Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Herald's clumsy metamorphosis into an online newspaper

I'm getting reports that there is some unease in the newsroom at TMH with regards to attempts by the paper's executives to bring it into the 21st century. While I understand the reasons for that unease (who wants to change the way one does business after building an entire career?) it just isn't realistic to pretend that the old newspaper paradigm is still viable.

Among the beefs, apparently, is resentment at the fact that "all the reporters" being hired are being hired for the dotcom version of the paper which is evolving into a 24-hour news desk. Again I don't see a problem with this. In order to compete in the online world, the Herald is going to have to staff up on reporters that understand the way new media works and the editors are going to have to find a way to do their jobs faster.

The reason why most cities only have one or two newspapers is because of the relatively high barriers to entry. The cost of the printing presses and the actual distribution of the newspapers (trucks, fuel, laborers) are exorbitant. But as all readers migrate away from the dead-tree editions those barriers that the old-line newspapers used as a moat will turn into anchors around their necks. What's to prevent a small or mid-sized media company from setting up a 100% ad-supported online only news web site in Miami? Nothing.

That said, the Herald does have a head start on any potential entrants to the market. It has a roster of journalists and editors that are familiar with the area and the issues. It has an existing readership base and, regardless of all the legitimate criticisms, has done some outstanding reporting of some very important issues. Given all of this, the Herald needs to drastically streamline the fixed costs associated with the print edition and focus its investments and attention in the dotcom whose readership is growing.

Yes, it's true online ads don't command the same dollars that traditional ads do, but online news costs less to distribute than traditional newspapers do. The only way to increase online ad revenue is to increase online readership.

So TMH's executives are right to try to make the organization an online model for McClatchy and the industry but it has a long way to go to get there.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that in some ways it seems like the Herald is moving in the right direction but it's not evident in the final product yet.

Some areas for improvement are:

  1. The overall layout of the web site. It's not intuitive or user friendly (or advertiser friendly for that matter).
  2. Registration. It doesn't make sense to require registration for readers to BROWSE an article or column. At the same time it doesn't make sense to not require registration with a working email address to COMMENT on an article.
  3. "Digital Edition". This version of the printed paper which is essentially a series of PDFs is a loser. I find it hard to believe that any significant number of people are paying to browse a clumsier version of the same articles available at Resources are being wasted on generating this garbage.
  4. Use of video and photographs. While it's improving, there is still a lot left to be desired.
  5. Archives. In the internet age traffic is driven by content. The Herald has digitized archives that date back more than 25 years but they have them locked up behind a paid wall. If you do a Google search for any major issue you'll often find a New York Times article near the top of the results. That's because the Times understands that people can't read your articles if they don't know they exist. And they can't know they exist if they aren't searchable. And they can't be searchable behind a paid wall. People from all walks of life are looking for information and when they find it at an archived page from the NYT the times can then serve that reader an ad. Multiply that effect times the hundreds of thousands of readers that a publication like the Times gets daily and you'll see why advertising on the NYT web site might be very attractive to a marketer. Here's a micro example, most of the hits to the blogs I write for come from searches. And those searches yield results from the archives. The more extensive the archives the bigger the net I have cast out there to capture readers (and viewers of the ads we serve).
It's obvious that can no longer be the afterthought it has been to date. Rather than being a place where people can access the same articles as the dead-tree edition, needs to become the source for up to the minute news. Then the printed edition of the paper becomes a collection of the best work from until it eventually disappears.


Daniel @ Garanhuns said...

I may be doing an "apples and oranges" here, but I think the "newspaper" (as a whole) ain't going anywhere. People thought television would make radio obsolete. Then again, we got the telephone and where did the telegraph people go. You might see The Herald go free. I really never researched it, but maybe a "free" major daily would shake up the industry and certainly increase ad revenue. I know you have the Miami New Times and free "alternative" weeklies, but a free daily?

Henry Gomez said...

I find it hard to believe that in the world of ever-improving wireless mobile devices that there will be many takers for a dead-tree version of the paper with it's cheap ink and the litter it produces. Remember that as the new generations of tech natives (as opposed to tech immigrants) comes of age, they will have never established the habit of poring over the paper on a Sunday morning, etc.

Henry Gomez said...

Another thing to consider is that while TV did edge Radio out in terms of the medium of choice for most consumers but we also had an automotive explosion and radio was a perfect medium for America's new pastime. I think people will still read newspapers, except it will be on their iPhone or their blackberry or whatever comes next.

Not amused said...

Clumsy? The Herald? Surely you jest. They're finesse incarnate over at Herald Plaza. They're like butter. With gravel in it.