Two obstacles to improving online newspapers

Scoble says newspapers are dead, Dave says we need to reform J-School, O’Reilly says the news business is in trouble, and Doc has 11 great suggestions.

The following is intended to inform all the tech bloggers with advice for newspapers about some of the challenges faced by those of us trying to bring about change from the inside.  Here’s two things lots of folks say are wrong with most online newspapers:

We don’t link enough.

A common problem. Here’s the deal: At the end of the day, a reporter is trying to produce one file to move to the print and online content management systems. To add hypertext links, someone has to go through a second version of the story that’s just for the online CMS and add them by hand. We can certainly run scripts that turn every “www.” written into a story to a link, but how many of those do you want to see written out in full in the print edition? So, this is a technical problem that can be solved either by hiring more online staff (who would then, in theory, have time to add links to every story) or by adding functionality to a hybrid CMS that can parse some sort of linking code, if not necessarily hypertext, into different versions for print and Web.

We don’t bring local bloggers into the fold.

Well, some papers in places like Knoxville and Bakersfield certainly do, but I’ll say this: Dave, would you blog for the Merc or the Chronicle, rather than at Scripting News? Okay, so ask yourself whether Joe Blogspot would give up his own brand and identity to blog at a community site. This is why I never had much to say at Bayosphere. I’ve already got a soapbox, thanks, I don’t need your masthead at the top of my blog. Additionally, in towns where the blogging community might have different politics than the paper, it can be hard to break down that us vs. them mentality on both sides. I’ll point to Groucho’s traditional remarks on club membership for further reference on this point.

Okay, now you…

What are the next two items on your list of problems, and what’s stopping us from solving them?

9 Replies to “Two obstacles to improving online newspapers”

  1. I’ve got just one: We don’t know how to handle our content online.

    A printed paper displays photos, graphics, articles, columns, Q&A’s, reviews of all sorts, calendar items, sidebars, statistics of all types, classifieds, ads, letters to the editor, and photo essays (I’m sure there are more). Our CMSes (for the most part) handle articles, ads and photos. Many newspaper-dot-coms don’t have an online calendar app yet — I was cutting and pasting into the calendar HTML file at the Winston-Salem Journal well into 2006.

    I’m a little curious why newspapers are so eager to focus on all the online extras (video and podcasting) — it’s like they don’t care / don’t want to think about all the information they publish daily. Hey newspapers! Look inside — there might be something valuable in there.

  2. Got one more, Ryan: online newspapers don’t have the tools to harness and build local communities. Registration systems, when they exist, are for the benefit of the ad departments, not the people. The means of community interaction now are paltry and unimaginative.

    Online newspapers don’t have the tools necessary to thrive on the internet. Part of this may be because the folk in the newsroom and in the community aren’t asking loud enough, or they don’t know who to ask.

  3. To continue the theme – most newspaper CMS’ stink. They are by-and-large written with the ‘article’ as their central organizing paradigm, which is just useless when it comes to multimedia, databases, rss feeds, widgets, and interactivity in general. If API or NAA wants a nice $1m project, they should develop a great CMS and give it away to all newspapers. Or, they could just buy the rights to Ellington and help us all install it. That would be a start.

  4. Then again, there might be some bloggers who want the best soapbox to speak to their community. A local historian would probably prefer to be on a local news site, with the intendent publicity that generates, than sending out posts into the great wide yonder. Publishing under another banner won’t suit everyone, but it might well suit some.

  5. Regarding the lack of links in my local newspaper’s site, I couldn’t agree more. I was interviewed by a reporter 2 days ago and the story ran today. It would have been very easy for them to embed links to the companies and blogs they talked about, but they didn’t.

    How about this solution: Just set up your print and online layout scripts to understand one new code for a url. The reporter simply embeds it when they want a link in the online version. When the print script sees it, it ignores it, but when the online script runs into it, boom, a link is created! Pretty simple.

    Regarding your other point about local blogs, why not just run RSS feeds of the headlines from the best local blogs/posts? The newspaper site should be a resource, meaning it’s OK to have a bunch of links to blogs outside its own domain. I really think the loss of eyeballs as they click away is the biggest fear on this one, which is too bad.

  6. Hi Ryan…

    haven’t stopped by in awhile, but this one caught my attention….and, you’re right. These would manifest in a perfect world, but, sadly, our world is super-imperfect and there are entrenched ways of dealing with “the people” that are hard to break…

    One big complaint about bloggers and linking to them is “how do we know these bloggers are credible”–the answer, for anyone who spends time online, is pretty easy. Is there an identifiable person connected to the site? Are they linked other places and who links to them? If they’re anonymous, how long have they been around and what’s their community like? or are they just hanging out there, diary-style?

    Ah, but these finesse points would take time and they’d need to pay someone who understands the “soft skills” inherent to interpreting blog content….

    Unfortunately, like a lot of companies looking to do word-of-mouth marketing in the blogosphere, newspapers aren’t going to hire a person, but rather look for an alogrithm (maybe) to help them complete the task. And if they do that, they’ll run into the same problems that marketers run into, and end up back at square one.

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