Your website is not your newspaper

Newspapers haven’t done great when it comes to the Internet. This much is obvious. The depressing history of newspapers specifically is not worth going into in much detail, simply because it’s not relevant or useful to the industry at this point. But I do have to dredge up one aspect that’s going to continue to haunt many of the players in the industry until they take the time to sit down and actually figure out a digital strategy: Your website is not your newspaper.

By this, I mean that the website is not a direct analogue for the print product — they are two separate things, serving two widly different and varied audiences. Most news organizations pay lip-service piety to this notion, saying they “get” it and they’re using SEO and UpWorthy headlines and whatever.

But it’s not about the content the editorial staff produces, it’s about the product you’re presenting to the reader. As I’ve written before, the internet’s unbundling effect means that news organizations need to rethink the content their editorial staff is producing. Those same forces are also causing the non-editorial content to be consumed in different ways, which newspapers seem completely unwilling to face up or pay attention to.

The newspaper used to be your portal into the world at large. Their websites are trying to do the same thing. Ancient (in the internet epoch) history shows us this is a terrible idea; recent history emphatically confirms it.

Historical interlude

In the beginning was the net. The net didn’t do much of anything unless you already knew how to use it — bulletin board systems that required you to know the phone number of the system you were dialing into, using IP addresses instead of domain names, these were the pre-Eternal September names.

Unfortunately for all those seeking to make money off the Internet, this made it difficult for the average person to find anything useful, and thus the product was largely limited to the technically-minded. Several companies moved to exploit the market at large. You probably remember some of the bigger ones — CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL. Their “on-ramp” to the internet consisted largely of walled-garden content, accessible only by users of each service.

Typically separated by categories, the content served as the “Internet” for most people in the early going, because they didn’t understand there was an internet outside of the service. As a result, getting play on one (or more) of the major services was a major boon for readers. The services themselves even contracted out for content in an effort to keep giving subscribers reasons for staying with them. (This is akin but not analogous to the Netflix model, which is staying and thriving in a specific [albeit large] niche.)

But there’s a reason two of the three companies mentioned earlier don’t exist (and the other is AOL) — the Internet is a massive place where for all practical purpose anyone can put up any content they want. Simply put, no matter how much money you have, you can’t compete with everybody. And so those services were relegated to dumb pipe status, and charging people for the walled garden content eventually gave way to fees access and service (email, hosting, etc.).

There was a second wind with this concept, though — the web portal. Lycos, Infoseek, Hotbot, iGoogle, MSN, Excite and Yahoo are or were at point examples of this. The basic implementation of this was a curated “directory” of websites, again sorted by category. When these became popular, they grafted on all sorts of services (Email, stock tickers, etc.).

A quick glance at even the current implementation of Yahoo will show the first link in the nav toolbar is for automobiles — classified ads. These saw their downfall with the advent of Google and other algorithmic web search engines — no longer did you need to wait for a site to be manually input into the database in order to find it. Once again, the companies were taught that you can’t win with a closed database when you’re competing against everyone and everything they produce.

Back to the present (and hopefully not the future)

We’ll assume for the sake of argument that you’re not the New York Times, which has an entirely different audience and revenue model. You’re Joe Newspaper, working at the Palookaville Times. In your newspaper, you have local news mixed in with some national wire news, because very few readers think it’s worth subscribing to the New York Times to get national news.

In print, your readers read you because you’re the best option in a given delivery mechanism. Then there’s the internet. Your readers are coming to you on the internet because you provide the best option for getting news for where they live — that is, stories about the local area and stories that explain why national news might be relevant locally.

They don’t expect (nor, I promise, do they find) the best content about national stories. It’s likely your website has local news on the front. It’s also probably chock-full of third-party vendor widgets and sections, who promised (in exchange for money or a revenue share) that they would provide SUPER GOOD content to your readers. You know, national content. Content readers could get literally anywhere else, and probably with a tremendously less annoying user experience.

This is the problem with the modern newspaper website: So vitally terrified of being pigeonholed (and so seductively swayed by the notion that the internet allows them to have an unlimited audience [which is emphatically not the case] , the editors order that every school shooting, every Supreme Court decision and every airplane shot down by a CNN drone be pushed to the front page, because “look how popular it is on TV/Twitter/Facebook!”

Hey, it’s on the front page of your newspaper — why not on the website? Oh right, because they’re two different delivery platforms serving two entirely different audiences. When you put that much emphasis on such a broad swath of content, both in your own workflow and in the user experience, you wind up diluting your actual value. The value of a local media organization is to be relevant to a local audience.

It’s every news conglomerate holding company’s fantasy that they can aggregate their local content across their entire footprint and it will magically be relevant and improve everyone’s site. This ignores that the content will either be a) too localized to matter nationally, or b) too broad to matter locally.

Let’s take a hypothetical school shooting that occurs two states away. The Associated Press, New York Times, all the TV stations and the local news organizations are going to have stories on it. Posting an AP story is fine; finding local connections (either through people or circumstance) and adding that to the wire report is the best outcome.

Obsessively posting and updating every tiny little thing? Waste of time. Because you have to realize who’s coming your site for information on this topic: People who were already on your site. Nobody’s turning to their local news organization for national news unless a) that news organization has a reputation for localizing national content — otherwise, they’ll go to the Washington Post, MSNBC.com or any number of national outlets that are writing copy for a national audience.

“But wait!” you cry. “This one time I posted a story and it got picked up by Reddit/Google News/Twitter, and we had a billion pageviews!” This, as you know, had nothing to do with your skill or content and almost everything to do with luck. If you’d like to chart the future of your business by random chance, well, good luck. Literally. You’re going to need it.

You can’t compete effectively against an endless sea of competitors who are offering a better national product — the only way you can win is by being a better local news outlet. Sometimes that means localizing stories, but more often it means recognizing that people can (and will — make no mistake, there are zero local news organizations that are the sole source of news for any consumer) go somewhere else to find content where you’re not the best or easiest.

As the portals of yore clearly lay out, the only way to successfully navigate a the media landscape is to provide the best value to your audience. A local news org’s audience is local. Don’t fight the Internet.