Digital Newspapers

On the if:book blog over at the Institute for the Future of the Book, Ben Vershbow wrote a post on the freedom of Internet sites — and in this case I mean the kind of freedom where you don’t have to pay anything. He points to the New York Times putting most of their columnists behind the “pay wall,” the subscription-based Times Select service. (CNN.com does something similar with their Pipeline service).

While the New York Times and CNN may have the readership to support having a pay service on their site and still turn a profit from it, smaller sites are not so lucky. I agree with Vershbow when he says that most blogs are small-scale efforts that fit into select niches on the Internet, and most blogs are also not out to make a profit for their owners. And while some blogs do turn profits, huge profits, the majority of them are written for personal or small group entertainment or thought-provocation.

Other companies, Vershbow points out, are turning free, open-source software models towards business ends. The wiki is one format seeing a lot of play. Companies like Wikia, Wetpaint, and Jot are using the wiki software to help non-techie Internet users set up collaborative sites. I will not deal with the sketchy premise of using free software to power for-profit purposes, any more than to say that it seems unfair to the creators of the software.

The problem with collaborative sites is that no one really owns them. The model works like this: an aspiring Net millionaire starts a site and encourages people to join and write content for the site. They are volunteers; they are unpaid, in other words. Soon the site is a big success because it has a huge readership and a lot of advertising. The site is still powered by users who see themselves as contributing to something bigger and as bettering the world with their knowledge. This also gives inexperienced writers a chance to claim a byline or credit on their resumes — though how many reputable publishers will count such credits, I don’t know.

All this brings me to one of my current concerns: the future of the newspaper both in print and online. As a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle with a girlfriend who works behind the scenes on our digital version of the paper, I see the argument from multiple points of view.

First, some background. The Chronicle publishes its print edition daily. The presses churn to life at about 10 p.m. and most of our article have to be in by about 5 p.m., depending on a number of factors. Suffice to say, we are an afternoon paper. But along with that physical printing, the PDF versions of all of our pages are sent to an off-site, third-party server where they are converted into a digital copy of the paper. It is an exact replica of the printed version, down to the photos and ads, with the nifty addition of hyperlinks to link articles together and for navigation. We call it the eChronicle.

The eChronicle is a subscription based service, just like the print edition. Users can choose to have only an online account with us or to have both the print delivery and the electronic edition. Other newspapers have done this for some time. The New York Times offers a digital version of its paper, either by subscription or by the issue.

Here’s where the difficulty comes in. Formerly, the Chronicle offered a majority of its content free on the Internet on the public Web site. Now, that content is limited. Users can find most of the larger daily stories online, but not all of the news. Further, those stories only remain online for a fixed period of time. Our long-term article archive has been removed.

Needless to say, people are upset. Specifically, they are upset because they have to pay for access to something they once got for free.

How much of a newspaper belongs behind a pay-wall on the Internet? For large paper, like the NY Times, that question is easier to answer because they have more content to work with in the first place. In Bozeman, where the paper employs fewer than two dozen reporters, the amount of content generated cannot easily justify having it partially free and partially paid-for.

Unlike some papers, we have not separated the operation of our Web site from the operation of the print edition. Washingtonpost.com is a separate entity from the Washington Post, for example. Also, some people fail to see the benefit of having an electronic edition at all, considering that it is a replica of the print paper. Why not have a Web presence, some say, that offers more in the way of unique content and media that you cannot get with print alone?

Suggestions made so far include adding more features to attract people to the site, like blogs and other community happenings sections. One example of what this could look like reminds me, disturbingly, of a MySpace page — not a pretty picture, and certainly not what I think a newspaper should look like online. Another suggestion is to make the entire Web site free again and offer the eChronicle as an alternative to far-away subscribers; it would be cheaper than mailing them the paper (the NY Times makes such a recommendation if you live in certain geographic areas). Other suggestions include allowing local readers to submit their own news to the site, a way of making the paper’s site collaborative and establishing semi-official “bureaus” around the region. That way, we appease the users who do not see enough local content in the paper.

A separate concern is advertising. It brings in vast amounts of money for newspapers, and ours is no exception. How do we handle advertising online, and could we ask for sponsorships: like a hardware-store sponsored DIY blog? Whatever direction we take, advertising will drive our changes.

It saddens me on one hand to think that money drives the online editions of newspapers, but we must also remember that the news has always been a for-profit medium. No newspaper is objective, and no newspaper is altruistic at heart. All of them are out to make money, whether it be through subscriptions or through advertisements. We need not be so shocked that these economic conventions of print have made the transition into the digital world; but we should be on the lookout for ways that the newspapers can make their transition to the Internet worth it.

I think the key to that lies in making the online newspaper more than just a reproduction of what is included in the print edition. Here are my recommendations, for what they’re worth:

  1. Include unique content readers cannot get anywhere else.
  2. Provide an opportunity for interactivity — reader feedback or even amateur story submissions.
  3. Make it easy for advertisers to hit their target audience, and keep those advertisements unobtrusive and tasteful. No animated .gifs for example.
  4. Use electronic editions intelligently. Do not try to sell someone something they already get for free. Instead, use e-editions as an alternative to distanced circulation. It will safe on shipping costs and expand the readership to a larger geographical area.
  5. Finally: focus on the news. Leave the MySpace-esque shout-out boxes, profile avatars, and customizable users profiles at home.
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