"Wake up and smell the coffee" was the late advice columnist Ann Landers' favorite admonishment to correspondents who refused to see the obvious. Several random encounters and comments over the past week make me think the newspaper industry won't smell the coffee even when it's burning.
I led a seminar last week on growing online readership for newspaper Web sites. Some key moments:
- Talking about changes that should be made to drive online user experiences, one of the participants worried that "change might alienate our current users." Now, I've heard that comment repeatedly when discussing changes to the print newspaper, but this was the first time I had heard that idea applied to a newspaper Web site. Wake up! You haven't got enough online users to worry about alienating them! You've got to make huge leaps just to become relevant online, particularly with the heaviest online users, those under 35.
- When talking about opening up the newspaper Web site to reader comments, blogs, social networking, another participant asked, "how do we control what they say? It's our reputation that's on the line." Wake up! On the Web, you've got to give up the idea of control. You can let go of control and join the party, or you can remain a wallflower and watch the party go by. John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro, NC, News-Record put it this way in his Editor's Log nearly two years ago: "What you need to care about is the message -- the journalism -- you're delivering, and the way you're helping readers connect to each other. We see blogging, podcasts, audio and video as an extension of our mission. The integrity and credibility of your report -- this is key -- will not be harmed by moving aggressively into participatory journalism." He goes on to say, "Let loose of the reins... Embrace it. Open the doors to interaction and listen to the people coming inside. These are your customers, after all. It's risky, yes, but be bold. You'll learn something and be able to do better journalism." You can find the rest of John's insightful post here.
- We talked about making the newspaper Web site the go-to local source for everything a reader might want by including links to local government sites, entertainment resources, and other things. As an example we looked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's wonderful public records links. One of the participants objected that the outside links would reduce readers' time on the newspaper site by sending them off to other sites. Wake up! Your readers are going to use all the riches of the Internet whether you help them or not. Don't you want to be the source they think of first when they need something? (This comment was reminiscent of the vigorous arguments in many newsrooms in the 1950s against including TV listings in the newspaper because it would drive readers to the competing medium. Hey folks: They are going there anyway.)
I was particularly conscious of how our audience is slipping away while all this hand-wringing goes on because of my conversation with a taxi driver the night before. I know, the clichéd wisdom of the hack. In this case it wasn't his wisdom that was enlightening, but his behavior.
My driver, in his mid- to late-40s, no longer has any land-line communications devices. No phone. No cable. He has a cell phone, and he carries in his cab a laptop with a wireless card.
"And I've got a small TV under the seat, but I don't watch it much. My favorite show is 'Bones,' and it's on at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. That's a busy time for cab drivers, so I can't watch it then," he said.
But he never misses an episode. Fox also airs the show on MySpace, so he catches up with his viewing on the wireless laptop.
The world is changing fast, as my cabbie demonstrated. While we worry about losing the tech-savvy young adult audience, we're losing the tech-savvy middle-aged audience. Research by media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates cited in Broadcasting & Cable shows that nearly half of people 35 to 54 turn to the Internet first for weather information and sports scores. This is no longer a young person's medium.
Final note: The March 5 New York Times reported that the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News had launched quick-read digest pages for the time-starved reader. The tone of the piece poised between excitement and angst, asking "Any chance the digest will discourage readers from opening up the paper? Or that it is another step toward the reduction of print journalism to the equivalent of television sound bites?"
My reaction is different. First, why did it take new owners to get the Philly papers to do this? The Miami Herald adopted this very format more than three years ago, when all three newspapers were part of Knight-Ridder. Why didn't they just steal the idea from their corporate sibling then?
Second: too little, too late. The Times quotes Jay Devine, a spokesman for the papers, saying the idea came from former readers who canceled their subscriptions. The digest will probably improve satisfaction among current readers, but it's not revolutionary
enough to bring back readers who have given up. You can find the Times article here
By Steve Duke (firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Duke is managing director for training at the Media Management Center and Readership Institute, and lecturer at Medill.