Newspapers Will Never Get IT Right

Today’s essay is written by David Hakala, a long-time tech journalist turned itinerant agitator and billiards martial artist. Email him: zencueist at gmail

My son got his first job at age 14, selling subscriptions to the Rocky Mountain News door to door. The commission plan amazed me: $25 per $120 annual sign-up, plus CEO-quality bonuses for making as few as five sales per week. Some teenagers were hauling down $750 a week according to the crew supervisor, a 38 year-old high school dropout with tattooed knuckles.

Normally, such any-child-can-do-it wealth generation secrets don’t air on TV until after their target audience goes to sleep. I held my peace and let my enthusiastic offspring learn the old-fashioned way.

Six 50-hour weeks later, my boy was the team star and had earned a bit over $1,200. That was the end of his newspaper career. I confess that when he begged me to buy a subscription so he could make his weekly bonus, I said no. It’s been over eight years since I bought a single copy of a newspaper, let alone a closet-full of them. I feed my news monkey online, of course.

It’s no news that print news is in deep yogurt and sinking faster than ever. Average weekly paid circulation declined 2.6 percent for the six months ending September, 2006, following a 1.9 percent drop during the previous six months, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Sunday circulation, the advertising honey pot, shrank about 50 percent more than weekday readership. To cut costs, articles are getting shorter and fonts smaller. The years-long death by a thousand column-inch cuts is accelerating, to no one’s surprise.

Newspapers’ online editions aren’t faring much better. Today’s trend is called “crowdsourcing”, the latest euphemism for selling reader-generated content back to the readers themselves. Drew Curtis at Fark was a master of that ingenious paradigm long before it occurred to Gannett, and USA Today’s make over still doesn’t quite get this whole comment-and-recommendation thing.

The trouble with the online newspaper sites is simple. They can’t build Web sites properly. They can’t keep them running. They just don’t get IT and don’t get the Web.

Examine any aspect of any newspaper’s online edition and you will find it botched. Fixed table widths that assume everyone has a 26-inch monitor set to 1024 x 768 resolution; check. Page design that loads images, Flash animations, and other slowpokes before the text that people came to read; check. Background links to external servers, such as weather services, that prevent viewable content from loading if the remote servers are unresponsive; check. Reader forums and blogs that stall for 96 seconds every time a comment is submitted; check. Search engines that don’t understand “exact phrase in quotes”; check. Default font size set to 6 points; check.

The HTML sins just go on and on. It is sad when you realize that the average MySpace page is better designed than your average newspaper site.

And let’s not even get into the issues I have with trying to get through the gates to their sites, or why they need to collect demographic information anyway. (News flash: the hallowed New York Times is removing its gate on “Times Select” for those customers lucky enough to have an .edu address.)

Most of us know that people don’t put in accurate information anyway. When was the last time you did? When I did buy newspapers, no vendor or vending machine dared to ask me for my address, phone number, or tax bracket. The enormous popularity of BugMeNot.com should be sufficient clue for newspaper Web editors. But a growing number of these highly-qualified professionals are sabotaging BugMeNot registrations instead of dropping the doomed idea. Better to lose ad views than to give free content to strangers.

Newspaper operators would be better off shutting down their presses and their Web servers. The only unique value proposition that they have – and often do right – is local news reporting. Take the money wasted on content delivery and invest it in content creation (the opposite of what newspapers are doing now). Then sell that content to the handful of delivery services, such as Google News, that know what they’re doing. If the news is not online, no search engine can leech it. That’s the only way local newspapers are going to survive.

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21 thoughts on “Newspapers Will Never Get IT Right

  1. Exactly right.

    I live in Orlando, and I have TRIED to find value in the Orlando Sentinel. There is none. (slight exaggeration)

    However, the East Orange County Sun, which covers events and stories IN MY ZIP CODE, is really interesting! I even see people I know, and I can read about local high school events. They deliver it for free once a week to my driveway.

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  3. My feeling for a long time is that Newspapers are on their way out. Especially since around here, they don’t even send kids door to door. The newspaper is delivered by a guy in a car. My local newspaper (The Providence Journal) won’t even send out a replacement paper anymore if the paper doesn’t show up. I had a friend who ran the telemarketing department — the do not call registry put him out of business.

    A few weeks ago, i got a call asking me if I want a subscription. I already have one. In other words — they’re getting no new subscribers. They’re putting out skinnier and skinnier papers with more and more non-local content. And people go to craigslist for ads first. I would LOVE to see a local paper doing only local stuff (with local/
    national twists). — sold at news stands and by kids who deliver it after school. Of course I am a luddite.
    – Mark Binder

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  5. Mark, funny you mention telemarketers. I was the first Coloradan to sue one, six weeks after the state no-call list law took effect here. Not for a mere $500, either. The law makes liable anyone who “makes or CAUSES to be made” an offending call. So I sued the caller; her supervisor; his boss, the marketing and sales VP; the company president; AND the corporation. I argued that the entire chain of command caused the call to be made, and it worked. Five birds with one process server; $2,500. 🙂 I believe the federal no-call law offers the same opportunity.

  6. By some strange desire to kindling for my family members that smoke into our fireplace when it’s cold outside, I made the local newspaper rep (walking door-to-door selling subscriptions) estatic as I agreed to 6 months delivery of the Times paper. Must have been one of few he got that day.

    I have subscibed before, partly for the same reason – to have something to start a fire for the logs in my fireplace – and to get ads / coupons in the Sunday paper. But I did in fact read the articles.

    But, with the growth and reach of the internet, I have found all my news, sales, and info online and, most stores now have ‘club card’ for discount – no need for cumbersome coupon collections.

    I use the print newspaper these days to bide my time while sitting in traffic but, I digress.

  7. Let’s leave aside the fact that Mr. Hakala’s essay referred to “any newspaper’s online edition.” This is patently false–has he been to the New York Times site recently? I mean, of course, the completely free part, since he finds free registration oppressive.

    His conclusion about local news reporting is not only based on his false premises, it is demonstrably wrong. Mr. Hakala may have the time each day to feed his “news monkey” online, but most of us have jobs that do not involve spending the day before a computer screen. I, for example (as you know), teach school.

    I read two newspapers every day before school because they perform a genuine service–the editors spend all day looking at the news so I don’t have to. I am a former newspaper reporter, so I know that every story you aren’t interested in is too long (or doesn’t belong in the paper) and every story you aren’t interested in is too short. I, too, feed my news monkey online–based on the stories I read that morning in the paper. The editors are gatekeepers–they have the time and talent to filter the endless news stream and separate the wheat from the chaff. I love bloggers as much as the next guy, but I trust neither Matt Drudge nor any other non-professional to exercise good, balanced judgment about what is news and what is not.

    There is a question about online news that I have never heard a satisfactory answer to: if it’s news anywhere but in your hometown, and it matters to you, or your locality, or the entire nation, how are you going to know about it without a daily newspaper? Are you really going to trust amateur bloggers-even those whose politics are a perfect match for yours–to filter the entire national news flow and decide what’s important and what isn’t? The loss of the gatekeeper function of newspapers will be a great loss for ourselves, our government and our world.

    If every paper is reduced to a local-only news source for Google News, you will never experience serendipity. You will never see a news item you didn’t ask to see. I’ll eat my hat if Google hires professional journalists to create a “front page,” because it isn’t their style to do so. And even if they do, Mr. Hakala, apparently, believes they shouldn’t.

    When the last newspaper reader dies and the last newspaper closes–about 2040 or so, we will live in a poorer, more fractured world and more dangerous world, in which most of us will exist in our own disconnected pool of self-imposed isolation and ignorance.

    — Paul Schindler

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  9. Paul the journalist turned teacher says, via David Strom, “(Hakala’s) conclusion about local news reporting is not only based on his false premises, it is demonstrably wrong.”

    But the demonstration goes unmade. 🙂 I concluded that journalism is what newspapers do best and should do exclusively. It is the ONLY competitive advantage they have. Demonstrate, please.

    “if it’s news anywhere but in your hometown, and it matters to you, or your locality, or the entire nation, how are you going to know about it without a daily newspaper?”

    Well, first there were these little boxes that voices came out of, followed by bigger boxes with moving pictures and voice. Then Al Gore created the Internet, and here we are.

    “I trust neither Matt Drudge nor any other non-professional to exercise good, balanced judgment about what is news and what is not.”

    You value editors who decide what you should read in their newspapers. But you know nothing about their political affiliations; moral values; relationships with their story subjects; or any other characteristics that certainly should matter when hiring the keeper of your information gate. Unless you live in one of the mere seven U. S. cities that still has more than one daily newspaper, you don’t even have a choice! Yet you deem newspaper editors more trustworthy than Matt Drudge.

    Makes no sense to me, Paul.

    Extend your skepticism to “professionals” and you’ve got it. Much more wariness is required when reading a publication that assures you none is required, and that is staffed by professionals highly trained in disingenuity.

    One can more easily tell when a non-professional is faking it, so one can have greater trust in one’s decision to believe or disbelieve him.

    “If every paper is reduced to a local-only news source for Google News, you will never experience serendipity. You will never see a news item you didn’t ask to see.”

    You say that as if it’s a) true and b) a bad thing. I can’t believe you have ever seen Google News, so here’s a primer:

    Google News is organized into topical sections: world, nation, health, business, etc. Serendipity is stupendous within each section because there is practically infinite space for more stories. No story is shortened to make room for a last-minute ad. No editor decides to omit a story. It doesn’t get any more serendipitous.

    Google News Alerts email me a daily list of links to stories containing search strings that I specify. For example, I know whenever any “Hakala” makes news anywhere, from the U of Hawaii’s volleyball team to Finland, the family’s homeland. It also tracks stories for as long as I wish, so I don’t miss any follow-up on what interests me.

    That’s all the serendipity and delegation I need.

    Fire all editors, publishers, circulation and marketing people – print or Web. We don’t need them.

    Give the superfluous staffers’ salaries to journalists and let them create news – quality news. How are we supposed to get good reporting when the average starting salary for j-school grads is less than a year’s tuition and fees? We don’t! Instead, we get naifs with names like Buffy and Chad who can afford glamourous newspaper jobs because Mummy and/or Pater are paying their BMW leases. Can you spell “cultural bias”?

    Put these decently-paid, culturally diverse journalists’ creations on eBay and let the bidding begin. The Associated Press, UPI, CNN, Reuters, Google, Yahoo!, MS Search, and a myriad of other well-heeled parasites will fund news creation handsomely. What choice do they have?

  10. I trust neither Matt Drudge nor any other non-professional to exercise good, balanced judgment

    Matt Drudge is a tabloid hack still trying to squeeze blood from his Monica stone. I wouldn’t trust him either.

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  14. “Then sell that content to the handful of delivery services, such as Google News, that know what they’re doing.”

    Can Google be trusted to index ‘all and equal’ or will they push a line?

    Neil

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