June 4th, 2008

What Newspapers Still Don’t Understand About The Web

by

Why is Google making more money everyday while newspapers are making less? I’m going to pick on The Washington Post again only because it’s my local paper and this is a local example.

There were severe storms in the Washington area today, and the power went out in our Reston office. I wanted to find some information about the status of power outages to see whether we should go into the office tomorrow. Here’s what I found on the homepage of WashingtonPost.com:

Washington Post Not Local

This is the WASHINGTON Post, right? So where’s the news about Washington? We just got pounded by a nasty storm — but it’s not homepage worthy.

Fortunately, although it’s not top of mind for the homepage editors, it is top of mind for readers — I found the article about the storm in the list of most viewed articles in the far corner of the homepage. I go to the article, where I find highly useful information like this:

“We have a ton of trees down, a ton of traffic lights out,” said Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Kraig Troxell.

Great, that’s very helpful.

So what’s my next step, when I can’t find what I want on the web? Of course:

Power Outages Northern Virginia

Thanks, Google, just what I was looking for:

Virginia Power Outages

Wow, I thought — it can’t be that bad, can it? So I went back to the WashingtonPost.com homepage. This time, I clicked on the Metro section in the main navigation. Sure enough, the storm was the lead story.

Washington Post Metro Section

And there at the top was the link to the same useless article. But then below the photo was this tiny link: Capital Weather Gang Blog: Storm Updates

I clicked on the link, and wow:

Capital Weather Gang

Real-time radar, frequent storm warning updates with LINKS, and… a link to that page I had been SEARCHING for on Dominion Power about outages. (Note the link to the useless news story buried at the bottom.)

Capital Weather Gang Example

It was a brilliant web-native news and information effort — BURIED three layers deep, where I couldn’t FIND it.

Is it any wonder why Google makes $20 billion on search?

And what’s the root cause problem? The useless article with no real-time data and no links was written for the PRINT newspaper. And the homepage is edited to match what will be important in the PRINT newspaper. And the navigation assumes I think like I do when I’m reading the PRINT newspaper. Want local news? Go to the metro SECTION.

The Capital Weather Gang blog is a great example of “getting” the web — but then making it impossible to find…

Oh, and if you click on the tiny Weather link on the homepage (which I only noticed on my fourth visit), you get a page that looks like the weather page in, you guessed it, the print newspaper — all STATIC.

Again, it takes another click to get to the dynamic, web-native weather blog.

Yesterday, I saw a ranking of the top 25 “newspaper websites” — and that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? These are newsPAPER websites, instead of WEBsites.

WashingtonPost.com ranks #5, with this comment:

The figures from the WPO 10-Q indicate that revenue for the company’s online business is relatively small and represents only a modest part of the sales for the newspaper group. That is unfortunate. If any company should be right behind The New York Times in internet revenue it is the Post.

So much potential, like the hugely innovative weather blog, crushed by the weight of tradition. And it’s not just the Post, of course (not to unfairly pick on them) — it’s every print publisher boxed in by the legacy business.

Here’s an idea for newspaper website homepages — just a search box and a list of blogs. Seriously. Instead of putting all the web-native content and publishing in the blog ghetto, like NYTimes.com does, why not make that the WHOLE site? (I mean seriously, having a blog section on the website is like having a section in the paper for 14 column inch stories.)

It’s like newspapers on the web as saying: here’s all the static stuff we produced for the paper — you want all of our dynamic web innovation? Oh, that’s downstairs, in the back room. Knock twice before you enter.

It’s a shame — so much marginalized value.

I bet I could stop going to the New York Times site entirely and just subscribe to all of their blog RSS feeds, and still get all the news, but in a web-native format, with data and LINKS.

Of course, the only way to do that is click on 50 RSS buttons one at a time. And they only publish partial feeds.

Sigh.

UPDATE:

Mark Potts had a similar frustration with the storm coverage — and it looks like he never even found the weather blog.

Another big missed opportunity — the Dominion electric site can’t tell me specifically if the power is still out in our office in Reston. But I bet Washington Post readers with offices in that area – or even in our office condo — could help me out, if someone gave them a place to do so. The Post weather blog has a ton of comments, but information is haphazard — how about a structured data form where you can post your power outage status, maybe map it on Google maps?

Lastly, at least Google knows how to make the Post’s weather blog findable:

Reston Power Outage

UPDATE #2:

Jonathan Krim, the local editor from WashingtonPost.com, offers an important clarification:

As the editor for local coverage, I appreciate the comments on our coverage yesterday. But I am compelled to point out:

The page Scott uses for his example is not our home page for local users. We have one for our very large non-local audience, which is what you display in your blog post. You can change your settings, making the Washington home page your default, by clicking at the very top of the page. Had you looked at our local home page, you would have had a different experience, with very prominent display links to our capital weather gang coverage.

My response:

Jonathan,

Thanks for the comment. I had already heard that others who were logged in had a different experience. Perhaps the lesson then is about assumptions around user registration and login. I’m a dedicated reader of WashingtonPost.com, but I never login. It may be necessary to supplement the customization for logged in users with geo-targeting based on IP address, which isn’t perfect, but it might have worked for me yesterday.

I also think you should integrate the Capital Weather Gang blog into the main weather page, instead requiring another click to get to it.

I think the main lesson is the tremendous pressure that Google puts on every site to make the user experience perfect. You had the data and coverage I wanted. You had the customization for local users. But somehow I still missed it and went to Google instead.

UPDATE #3:

Several people have commented that my not finding out about the Post’s local customization for logged in users, either from the Post directly or through another source, means I didn’t have all the facts. In one sense, that’s true, but the example here is not about WashingtonPost.com as an object in a vacuum with a certain feature set, or what the WashingtonPost.com thinks about how their site works, but about MY EXPERIENCE using the site. My experience was lacking, and therefore I concluded that it would be lacking for other users like me. Some people might have clicked on the Weather link, or gone straight to the Metro section, or were logged in. But my experience represents this is not true for all users.

And the point of this post is not about the extent of WashingtonPost.com’s shortcomings, which may not be that significant, i.e. they are easily correct, but about the demands of the web as dictated by the existence of Google. Google is obsessed with not letting any users fall through the cracks. Despite having customization for local users and the right content, I still fell through the cracks as a user of WashingtonPost.com. And that is the key fact of this post.

That’s the brutal reality of the web that we all live by. We can have all these features and content and design and intent, but the user experience is the only arbiter. Google understands this better than newspapers. If newspapers understood it better, their sites would get better, which would create more economic value for them on the web.

  • Newspapers still don't understand that they died when web 2.0 started. Google and other websites are now doing better than newspapers, magazines, and radios combined. I actually wrote an article about this topic, here is the link if anyone is interested on learning more about online advertisement, and how newspapers and other traditional media died a long time ago.

    http://smallbusinessspot.blogs...

  • Ted

    It's worth noting that the Post didn't forget to link to the Weather Gang Blog on today's homepage:

  • Jay,

    Excellent articulation of why Google's web business is growing while newspapers' web business isn't growing fast enough to make up for declining print.

    Newspapers used to be in the aggregation business -- the bundle that landed on your doorstep. Now they are just in the content business. But Google has shown the best economics in online media are in distribution and aggregation.

    So who says newspapers shouldn't be in the aggregation business? If they were, they might find a way to make a lot more money on the web.

    Don't be boxed in by legacy thinking and layers of assumptions. And don't be reductive about how you interpret the need to learn from Google.

  • Jay

    Scott, I've read through some of the comments and I have to agree with the ones that disagree with your point of view. You are comparing apples and oranges.
    Maybe you should have compared Yahoo! vs. Google. How can you compare 2 websites that are fundamentally different? One generates content, and the other aggregates it. Of course if your point was to point out how badly the Washington Post website was laid out or how hard it was to find the specific content you were looking for, that falls under a usability discussion. Would you be happy if the landing page of Washington Post just had an input field and a Search button, like the Google page?

  • Mike Sullivan

    I have a similar complaint about my location newspaper, the Lexington Herald (Kentucky). For years I have visited their website almost daily and often grumbled (mostly to myself) about how terrible their site is, and how much more they could make off their site... I also noticed that every newspaper this company owned had the same layout... knowing that they owned a significant number of newspapers I figured they could be make tons more. Anyway, I was talking my boss about the online version of the newspaper, and he described a completely different (but nonetheless frustrating) experience to me. I just could not figure out what he was talking about. Then he showed me online... there is actually a nifty paid service that allows you to easily navigate the printed version online. It's not the experience I would ever pay for... but just the fact that in my years of spending time on the site, I never found out about this nifty version of the paper is bizarre. I now see that in the upper left, they have in *tiny* "Customer Care Center
    Subscriber Services
    Log in/Subscribe to eEdition". Must be my fault that I overlooked that amidst the mess that is the online version of the Lexington Herald!

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