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.