Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What would I do with a newspaper? Fix it!

Kevin Maney at USA Today apparently was wandering around the Web 2.0 conference talking to Silicon Valley folks about how to fix newspapers. I wish we'd had a chance to talk, since Zvents is partnering with major newspapers to reinvent local media.

First let's examine the problem. Newspapers have no online pageviews. That means that they can't make any money online, and their offline revenue-generating ability is cratering. What's a useful measure of online vs. offline? How about physical print pages (one sheet of paper in one newspaper) vs. one online pageview? Here are 10 major papers compared:

Now keep in mind that an online pageview in no way compares to an offline page. An offline page has perhaps 3 articles and some big ads; an online pageview is perhaps 1/3 of an article and some small ads. Add in a "like to like" impact/influence factor of 10X, and you've got the leading online papers (NYTimes) in the 5% range of replacing their offline traffic, and others (Tribune) at less than 1% of where they need to be. Maybe that's why Tribune is for sale, while the NYTimes is making smart web acquisitions like

So how do you get traffic up? The best answer is, "build a compelling product that people want to use." Here I am flabbergasted that Maney's techie interviewees totally missed the boat. He writes, "No one, for instance, proposed that newspaper websites, which generally look more crowded than a Mumbai flea market, pare down to a single, clean Google-esque local search box."

OK, Kevin, I'll bite: The navigation and presentation metaphor of newspaper websites is totally broken, and it's a big reason why their products don't get enough usage. There are dozens of subtle clues in a physical paper that tell you that there's lots inside -- the size and heft, the number of pages, the fact that your periperhal vision is picking up page 3 while you're reading page 2, the fact that the sports section falls out when you pick up the front section. None of these clues exist in a website, and thousands of great pieces of editorial content posted on newspaper sites get a fraction of the traffic they'd see if *anyone could find them*. This doesn't just mean Google-like active search -- it means passive discovery mechanisms like Memeorandum or Google News (which already drives about 30% of total newspaper pageviews -- yes, you read that right!) and it also means "sidways navigation" mechanisms like Aggregate Knowledge. Solving this problem is crucial to the future of newspapers online.

And then there's the content. Newspapers have created their content to match the physical and economic constraints on their business. The length, detail, and volume of news stories they create -- and their focus on text first, pictures second, audio and video never -- are deeply driven by their dead tree tradition. Even more importantly, their emphasis on data and the long tail has been very curtailed by their inability to publish a phone book every day. Zvents focuses on events, where newspapers cover perhaps 2% of what's actually going on in a metro area -- but there are dozens, hundreds, of other areas where newspapers have been forced by past realities to curtail the breadth and depth of their coverage. All those constraints have been blown away, and suddenly the entire shape and structure of their news-gathering, sorting, polishing, and dissemination has to change.

I haven't even touched the advertising side. That's food for another post.

There's a lot more... but that's a primer on how I'd fix newspapers. To find out more about how my company, Zvents, can help newspapers in this transition process, visit our site.

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