This is the second and final part of Bill Wyman's series on the print media. Read Part 1 here.
3. Timidity doesn’t work on the web
So: We have an industry facing a crisis that demands sophisticated, daring action, but that has rewarded, ineluctably but surely, timidity and caution, and whose livelihood has depended on not telling its audience anything it didn’t want to hear. Now, that industry, its underlying business model vaporizing, has migrated itself to the web.
The web doesn’t reward blandness. It doesn’t really like the obvious, the inoffensive and the established. Today, if you published a web page with the headlines I just listed on it—you know, starting with “Wooden Memories” and going right on down to “Great Gifts for Teachers”—you wouldn’t get many readers. In this way, the web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid.
Paradoxically, it also displays their superficiality: Anyone truly interested in old wood-shop projects can find a world of much better information about them on the web. A daily newspaper presents a platter to readers. You don’t have to eat everything on it, but you’re not getting anything that wasn’t sent out from the kitchen originally. And over the years editors have learned not to put anything spicy on that platter.
The web is a smorgasbord. It isn’t quite infinite, but it is comprehensive. It can satisfy any appetite. Newspapers never did that; they just provided subsistence, because no one else was around to offer anything better. That’s the first problem the monopoly mentality presents to papers trying to move their operations to the web.
The second is this: The web seems to reward aggregation in a powerful way. Now, that’s what newspapers used to do, right? Didn’t they aggregate all the best information in town? This is where the lassitude that newspapers developed comes back to haunt them. They aggregated, but they didn’t aggregate well. When you’re a monopoly, when you’re essentially the only aggregator, it doesn’t matter what you give people.
For generations, broken-down section editors have patted themselves on the back for aggregating stories like “Free burrito for teachers” and “Post Office food drive.” Continuing this restaurant metaphor, the web rewards people who’ve put better platters together, who have a good taste sense and a knack for finding great new dishes. Newspapers, by contrast, specialized in blandness. That’s an advantage if you’re the only choice, and you don’t want any complaints. But when you’re not, it’s a crushing disadvantage. Beyond that, newspapers are actually quite exclusionary; they only want the foods they’ve prepared on their platter.
Where I live, in the town that has the paper with the big story about “Wooden Memories,” a competing, smaller paper in town just won a Pulitzer Prize. It won the award for an exposé about the dangerous (i.e., involving actual deaths) and wasteful (totaling tens of millions of dollars) activities of the most popular politician in the state. The big paper mentioned the news perfunctorily and vaguely inside the paper. No one called the editor of the other paper, or called the politician for comment. The politician is in the news virtually every single day, but, as far as the largest paper in the state was concerned, the prize wasn’t again worth mentioning.
It used to be easier for a paper to hide embarrassing stuff like that. On the web, it’s harder, but that’s not even the point. A news operation that tries to hide information from its readers—which, let’s face it, daily papers in the U.S. often did, in ways large and small—will inevitably become devalued on the web.
An institution with a true aggregating mentality and a sense of how the web works would have tossed up the news and opened the validity of the award—and the politician—to the opinions of readers. It would have made itself the center of the debate sure to attract the attention of folks on both sides of the argument. Only an institution with the soul of a monopolist and the timidity of a titmouse would, instead, downplay the news like that.
Newspapers used to be their reader’s de facto window to the world, but it was just a quirk—their monopolies—that made them that. Most newspaper home pages are cramped and insular. Today, any person who creates a personalized Google home page, to cite just one example, can put together a much better window—one that comprises headlines, a clock, weather, recent postings on any blogs that interest them, and hundreds of other things—in about 15 minutes.
The papers might have had a chance on the web if they had understood it, grasped its service power, and made themselves the masters of it. That they didn’t just proves my point. It wasn’t in their genetic makeup to do anything like it.
4. The staffs of the papers, from management down to the reporters, deserve a big share of the blame
This is the most hush-hush factor of all. I can’t remember, in reading coverage of the declines of newspapers of the last 10 years, where this point has been made cleanly and forcefully.
Here’s an example of the phenomenon in action. I worked for a nonprofit media company that was in a tough financial spot. An angel swept in and made all the troubles go away. That afternoon, the top newsman at the company got up to address us. “This doesn’t mean you’re all going to get Blackberry’s,” he said. Instead, we hired consultants to tell us what to do with our windfall, and we managers spent with them many hours—many painful hours, days upon days, all of them in rooms filled with people being paid huge sums per hour—we could have better spent doing journalism.
Months later, the consultants gave us our results at a company meeting. Suggestion number one: The staff should get Blackberry’s. That’s a true story. Media is information, and information technology has been growing more powerful at an exponential pace. The implications of that on society have been obvious, but newspapers, managed and staffed by people who don’t understand the implications of the phrase “exponential growth,” have remained locked into antiquated systems both mental and physical, burdened with IT departments that treated newsrooms as just another department to outfit with crummy, locked-down workstations, and run by managers whose discomfort with or fear of technology was palpable.
“This doesn’t mean you’re all going to get Blackberry’s.” Of course—why would you want to give employees at a media company devices that made it easier for them to communicate and pass along information?
Journalists like to affect a garrulous Ludditism—“Just give me an old Royal.” It was charming and romantic and directly led to the less charming and romantic concussion of waves after waves of buyouts and layoffs we’ve seen over the last few years. The attitude ate journalism away from the inside in two ways: It put journalists physically and psychologically out of touch with society and hampered its coverage; and it devolved into a head-in-the-sand response to the challenges facing the industry.
Now, when it comes to the antiquated, hobbled equipment Old Media news organizations invariably use, an IT person will tell you there are cost considerations and important security issues at stake. Of course there are. But these same IT specialists rarely (in my experience, never) take affirmative steps to educate newsroom staffs with a view to putting new and important tools into their hands safely. And management, inexperienced themselves with technology, rarely made such initiatives a priority.
Blackberries, instant messaging platforms, programs like iTunes—it’s hard to bring your staff into the modern world when their workstations are so old the operating system doesn’t work with them; or when, even if they did, company policy disallows unauthorized programs; or when, once the issues were kicked upstairs for decision, upper management was flummoxed by the issues at hand.
Now, ironically enough, as computing has advanced, many of those features and many newer ones have become web-based, which renders these issues moot. But after 15 years of foot-dragging and ignorance, the damage has been done.
The backwardness has other manifestations as well. Sometimes it’s prosaic, if irritating. I worked at two advanced media companies whose staff was forced to use unwieldy email programs (Lotus and Outlook, natch) with a storage limit of 50 megs. One of their charming features was a tendency to freeze up when the storage limit was reached. At the time, Google was offering a much more malleable free email with a gig of storage, or about 20 times as much.
Other times it has more serious implications. I worked for a company that sent correspondents off to edit sound in war zones with Panasonic Toughbooks outfitted with 500 megs of RAM.
Now, you either understand the implications of that or you don’t; but by comparison, at the time, I had two generic store-bought computers at home that each had two gigs of RAM just to run Windows adequately, much less manipulate sound. Those discrepancies—20 times as much, four times as much—show how extreme the pressures are the digital age puts on media company managers. The word “growth” barely encapsulates power that escalates exponentially, or by orders of magnitude, and they disregarded the implications of such growth at their peril.
All they needed is some media-savvy employees to show them the way through the mess.
* * *
Beginning in the mid-1990s, it became clear an enormous sea change was about to about to overtake the nation’s media industries. AOL was growing, and its power in terms of sending web traffic to newspaper sites was palpable. The potential of the Internet for disseminating information was patent, the decline of terrestrial newspaper readership was plain, and the implications of the ineluctable (and, again, in some aspects exponential) growth of most aspects of the digital experience were easy to discern.
If only the nation’s newspapers had people on their staff who were familiar with media and news and were trained to ferret out information and translate the implications of it for laypeople! The layoffs hitting newspapers across the country are a tragedy, just as they are in any profession buffeted by technological change. Whether you’re an assembly-line worker or a classical-music critic, a typesetter or a local news reporter, every job lost to a technological shift hurts equally.
That said, let me play devil’s advocate: Shouldn’t the staffs of these media companies have stepped up to help lead the papers forward?
There were a number of things the papers plainly needed to do. Most of all they needed to stake their place in the new informational channel that was going to change our world. They had to shift their coverage to a new, tech-savvy generation. They needed new equipment to share in the experience of that generation, undergoing the biggest sociological shift since the 1960s. They needed to learn the new era’s tools, experiment with and test a new medium, take advantage of its speed and immediacy to take their place in society even deeper into peoples’ lives. They needed to take a look at their work rules and union agreements to make sure they didn’t the hamper the evolution of their industry at a time when it could be facing mortal danger.
The truth is, newsroom staffs are permeated with fear of change and a discomfort with new technology. At bigger urban papers, parsimonious bosses, unions and work rules made the transition even more difficult. Papers had to open Internet operations offsite (in one notable case, in another state) to get around union rules. The tender buttons of the news staffs were so sensitive that today many large papers still have not entirely integrated their newsrooms.
I don’t recall hearing any employees arguing the case that there were huge, game-changing issues at stake, that the clouds on the horizon might warrant some new paradigms. (Among other things, you didn’t see too many business reporters explaining their papers’ profit margins or detailing where the money was going.) The timidity gene that had had so much effect on the evolution of editors played a role in the makeup of reporters, too.
Perhaps I’m being classist to say this, but I don’t think most of us expected the average Detroit automotive worker to come up with the strategies to save his or her industry. But was it too much to ask of journalists? This is the most taboo subject of all, but I’ll say it: In large part, those thousands of laid-off journalists have no one to blame but themselves.
5. Newspaper websites suck
I was looking for a Los Angeles Times story about iTunes recently; prices had just risen to $1.29 from 99 cents, and I wanted to see how the paper covered it. I went to the Times website, typed “iTunes” into the search bar and got a list of links with odd scraps of text beneath them. None was the story I wanted. The first link seemed to be a list of stories about Apple, so I clicked on it and got this:
Leaving aside the crummy design, the wasted white and beige space, the corporate crap in the photo cutline, and mystifying architecture, the page was a strange thing to get to, because there wasn’t much there. The word “iTunes” doesn’t appear anywhere on the page, much less a story about iTunes, which was what I had been looking for when, naively, I typed the word “iTunes” into the search bar of the web site of one of the nation’s most celebrated newspapers.
A layperson would be entirely confused; I surmised that basically this is supposed to be an Times aggregate page for stories about Apple. Someone at the paper had a dim idea that such aggregate pages are a good idea, and so assigned programmer time to generate the home pages for a variety of topics, and reroute subordinate queries (in this case “iTunes”) into catch-all topic pages.
And those topic pages would come up first in search results. But then, apparently, someone either never bothered to finish the programming, or someone else never learned how to code the stories to get them to appear on the aggregate pages, or maybe the person whose idea the aggregate pages were got fired or laid off. Anyway, that’s why I got that confusing and unhelpful page.
You’ll note as well that I didn’t actually find the story I was looking for originally, either. I went back, typed in the words “iTunes” and “1.29” … and the story I was looking for came right up. Why didn’t it come up the first time?
My experience with the Times’ site wasn’t unusual. Newspaper sites, by and large, are designed as if the paper still had a monopoly on news in its area—and that it didn’t have to work hard to make the sites work sensibly for readers. There is often information available, but you have to work to find it, and the sites don’t seem to care whether you find it or not, and don’t present the information you want in an easy or engaging way. The criticism of Google News you hear from publishers makes me laugh. The top 20 daily newspaper companies in the country could have built a similar site with a paltry investment 15 years ago.
They didn’t, of course, for three reasons:
• No one understood the technology or its implications, and if they did lacked the skills to situate their companies competitively;
• They didn’t think they had to;
• And, most importantly, after decades of monopoly control, they had forgotten to care about the convenience of readers in the first place.
Those three bulleted points amount to a polite way of saying they were out of their depth, lazy, and arrogant. There are so many problems with newspaper web sites it’s difficult to sort them all out. But here are a few of the major ones.
- First, the sites don’t even try to present information to visitors effectively. Imagine a typical story page on a newspaper website. In your mind, slice it in half horizontally, and then in thirds vertically. Number the top three rectangles one to three, and the bottom three four to six. Sorry about all the math, but here’s my point: Why is it that, in the vast majority of cases when reading stories online, when you request a story, the site gives it to you, essentially, in rectangle number five? Why, after customers have asked for a specific thing, in other words, does the paper give them five times as much stuff they don’t want?
Every story page should look like a story: Headline and byline in the upper left-hand corner, art nicely incorporated into the design.
- When a reader requests a page, the result, besides being stuck in that bottom rectangle by the site’s strict and unimaginative architecture, doesn’t really look like much. Take a look at this screen shot:
That’s a thundering editorial from the Journal on the Minnesota senate race. There’s not too much majesty to the presentation, however. You can’t tell it’s an editorial, and its puny placement on the page suggests that it probably isn’t that important in any case. The same goes for major magazine pieces, investigative series and more. From the Pentagon Papers to “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” that’s what it would look like. And again: Since the reader has already requested the page—that is, the reader has told the paper what he or she wants—the cheesiness of the presentation is doubly off-putting.
- That stuff the customer doesn’t want—what is it? Well, navigation and promotional crap, mostly. There are banner ads, which I would contend most people don’t mind. (We’re used to ads next to news stories.) But why can’t there be a headline in the upper left-hand corner, where it should be, and a banner or two on the right, with the navigation stuff stuck on the bottom, where it belongs.
- The page isn’t designed for readers; it’s designed to placate power centers inside the paper. Take a look again at that Journal shot. More than a half dozen horizontal bars, featuring line after line of links you’re not interested in. Who is? Internal powers at the WSJ, that’s who. Those “tools” are rarely used by customers, even on the homepage, and probably never off story pages. The partners in the grandiosely titled “Wall St. Journal Digital Network”—what percentage of the site’s visitors come to the Journal site to navigate to one of them? Basically zero. The links are there because of corporate dictates, not reader service.
- Basic web devices—even primordial ones like linking—are infrequent and inconsistent. Most newspaper letters pages still don’t link to the stories the letters are about! (I worked for a household-name news organization whose top web editor told me the design of the site didn’t allow links in text. The assertion raised so many questions in my mind I was rendered speechless. It was almost like a Zen koan; the terrestrial equivalent might be of a newspaper whose pages were all glued together.) Even on sophisticated sites like the NYT, the company has compromised linking consistency with an ill-advised turn toward definitional links.
- Too many papers don’t change headlines from print editions. The print headlines are fashioned under the unforgiving space restrictions of headline windows in the paper; their awkward nature can be forgiven, and in any case they are often helped along by context. The vast majority are transferred to the web unchanged, often with gnomic results. It was easy to see 10 years ago that stories should each have two headlines attached: one telegrammatic for the paper, one more expansive and a lot more provocative for the web.
- Basic navigational aids are ignored. Little in the layout tells you you’re facing a 100-word story or a 1500-word one; or whether you’re on page one of a story, or page five. Ancillary reader options like email, share or go to the next story are sometimes clustered at the top of the story only, while many might find it convenient to find them again at the bottom.
- You’d think that a local paper would have the best guide to local arts, activities, recreational options and travel. Not true. I recently talked to a representative of a large chain about why it was virtually impossible to find out about local arts or recreation activities on its websites. Turns out it was all subordinated into a different search engine that you could only access on certain pages—and that the service was outsourced to some crappy company whose information was pathetically incomplete and hard to use. Hmmm, I thought to myself—I bet their competition would take advantage of this weakness. Turned out the competition used the same outsourced company. Let’s be honest: These papers deserve to die.
- The papers are clueless about page views, beyond the crudest apprehension that putting a link that mentions Britney Spears on the homepage generates hits. Daily analysis of page views, combined with the jettisoning of little-read features, can vastly increase readership on the web. The web is so volatile these swings can represent orders of magnitude. It can also help a site make much better use of the space they put in front of readers. Since improving readership is entirely out of the mindset of most editors, this never gets done. A simple expedient can fix this: Department heads could have increased page views for their departments’ stories be part of the “deliverables” used for their performance reviews and raises.
- It’s not that hard to fashion a more effective search system. Reporters and editors can easily be trained to assign keywords to each story they produce. And when headlines are written, that second headline should also be used to be displayed under search results, which would get rid of the odd bits of text that generally come up in newspaper web site search engines. But papers don’t do that because of some of the problems I outlined above: They don’t have the “service gene” after so many years as a monopoly. They don’t understand technology; most newspaper editors or publishers probably have never even thought about optimizing search on their sites. Their supposed staffs of contrarian, opinionated creative types don’t know anything about it either.
Virtually all sites are built along these lines of thinking. Journalists organize. There’s always been a sports section, an arts section, a heath section and so forth. It makes total sense for similar “sections” on the web. That’s how we think: What’s the best way for us to arrange the information we have? Absent is any systematic thought about how readers use the site differently on the Internet, or how to make that use easier.
* * *
A final note about blogs: The papers’ use of blogs, in almost all cases, doesn’t just display unfamiliarity with the form; they are set up in a way that are virtually guaranteed to fail. In the old world of newspapers, a local columnist was a local celebrity; the very idea of a little “value-added” web presence by the paper’s stars would seem to be obvious. A local columnist or writer who starts a blog will accordingly get some ex officio interest. And, accordingly, the blog will reflect a little ex officio pompousness and self-absorption. The people who already know the writer will accept it—why, he’s a big-deal newspaper columnist, after all.
But on the web, everyone’s equal. Those who don’t know the writer don’t have any inherent reason to read the blog, and they, if they ever happen upon it, once confronted with that ex officio pompousness, probably won’t come back. In this way, the blog’s readership will be a downward spiral of readers the paper already had. So any paper’s bloggers need to compete with the entire web, but most don’t even try. They need to break out of the monopoly, our-writers-are-celebrities mindset and devote themselves to putting worthwhile, original information into their blogs. The blogs need to be “must-reads,” which means they have to continually have information that no one else has. There are some talented and successful newspaper bloggers, of course. But looking over the average paper’s staff blogs, I would bet most get a readership that makes the staff time that goes into writing and processing them a waste for all involved. And remember that most newspaper bloggers are staff people—they are making terrestrial wages to write on the Internet. Those economics do not and will not work on the net save for a very few specific cases.
What’s missing is an eye toward reader service. I really don’t care what a particular writer’s thoughts are on a particular bit of news. The papers should be generating actual news and information, and using their superior resources to create a critical mass. For example, it’s amazing that every paper in the country doesn’t have a crime blog, with reporters pulling in details from precincts around the city; a business blog, with a continuous stream of comings and goings and deals; and an arts blog, with similar entries about hires and fires and then any other actual news on the scene. (Note I said news, and not the usual “Here’s what I think about this” entry, or reconstituted press releases.)
Each of those would put the paper at the center of the action in those realms, rather than a follower, which is what generally happens.
* * *
The unspoken corollary of all of this is that the papers’ troubles are going to get worse, and probably won’t ever get better. No one as yet has a business plan that will work, mostly because the papers just don’t have anything to sell that can approximate the size of the lost value from their vaporized monopolies.
And, of course, they are too wedded to past practices.
If I were running a chain of papers, here’s what I’d do:
1) Go hyper local; devote all resources, from reporting to front-page space, to local news. No one cares what the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch has to say about Iraq.
2) Redesign the websites to present users with a single coherent stream of news stories and blog entries. Create simple filters to allow them to tailor the site to their preferences.
3) Tell the union you won’t be touching salaries, but that all work rules are being suspended, including seniority rights. Tell all reporters that they’re expected to post news if word of it reaches them in what used to be thought of as “after hours.”
4) Get out of the mindset of “nice” coverage. Tell the reporters to find the “talker” stories in town—development battles, corrupt pols, anything with a consumer bent. Monitor web traffic to find out what people are interested in. If a particular issue jumps, flood the zone. Make each paper the center of every local debate, no matter how trivial, and make finding and creating those debates the operation’s prime job.
5) Create chain-wide coverage of all areas where it can be done. It’s sad, but it means laying off a lot more film critics and dozens of other duplicated positions. For such positions, do this. Hire two people to cover the beat for the chain. Make them into sparring partners, arguing about each new TV show, movie, CD, traveling Broadway show, concert tour etc. Get out of the business of being promotional. Give your readers sharply argued opinions, something fun to read they can’t get anywhere else.
6) Create local listings second to none. Create them from the users’ point of view. Don't use abbreviations. Overwhelm users with insider information that only locals know; where to park, where to sit, when to go, etc. Get rid of all the site navigation levels no one cares about. Put the information people want front and center.
7) Devote as much manpower as possible to creating must-read local news blogs. Tell the bloggers to work the phones and IMs, finding out about every personnel change, every office move, any tidbit. Support and cite local bloggers in the same areas. Yell at staff members if they are consistently being scooped by (unpaid) competitors.
8) Create and maintain a wiki designed ultimately to function as an encyclopedia for the town, from neighborhoods and politicians to every retail establishment. Let it become the ultimate guide to the area. Like Wikipedia, it will inevitably contain information that is controversial. Cover the controversies with alacrity.
9) Serve the community. Don't publish crap. Tell folks stuff they might not want to hear. Grow a pair.
Bill Wyman is a cultural critic and author of the blog Hitsville. He can be reached at email@example.com.