant Journalist).

These new sites have all popped up in the past year. Few peo­ple post to them, and the Instant Journalist soft­ware offers lit­tle more than a stan­dard forum would; it’s just gussied up in a fancier GUI with dif­fer­ent tag­ging and sort­ing options. (The rub of it is that there is bet­ter soft­ware out there that would have done the job for free, see Drupal, WordPress and the myr­iad Digg clones.)

The new sites are lit­tle more than extra pages to sell ads on, and that makes com­plete sense given the “news­pa­per view” of the Web as lit­tle more than an adver­tis­ing platform.

What could my paper do to con­vince me that it cared about its long-term pres­ence on the Web, that it has an eye on the reduced-paper or paper-less future?

For starters, the paper could offer Web-only con­tent or even Web-specific con­tent. One of the fea­tures I argued for when I worked there was sim­ple link­ing in online arti­cles. Right now, noth­ing but photo slideshows and a few sports blog entries are pro­duced solely for the Web. If peo­ple start to see fea­tures online that they can’t get in the paper — espe­cially if notes in the paper point them in the right direc­tion — it will draw more Web traffic.

As things are, the sto­ries posted to the Web site are noth­ing but text-file reprints of the same thing that appeared in the paper that day. No links, no extra con­tent, and the arti­cles only stay online for a few days before they pass into obliv­ion (read: no archives or site search with­out a sub­scrip­tion to the e-edition of the print paper).

It’s time to do away with both of those prac­tices. If a story men­tions a pub­lic doc­u­ment; link to that doc­u­ment. Let the read­ers see the source mate­r­ial and become bet­ter informed. And for god’s sake, let the peo­ple search a full archive. Even from an eco­nomic point of view it makes sense: an archive means more pages to sell ads on.

Will any of this hap­pen? It’s hard to say. Rumor has it right now that the paper will be lay­ing peo­ple off; it seems that even ris­ing cir­cu­la­tion num­bers aren’t enough to stave off a declin­ing indus­try. So the like­li­hood of see­ing new Web only con­tent is slim, con­sid­er­ing that the reporters have enough to do just cov­er­ing their beats for the print edition.

But I’m opti­mistic. I have to be because I don’t have the cap­i­tal to start a news­pa­per of my own... yet.