May 28, 2004

Online News: 7 Lessons for the Future

Dan Froomkin, who writes the daily White House Briefing for Washingtonpost.com, writes for the Online Journalism Review and outlines seven things online news operations - most of which are still newspaper-based - can do to become "central players on the Internet."

 Integrate print and online: "It's time for a whole new round of serious conversations between online and print editors to get newsrooms to move to the next level and make exploiting the technological and journalistic possibilities of the Internet -- not just its news cycle -- a part of the newsroom culture," says Froomkin. He urges webby versions of print stories, URLs attached to stories, more multimedia and FAQs and backgrounders to deepen the context online.

This is absolutely right. Most newspaper web sites are little more than 1024 x 768 versions of the printed page - with wire feeds and archives added. At minimum, every staff-written story online should be loaded with links. Almost none are.

 Learn from blogs: "Consider if you were starting a "newspaper" today. Wouldn't you want to facilitate exchanges with readers? Wouldn't you want to encourage your readers to find out more than what you can publish? Wouldn't you want to make it easier for them to take action? Wouldn't you want to define and create a community? Wouldn't you want to make your readers feel important? Blog tools give you all that -- not to mention the ability to easily and quickly post something you just found out about. (What could be more journalistic?)"

Blogs enable newspapers to fulfill one of the Readership Institute's key mandates - connecting with readers and making the newspaper something they can "experience" and not just read.

 Get geographic: "The most compelling attraction for local users, of course, is something that only local newspapers have: extensive, accurate, very local information. Supplement that with genuine local voices, and you've got a lock on the market."

Froomkin says online content needs to be "geo-coded" so readers can get as local as they want for news, services or entertainment information.

 Serve the audience: "We need to aggressively and visibly use the best tools of print and Web journalism. Our best, most important work should feature compelling narratives, visual story-telling, interaction with the authors and newsmakers, and Web tools that encourage and harness citizen action. Don't just put a big serious thing out there in big fat text parts (with a few links and maybe a poorly captioned photo gallery) and expect to make a splash online."

When the online audience self-selects news, it heads toward what Froomkin identifies as the "zingy, scandalous, outrageous" content. That's the playing the field and serious journalism has to be presented in formats that can compete in that environment without undermining its importance.

 Better tools and support: "The dirty little secret of online is that you build what you can. These days, most online news sites are technologically so behind the curve that we can't build anything close to what we want."

Newspaper companies are notorious late adapters of technology. Little is more anathema to most publishers than an increase in capital spending.

 Sell, sell, sell: "When it comes to advertising, online news sites have always been fairly slow and not always competent trend-followers."

Look for ads that target information seekers, says Froomkin, and get those display ads online as well as in print, especially the local ones. Don't let Google take over the franchise.

 Take a risk, have fun: "Many established news organizations have made a religion out of careful incrementalism, and it generally serves them well. But online news managers should be constantly asking their staffers for big, new ideas."

Not only do too many online news sites mimic their paper siblings, but they have adapted the paper's risk-averse culture as well. Cultural change has happened in reverse - the new media picked up the personality of the old. Be bold, not old, says Froomkin.

Links
 Online Journalism Review: Dan Froomkin Ideas for Online Publications: Lessons From Blogs, Other Signposts

Posted by Tim Porter at May 28, 2004 08:16 AM