Professor, Department of Communication and School of Journalism
Michigan State University
Newspapers are struggling with how to attract online visitors. This reflects the need to replace readers who are leaving the print newspaper, but more importantly, increasing online visitors will be essential for attracting advertisers to newspaper Web sites. Traditionally, advertisers follow audience and not the other way around.
As a result, how newspapers can gain online visitors remains the primary issue deciding the future of newspapers. A one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely to emerge. The key to attracting visitors will vary from market to market and from demographic group to demographic group.
However, general observations serve as a guide for managerial decisions. This commentary offers some of those general observations about how news organizations can make the transition from the current upheaval to a more stable time.
Reasons to experiment
* The high profit margins that news organizations have enjoyed during the last 40 to 50 years cannot be maintained when advertisers can go straight to consumers rather than using media, and when competition for people’s time has become so intense. Companies will have to adjust profit goals or they will cease to exist. In times of industry restructuring, potential profit margins shrink and surviving restructuring requires higher levels of investment.
* Although businesses can bypass news media to reach customers, the Internet is a medium where people must purposefully seek information, and even then, it is not always easy to search efficiently and effectively. Therefore, businesses still need to create awareness of their presence in a market and develop a brand in people’s minds. News organizations need to generate large local audiences and effectively segment them to generate advertising support. Advertisers will still need to reach buyers through media, but the need will not be as great before the Web developed.
* News organizations will need to create multiple forms of financial support. This can range from e-commercial to selling specialized information to small audience segments. The exact form of new revenue sources will vary from market to market and will need to be determined through experimentation.
* The digital media distributed through the Internet does four things well: 1. It provides depth of news and information at low cost. 2. It delivers news and information quickly. 3. It is multimedia. 4. It is interactive. Newspapers will need to use all of these Internet strengths when generating content on their sites.
* The ways news organization can best use the Web’s strengths for delivering journalism and attracting audiences remain unclear. The immediate future will require news organizations to experiment with a variety of content to discover how to best serve their audiences.
* This experimentation must be combined with formal and informal evaluation of reader feedback. Newspaper companies need to conduct periodic market research about the news and information their audiences need and want, the best ways to present that news and information, and types of interactivity their audience members want and need. But the companies also need a continuing, formal system for acquiring feedback from a wide range of audience members.
One newspaper's response
Uncertainty is the biggest problem underlying this transition from print domination to more online distribution. The appropriate response to uncertainty is experimentation with a variety of content based on research. But what does it mean to experiment with content on news Web sites?
There are more than a few sites that are trying to figure out what will and will not work, but one that is seriously experimenting with content is the Web site of the Las Vegas Sun.
The Greenspun family, which has owned the Sun since its inception in 1950, has committed itself to extensive investment in its Web site. Under the leadership of Rob Curley and Josh Williams, with whom I discussed the Sun’s online future in May, the Sun’s revitalized Web site is founded on a tradition of strong local news coverage with a commitment to developing new ways for expressing that coverage.
Experimenting with multimedia
If you visit the Lasvegassun.com, you will find news stories, blogs, photographs, and video about events and issues that concern the city of Las Vegas and surrounding areas, just as you will you will on any modern newspaper web site. The more experimental work can be found on the multimedia page.
The Sun Web team is emphasizing news video that provides background about important issues, multimedia presentations that deal with history and the nature of the community, and databases that allow visitors to customize the information they want.
Examples of the Sun’s video include interviews with families of some of the nine workers who died on Strip construction sites during a 16-month period. The video, titled “Cost of Expansion,” fits well with the Sun’s traditional investigative story about these deaths.
The Sun also includes an interview with two Iraq War veterans who have very different opinions about the war. The sharp contrast between their views seems to summarize the national debate that has occupied us for the last few years.
The Sun also emphasizes “evergreen” content about the city. This includes a video history of Las Vegas and interactive maps of downtown Las Vegas, the Strip, and the Valley. The maps allow you to see what the city was like at various times, along with important events and entertainers from that time. The map includes icons representing important buildings. If you click on an icon, a popup will reveal information about the location, size, and history of the building. In some cases, you can see video of the building’s implosion.
The interactive maps are really databases presented in a graphic form, and the Sun offers others. The site has a Flight Delay Generator , which allows a visitor to enter a flight number and find out how late it will be. An interactive map allows you to go to various airports around the nation and find out the percentage of flights from that airport that arrive late at Las Vegas McCarran Airport. The site has a variety of other data about air travel to Las Vegas.
Another interactive map was developed to go with a story about prescription drug abuse, and it allows a visitor to examine state by state use of six prescription drugs over a decade. These interactive maps are experiments in the user friendly, interactive presentation of databases.
Curley, president and executive editor of Greenspun Interactive, recently wrote about plans and some of the developments at the Sun in his blog.
Take risks, don't be defensive
This is not to say that the Lasvegassun.com has found the solutions to the problems confronting news organizations, nor that the content it produces is perfect. As with all news, errors are inevitable. The point is that the Sun is currently doing what all news organizations need to do--experimenting with ways to build its audience. Many news organizations have taken defensive approaches to the Web, but the Sun management seems to think that the best defense is a good offense.
Out of fairness, it should be mentioned that Lasvegassun.com has some advantages not enjoyed by all news organizations. In addition to the Web site, Greenspun Media includes the Las Vegas Sun, seven weekly newspapers in the Hometown Community News group, several local magazines, such as Las Vegas Magazine and In Business Las Vegas, and a low-power TV station. These media provide a wide range of community content that can be leveraged online.
Of course, having access to content does not guarantee its effective use. The long-term goal of the Lasvegassun.com management team is to take advantage of these content sources to create a Web site that will dominate the local Web market.
In addition to the commitment to experimentation, the Lasvegassun.com approach incorporates all of the Web’s strengths into the site—depth, speed, multimedia and interactivity. Many newspapers have not yet committed to exploiting all of these strengths.
Although the nature of newspaper Web sites will vary from market to market in meeting community needs, this does not mean each newspaper site will be unique. Few ideas are totally new. Newspapers’ experimentations should “borrow” ideas, content forms and presentation from any place they can find them. Lasvegassun.com is one. It would help newspapers to share as many experiments as possible.