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.