Newspapers First Need to Redefine ‘News’ to Move Forward Online

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It’s no surprise that current news offerings of most newspaper Web sites are outdated. To survive, they not only need to do the obvious stuff that’s been discussed by me and other industry experts ad nauseam, but also expand the range and depth of the news that they offer. They need to add the micro-personal to their news menu.

By Steve Outing

NEW YORK (September 29, 2008) — As the newspaper industry contracts amid a dismal economy, plummeting revenues and a once-in-a-generation transformation of the media environment — not to mention rising panic among industry leaders and professionals — everyone, it seems, is pondering what the future of newspapers will look like. There’s pessimism from most quarters, including suggestions that most newspapers will survive but they’ll be less than what they’ve long been.

“The Vanishing Newspaper” author and academic Philip Meyer recently suggested in American Journalism Review that “a smaller, less frequently published version packed with analysis and investigative reporting and aimed at well-educated news junkies that may well be a smart survival strategy.”

Not so fast.

Before newspaper publishers go off marching toward that (somewhat depressing) vision of the future, there may be a more hopeful and larger strategy being overlooked: Redefine what “news” is, and offer that to consumers who remain as news-hungry as ever.

This is a strategy to be executed foremost on online and mobile rather than print. (Though personalized print editions aren’t out of the question in the future.) But as news consumers continue their steady and quickening transition to digital delivery, putting the primary focus on digital for financial resurrection is inevitable anyway if newspaper companies want to survive. How much longer till we stop calling them “newspaper” companies?

The micro-personal news

So here’s my premise: I believe that the current news offerings of most newspaper Web sites are outdated. To survive in the future, they not only need to do the obvious stuff that’s been discussed by me and other industry experts ad nauseam (embrace interactive communication with readers, publish and distribute their content across many channels, aggregate news from outside sources, etc.), but also expand the range and depth of the news that they offer. They need to add the micro-personal to their news menu.

What is “news” to the modern, Internet-savvy consumer now includes information that newspapers and their Web sites have not touched in the past (except in a few isolated cases online). Many of today’s editors don’t even consider it to be “news.” Yet people are demonstrating a desire for it every day, by the millions, as they receive “news” from their friends, family, and colleagues.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s start by looking at the typical current news menu of most newspapers. I’ll split it into print and online/digital, since there are some content differences between the formats.

Print editions:
1. Staff and freelance articles, columns and photos (all papers)
2. Syndicated and wire-service content (all)
3. Best-of content from citizen-/user-content initiative (some papers)
4. Best-of bloggers (staff, freelance or loosely affiliated) (some)
5. Neighborhood or “zoned” edition coverage from staff, freelancers and/or citizen/users. (many papers; that’s the extent of “personalization”)
6. ROP display advertising and short-form classifieds (all)
7. Letters to the editor (only form of interactivity) (all)

Newspaper Web sites:
1-2 above. (all sites)
3. Full content from citizen-/user-content initiative (some sites)
4. Blogs (staff, freelance or loosely affiliated) (most sites)
5. Multimedia content including video and audio reports (staff, freelance and syndicate) (most sites)
6. Display advertising (seen by all) (all)
7. Targeted/contextual advertising (most)
8. Repurposed short-form classifieds, or digital-expanded classifieds (all)
9. Personalized news choices based on topics and/or keywords (some)
10. Aggregated news from other sources (very few sites)
11. Expanded letters to the editor (additional ones not published in print) (some)
12. User comments on articles (most)
13. Discussion forums (some)

If that’s all a newspaper has to offer its print and online audience, it’s missing the boat, because consumers’ definition of what is “news” is changing. Newspapers have an opportunity to serve this need for expanded and deeper news. Newspapers can — and should, in my view — aim to serve the complete news needs of consumers, all the way from the big-picture events of the day down to what kind of car your high school friend just bought and how she just broke up with her boyfriend. Yes, the latter IS “news” when it comes from within your social circle or social network.

React to the obvious trends

While I’m not young, my media habits probably appear younger than my years. I’m a heavy user of social networks, for example. In fact, it may even be fair to say that I find the experience of using some social networks addictive.

What’s addictive about it? I get NEWS about the people I know, and it’s fascinating. No, I don’t mean a story written by a journalist that’s about or mentions my friend Joe in Seattle, captured by a personal news filter. I mean I’m hearing Joe’s news directly from Joe. If he buys a new car, gets a divorce, crashes his bike, sees Angela Jolie walking down the street, or whatever, I learn about it because he posts about it and he’s within my social network universe. (No reporter is going to write up that stuff. No media outlet has even pondered, to my knowledge, creating a “news service” that would get that personal.)

There are plenty of social networks that people use; the ones that I’ve incorporated into my own “media diet” and like best are Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter offers a constant stream of “news” from people I know and choose to “follow.” The (fast-)growing number of people who use Twitter find it to be an easy and fast way to share their lives, thoughts, opinions, links, stuff they have for sale, recommendations — their personal newsfeed — just with the people who care. They can do so whether sitting in front of a computer or out in the world via their cell phones. By also “following” Twitter feeds of news organizations, you can even get a pretty good overall view of the big-picture events of the day. Ergo, Twitter already can, to a degree, serve the expanded version of “the news” that I’m describing — from the globally significant to the micro-personal.

Facebook offers a similar experience, though it’s not quite as close to the global-to-personal news idea I’m getting at. There’s much to be had in the Facebook environment, but its News Feed is the component where the Facebook user gets this range of news. News Feed continually scrolls through updates from people in your Facebook network (“friends”), which includes profile changes, upcoming events, birthdays, notes or memos, recommended links or articles, videos, photos, etc. The globally significant news that’s likely to show up on your Facebook News Feed will be recommended news stories from friends, which can be valuable, but obviously won’t keep you fully informed of world, national and local events.

Social networks can, then, serve up the global-to-micro-personal news diet. Though I don’t think most Internet users would include their online social networks if you asked them to list the news sources that they most rely on.

The soup-to-nuts news service

We know that social networks are wildly successful; hundreds of millions of people use them. But I don’t think the newspaper industry really needs to worry about them becoming a replacement for news Web sites. They’re more about connecting, communicating, and keeping up with family, friends, and colleagues. While capable of also serving a news function, as I’ve described, they’re simply not designed nor meant to be the “newspaper of the future.”

But newspapers and other news organizations can leverage the power of the massive social networks to their own advantage. (Note that I said “leverage,” not “try to replace or duplicate.”) They can offer the global-to-micro-personal news service and, perhaps, reinvent themselves for a new generation of news consumers that wants more than older generations. This is a different way of thinking than we’ve seen from news companies so far vis-a-vis external social networks.

Here’s how I see the “newspaper” shaping up: Call it the Daily Me 2.0 for the online and mobile news consumer. (I doubt these concepts are going to port easily to print.)

As a subscriber to a news Web site, you’ll be able to configure your account to the type of news you wish to receive. The content will come from a variety of sources (listed here from global sources at the top down to micro-personal ones at the bottom):

* Wire services and syndicates with which the newspaper already has contractual agreements.
* Unaffiliated news Web sites. (Bring in their feeds; think Google News or Topix-like functionality.)
* Unaffiliated blogs. (Ditto; think Technorati or Google Blogsearch-like functionality.)
* Newspaper staff and freelance content. (Local and national. Text, photos, audio, video, multimedia.)
* Staff and freelance blogs.
* Citizen-/user-contributed content.
* User comments and interaction on all content.
* Discussion forums.
* Personalized news based on user preference. (Topic selection and/or keyword searches.)
* Micro-personal news from a user’s social networks, filtered from external sites by capturing user’s log-in data for those services.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see anyone who offers this range of news. News aggregators (Google News, Yahoo! News, Topix, et al) bring us the world via hundreds or thousands of sources; but they omit the micro-personal, leaving that to the social networks. Sites like FriendFeed can tap into multiple social networks and bring you micro-personal news from your social circle; but they don’t work well (if at all) at providing conventional news.

Perhaps the opportunity for newspaper companies is to evolve into the one source for ALL of an individual’s news needs. Just maybe this is the kind of reinvention of the “newspaper” that will make them relevant to a generation of digital natives. (And if they can do that, significant new revenues will come.)

Executing this vision

I don’t have time in this column to go into detail about how to pull this off or incorporate it into your own company’s strategy. But I hope it gets you thinking about the possibilities of moving beyond old definitions of news.

This doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking. It doesn’t involve hiring a bunch of reporters or content creators. It’s more of a Web development effort, aided by the openness of the social networks. It’s about leveraging what’s been laid at your feet by other companies.

Most social network services that have become successful are open to other parties accessing and leveraging their content. (Facebook is a bit of an exception.) For an idea of how this works, take a look at FriendFeed, for example. That service pulls in content from a range of external social online services used by its subscribers, who share their log-in information in order for other people to view their postings originally published to various online venues. Just as FriendFeed pulls in micro-personal content from various sources, a soup-to-nuts news service can do the same thing, then push that out to its users so that they can track the “news” just from their friends, combined with conventional news.

There’s much going on around Twitter right now, thanks to that social service’s API. It’s simple enough to filter out just Twitter posts (tweets) from people within a single geographic location. (See TwitterLocal.net.) Combine that with individual-user filtering of the user’s Twitter “following” list, for example, and you have a service that allows your Web site users to track the micro-personal news of people they know within your town. That’s just one possibility.

This will, of course, require a change of mindset by publishers. Because to pull this off, you won’t be creating your own version of Twitter that you run; you’ll be encouraging your audience to use Twitter and the add-on features that your Web site offers. You won’t create your own photo-sharing service for your audience; you’ll encourage them to use Flickr plus your add-on features, which will bring their Flickr friends’ photos into their personal news stream. And so on.

Tell me what you think: E-mail me at steve@outing.us. Do you agree that newspaper companies need to reshape and broaden the range of news that they offer?

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