June 30, 2006

The Tangled Web of Cookie-Cutter Thinking

Mercury News Contra Costa Times web pagesA lot of bad business decisions and poor editorial assumptions were made in the late '90s during the heydays of the Boom, one of which was Knight Ridder's decision to impose a cookie-cutter web template on all its newspapers and run their online operations through the rigid backbone of the Real Cities Network.

Knight Ridder, of course, is gone, but the sad legacy of its Internet arm, Knight Ridder Digital, lives on as a network of bland, generic websites representing the newspapers the company sold to McClatchy, which later resold to a batch of them to other buyers, among them MediaNews Group.

MediaNews bought the papers Knight Ridder owned in Northern California - the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Monterey Herald - in a complicated billion-dollar deal that was underwritten in part by the Hearst Corporation, which owns the San Francisco Chronicle, a direct competitor of both the Mercury News and the Times.

The deal concentrated Bay Area newspaper ownership under Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews. Observers speculated that Singleton was positioning himself to someday relieve Hearst of the money-losing Chronicle, or that, as I wrote, Hearst was just inserting its well-funded foot into a future deal that would ensure its own dominance in the market. [Read: Hearst and Singleton: Which is the Cat, Which the Mouse?]

Whatever happens eventually, the first inklings of what's to come from the MediaNews-Hearst partnership look disastrous: An idea to create a website built on the combined products of the Chronicle, the Mercury News and Singleton's other local papers like the Oakland Tribune. The Contra Costa Times reported:

"MediaNews executives revealed the company is discussing with Hearst Corp. a joint venture to begin a new Web site involving the Bay Area online products of the Times and Mercury News; of the MediaNews publications in the Bay Area; and of the Hearst-owned Chronicle. …

"'We've talked conceptually about a joint venture to start up a new Web site, which would probably use the BayArea.com name,' said Joseph Lodovic, MediaNews president. 'It's very preliminary. These are just exploratory discussions of things we could do together.'" (Thanks, Peninsula Press Club.)

What a waste of good pixels that would be. At a time when unique brand, editorial personality and formation of communities are the most important ingredients for successful online operations - editorial and financial - these two companies are considering doing just the opposite, building some sprawling, generic, blended website no doubt intended in part to counter the success of San Francisco-based Craigslist, which is sucking classified money from Bay Area newspapers.

Worse, SFGate, the Chronicle's online presence and one of the first newspaper-based web sites, pulls in big readership numbers - 7.3 million unique visitors and 75 million page views a month. Why would Hearst even think about diluting the Gate's impact by partnering online with the off-the-shelf sites of Singleton's papers or the former Knight Ridder papers? If it's for the money, you have to ask that if the Chronicle can't make enough with the Gate's monthly numbers then there is something seriously flawed with its online strategy. (Peter Negulescu, head of SFGate, told the Contra Costa Times he hadn't head a word about a new or merged Bay Area web site: "That's news to us.")

This type of thinking, whether the idea ever becomes a reality, reflects what I think Vin Crosbie was referring to yesterday in his indictment of newspapers' continued reliance on a set of out-dated beliefs regarding journalism and the web.

Crosbie, writing from the Media Giraffe conference, said (emphasis added):

"Most of the speakers from mainstream media seem to have an intrinsic belief that the package of journalism they're been providing for the past 50 years shouldn't change, plus that their journalism ("quality, objective journalism") simply needs to be placed onto new platforms (the Web, mobile phones, etc.) to get more people to use it and ensure the future of journalism and the news media in general.

"The facts belie their faith in that belief. Newspapers' and news magazines' circulations and readerships are steadily declining, as is listenership and viewership of news broadcast. Some publishers and broadcasters claim that their websites' increasing numbers of users show that there are no declines but increases. But I know that the data from those sites show that those users actually use the news media online far less frequently and much less thoroughly than users of those media's traditional print and broadcast products. People are 'voting with their feet' and rejecting mainstream media's package of journalism, whether in print, broadcast, or online."

Nowadays, no newsroom web manager would endorse the continued shoveling of copy from print to pixels as an online solution, but that still is what most newspapers do. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and we can point to those as advancing points on a continuum that eventually most others will follow or disregard them as outliers who don't represent the industry as a whole.

If the web has taught us anything in the last decade, it's that generic is dead. Generic journalism, generic design, generic regard of community - dead, dead, dead. If you talked with the journalists who worked on Knight Ridder papers in the last half decade, you heard again and again how hamstrung their were by the constrictions of their templated web operations. (As are the Newhouse papers like the Oregonian).

We live in an open source age, and that means organizational nimbleness, collaborative communities and ongoing innovation are values for success - characteristics unlikely to emerge from the MediaNews-Hearst web venture.

Bay Area.com? Blah!

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 30, 2006 08:41 AM

My initial reaction: Much like yours. Blah.

On the other hand, I can think of ways to make BayArea.com work -- where it becomes an umbrella site for a wide range of community-focused, user-driven products.

My guess is that isn't what the companies have in mind.

Posted by: Howard Owens on June 30, 2006 11:44 AM

Hi Tim...

I was at the MediaGiraffe conference, too... and from the "citizen" perspective, I got it very clearly that big media has a number of serious internal problems that can't be fixed by shoving print into pixel any more than they can be fixed by incorporating citizen journalism into their efforts. The problems of corporate ownership and marketing strategies based on content elitism (as was explained by Tom Stites)aren't going to go away merely by having people do a form of "citizen" journalism under their auspices.

In other words, the citizens can't fix journalism. Journalists have to fix journalism.

It seems, too, that big media newspapers have become these giant, rapacious creatures that need to be fed with Profit. Serving a community and satisfying stockholders may be proving out to be, for most newspapers, an oxymoronic concept. If anything, it leads to bad design and boring journalism.

Posted by: tish grier on July 3, 2006 07:48 AM

This might be a postive development, from the usability perspective, if SFGate is the model. Especially if the MediaNews and KR archives are liberated. KR Digital is no more, and I certainly agree that their designs left a great deal to be desired. Bayarea.com is not a great site by any means. But SFGate is a better than average newspaper web site.

Having said that, you're on target that the future belongs to smaller, bottom-up news organizations that focus on where people live and work and don't define their coverage area according to the way ad media are bought. One reason Bayosphere failed is because no one thinks of themselves as living in "The Bay Area" in any meaningful way.

Regional newspapers are dinosaurs and you don't fight that trend by getting bigger.

Posted by: Barry Parr on July 5, 2006 05:14 PM

The whole idea sounds like it's driven by the desire for more ad sales. And I bet they would get them - for awhile. Until everyone went away out of boredom.
I would have for the Gate to get folded into something like that...because the good ideas wouldn't be the ones that won out.

Posted by: John Coate on July 14, 2006 03:20 PM
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