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Friday, October 06, 2006

Roadmap to readable news sites

Because this makes way too much sense, I’m including both a link and the transcript of the whole post. For the uninitiated, Doc Searls is a tech author, pioneer, evangelist, etc., who has been covering technology probably longer than I’ve been alive. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But read this anyway because it provides a road map for newspaper Web sites to evolve. Thanks to Romenesko for the link.

Tim Rutten reports (and I pointed to yesterday), the LA Times has a monetary value of $2.5 billion and "a balance-sheet-engorging 20% margin". So why does Wall Street hate it?

Simple: Because newspapers are a rusty industry. They have tail fins. They print lists of readers every day on the obituary page. Worse, as a class they are resolutely clueless about how to adapt to a world that is increasingly networked and self-informing. And Wall Street knows that.

So, to help the papers out (as I did for public radio on Tuesday), I immodestly offer ten hopefully helpful clues.

First, stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There's advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow's fishwrap behind paywalls. Writers hate it. Readers hate it. Worst of all, Google and Yahoo and Technorati and Icerocket and all your other search engines ignore it. Today we see the networked world through search engines. Hiding your archives behind a paywall makes your part of the world completely invisible (bold is mine). If you open the archives, and make them crawlable by search engine spiders, your authority in your commmunity will increase immeasurably. Plus, you'll open all that inventory to advertising possibilities. And I'll betcha you'll make more money with advertising than you ever made selling stale editorial to readers who hate paying for it. (And please, let's not talk about Times Select. Your paper's not the NY Times, and the jury is waaay out on that thing.)

Second, start featuring archived stuff on the paper's website. Link back to as many of your archives as you can. Get writers in the habit of sourcing and linking to archival editorial. This will give search engine spiders paths to wander back in those archives as well. Result: more readers, more authority, more respect, higher PageRank and higher-level results in searches. In fact, it would be a good idea to have one page on the paper's website that has links (or links to links, in an outline) back to every archived item.

Think about how much sense this makes. Sometimes we enter into a story mid-stream and wouldn't it be convenient to find the archive of stories written about the topic in a handy little box?

Third, link outside the paper. Encourage reporters and editors to write linky text. This will encourage reciprocity on the part of readers and writers who appreciate the social gesture that a link also performs. Over time this will bring back enormous benefits through increased visits, higher respect, more authority and the rest of it.

Oy! This has been proposed many times here locally and I'm not sure what the hang-up is, probably something to do with fears about sending traffic away from the site. Or maybe sending people away from non-Guild work? I don't know but I can tell you that this is stifling the ability to evolve.

Fourth, start following, and linking to, local bloggers and even competing papers (such as the local arts weeklies). You're not the only game in town anymore, and haven't been for some time. Instead you're the biggest fish in your pond's ecosystem. Learn to get along and support each other, and everybody will benefit.

This happens to some degree, but not with any sense of purpose. For example, reporters should be using bloggers who specialize in topics as sources. You find out pretty quickly who are the reliable bloggers and who are merely the bloviators. But some of the people writing are considered experts and should be tapped accordingly.

Fifth, start looking toward the best of those bloggers as potential stringers. Or at least as partners in shared job of informing the community about What's Going On and What Matters Around Here. The blogosphere is thick with obsessives who write (often with more authority than anybody inside the paper) on topics like water quality, politics, road improvement, historical preservation, performing artisty and a zillion other topics. These people, these writers, are potentially huge resources for you. They are not competitors. The whole "bloggers vs. journalism" thing is a red herring, and a rotten one at that. There's a symbiosis that needs to happen, and it's barely beginning. Get in front of it, and everybody will benefit.

I proposed recently to the PD Reader Rep that the paper give local bloggers a job to do. Have them stretch their arms into the political reporting process. Or have them ask people across the seven-country region what one thing they would do to help alleviate poverty in Cleveland. All of that reporting could be used to create a dynamic story that could actually change Cleveland for the better.

Sixth, start looking to citizen journalists (CJs) for coverage of hot breaking local news topics -- such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and so on. There are plenty of people with digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones and other devices that can prove mighty handy for following stories up close and personally. Great example: what Sig Solares and his crew did during Katrina.

Yeah, this should soo be happening. I think it's happening behind-the-scenes, but we need to get more purposeful about these efforts. And for crying out loud, we hopefully don't need a massive natural disaster to see its merits.

Seventh, stop calling everything "content". It's a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the '90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online. It's handy, but it masks and insults the true natures of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call "editorial". Your job is journalism, not container cargo.

Hee, hee ... not container cargo. That's pretty funny.

Eighth, uncomplicate your websites. I can't find a single newspaper that doesn't have a slow-loading, hard-to-navigate, crapped-up home page. These things are aversive, confusing and often useless beyond endurance. Simplify the damn things. Quit trying to "drive traffic" into a maze where every link leads to another route through of the same mess. You have readers trying to learn something, not cars looking for places to park. And please, get rid of those lame registration systems. Quit trying to wring dollars out of every click. I guarantee you'll sell more advertising to more advertisers reaching more readers if you take down the barricades and (again) link outward more. And you'll save all kinds of time and hassle.

I think I've made myself clear on how I feel here. Though I do owe a big-time nod to Denise Polverine for doing me a very great favor related to some of my work there. Thanks, Denise!

Ninth, get hip to the Live Web. That's the one with verbs such as write, read, update, post, author, subscribe, syndicate, feed and link. This is the part of the Web that's growing on top of the old Static Web of nouns such as site, address, location, traffic, architecure and construction. Nothing wrong with any of those static verbs. They're the foundation, the bedrock. They are necessary but insufficient for what's needed on the Live Web, which is where your paper needs to live and grow and become more valuable to its communities (as well as Wall Street).

Lemme unpack that a bit. The Static Web is what holds still long enough for Google and Yahoo to send out spiders to the entire universe and index what they find. The Live Web is is what's happening right now. It's dynamic. (Thank you, Virginia.) It includes all the stuff that's syndicated through RSS and searched by Google Blogsearch, IceRocket and Technorati. What I post here, and what others post about this post, will be found and indexed by Live Web search engines in a matter of minutes. For those who subscribe to feeds of this blog, and of other blogs, the notification is truly live. Your daily paper has pages, not sites. The difference is not "just semantic". It's fundamental. It's how you reclaim, and assert, your souls in the connected world. It's also how you shed dead conceptual weight, get light and nimble, and show Wall Street how you're not just ahead of the curve, but laying pavement beyond everybody else's horizon. It's how your leverage the advantages of history, of incumbency, and of already being in a going business. (The hard part will be raising your paper's heartbeat from once a day to once a second. But you can do it. Your own heart sets a good example.)

Tenth, publish Rivers of News for readers who use Blackberries or Treos or Nokia 770s, or other handheld Web browsers. Your current home page, and all your editorial pages, are torture to read with those things. See the examples Dave Winer provides with rivers of news from the NY Times and the BBC. See what David Sifry did for the Day Fire here in California. Don't try to monetize it right away. Trust me, you'll make a lot more money — and get a lot more respect from Wall Street — because you've got news rivers, than you'll make with those rivers.

That's enough for now. More later at a link I'll put here...

As Doc says, "Discuss."

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