My hometown newspaper last week unveiled a re-thought Web site as part of a new digital cocktail of paid content, an app package, and more. It has its positives and negatives and is, like all new ventures, a work in progress.
Yet as a customer, I was as lost in the new Web site as I was in the old one. In fairness, I feel the same about all newspaper Web sites.
The greatest strength of newspapers is their breadth of coverage, which works so well in a print platform. Yet that is not a strength consumers generally value in today's era of over-choice — especially true for the Twitterfied online generation.
The transference of that breadth from the print platform to the online platform is the equivalent of an old man stepping into the loudest discotheque: sensory perception overload.
Upon seeing The Dallas Morning News' new design, I wondered how unique their treatment of breadth was. So I perused Web sites from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in the United Kingdom, Le Monde and Le Figaro in France, La Nacion and Clarín in Argentina, The Times of India and the Hindustan Times in India, El Mundo and ABC in Spain, De Standaard and De Morgen in Belgium, the Globe and Mail and National Post in Canada, and many more. Frankly, I found The Morning News' treatment of breadth on their home page better than most.
Since I don't do this often, I was surprised that I couldn't find a single major newspaper Web site worldwide that didn't light up their home page like the proverbial discotheque: 100+ entry points on its home page, dozens of sectional choices, many more sub-sectional choices, photo montages, banner ads, and more. Many of the Web sites took at least 10 scrolls of the mouse on a monstrous computer to get to the bottom (see, as an example, The Guardian's well-respected Web site).
Every major newspaper — including the best of the best — has transferred their print bundles to their primary Web sites. Each site was dizzying!
Where is the entry point to a content-rich home page where choices just aren't being made? Since Web sites aren't designed for long, deep browses, what are the 3-5 things this Web site can do for me that nobody else can offer? Since I have no time, how can those 3-5 things be shown without more than one scroll of my browser?
Home page a microcosm of troubled relationship with readers online. The newspaper's home page has become the symbol for what's wrong with how news organisations adapt to consumers in the increasingly digital world:
- We don't make tough choices for readers.
- We don't emphasise our unique selling propositions (USPs).
- We don't know how to best leverage our breadth.
- We don't know how to apply journalism to deep niches.
- We don't know how to differentiate quality from commodity.
The funny thing is, news publishers know this from their online metrics. With geographical variations, it's almost always curated news, original journalism, anything local, coverage of a major local sports franchise, and increasingly deals-of-the-day. Subjects like health, travel, television, books, and more have long since migrated to deep, rich, segmented vertical sites serving deep, rich, segmented audiences. Online comics and puzzles just don't work in the online bundle. Local location-based “things to do” are now commodities for others to easily copy.
How choosing your USP will change your content strategy. Newspaper Web sites will benefit greatly from the painful process of choosing. More is not better online just because the infinite architecture of Web, browser, and server allow us to push more.
Add value by subtracting. Choosing tells us a lot about you. Failing to choose tells us just as much!
I've watched digital executives on three continents agonize over having to choose content for their iPad apps, and I've been disappointed on a few occasions when enough tough choices weren't made. Yet the tablet platform forces choice. If there's leftover demand for a fifth or sixth subject, create another app.
The simple act of choosing to become more vertical and less horizontal will change your content strategy.
The math can be simple: moving from a model of, say, 100 reporters covering 50 beats to a model of those same 100 reporters covering five beats. Of course, the nuance is that the nature of vertical means you probably need fewer full-time reporters and more contractors, curators, editors, and platform specialists to help fill the full space.
It's no secret that the challenge for newspapers that have tried to fill deep verticals is that they quickly find their traditional approach to journalism is insufficient for the passion of that vertical.
In vertical models, content has to fill every centimeter of space. Content can't — as currently — float like a lilypad on top of the water, covering only the top line of a subject. It has to branch out far beyond the way subjects get covered today. It has to have personality and opinion. It has to provoke a following.
Advantages of content breadth online. I've heard these words hundreds of times from newspaper CEOs: “We no longer serve a mass market. We serve a collection of niches.”
Yet is the best way to serve those niches shoveling your breadth onto a single home page or, worse, buried deeply inside a single Web site?
Breadth Web sites mean you're trying to be all things to all people and bundling them together — much like the middle-of-the-road retailers who have gone out of business in the past decade. If you don't own a niche, you're in trouble. If you're in the middle, you're in trouble.
The news breadth Web site has its advantages:
- A breadth Web site is a way to aggregate more and more eyeballs to generate more advertising. Yet because of the infinite perceived nature of the site, advertising CPMs are low and going lower.
- Since young people don't read general-interest Web sites, I suppose it's a place to post SEO-enhanced content. In that instance, does design even matter? (I know, consult the Google algorithm this week.)
- It can be a jumping-off point to deeper, stand-alone cloned vertical Web sites. Thus, you're posting all content on the breadth site and specific content on specific verticals. A few newspapers are experimenting with this.
Yet this breadth strategy is a poor economic model for funding what news publishers do best: unique journalism and content.
Smarter content options. Can we not apply smarter choices to newspaper Web sites?
It seems there are three models for newspaper Web sites that will generate better quality traffic and, in theory, better monetisation opportunities and audience development options:
- Choice: Make your single Web site about 3-5 big content choices that flow to your USP and cut out the rest. Make it brutally simple to use, but dive deeply into those 3-5 subjects that you do best and serves as your differentiator.
- Niche: Keep a simplified breadth Web site, and then, separately, create stand-alone vertical sites that dive deeply into content that you do best. Push users to the niche Web sites where the quality audiences and higher CPMs reside.
- Funnel: Keep a simplified breadth Web site that funnels users into topical or regional content segments that make the experience more relevant.
All three choices are culturally wrenching for news publishers and executives raised on a certain style of journalism, a certain style of content architecture, a culture that “more is better” means breadth of subjects covered, and over-feeding the needs of print readers.
My goal in 2011 is to identify publishers that are focusing on their USPs and finding clever ways to either cut away minor beats and audiences or service them in a cost-effective way. I want to find publishers who create a root-and-branch system to own a content vertical and who create the sense of finiteness that will allow for charging audiences. I want to understand the relationship between the master Web site and either the niche options or funneled choices.
There's no better place to understand the challenges facing news publishers than their own home pages.
We have to make choices and prioritise.