The Solomon Scandals
The D.C. newspaper novel, the media,the Washington area, tech and other surrealism: David Rothman at large
Google IS killing newspapers—but not in the way you might think
Categories: Lorain, Ohio, Media

image I mourn the decline of traditional newspapers, like The Telegram in The Solomon Scandals, despite their many flaws.

How many paper dailies—not just individual copies of them—will end up as trash?

And, yes, as many in the industry believe, Google is responsible to a great extent, but not in the way you might think.

Google’s news site actually draws traffic to newspapers. It isn’t Google’s fault that they’re not smart enough in many cases to monetize it. As a long-term retirement investment, I own a tiny speck of Google but would say precisely the same if I didn’t.

Here’s the real newspaper-killer. As noted yesterday by Hal Varian, Google chief economist, online news readers are spending an average of 70 seconds a day on this activity, compared to 25 minutes for a daily physical newspaper. I believe him. Online newspapers still are not interactive enough.

Newspaper people still think of reader comments as an annoyance, rather than taking the time to develop elaborate online communities of the kind I pushed a few days ago for The Morning Journal, my old factory-town paper in Lorain, Ohio. I speak as the former owner of TeleRead.org, an e-book site I sold partly because I lacked the resources to achieve the level of interactivity I wanted.

Another explanation for newspapers’ decline, says Varian, is that “Nowadays internet users go directly to websites like Edmunds, Orbitz, Epicurious, and Amazon to look for products and services in specialized areas.” Exactly. Google efficiently lets people explore their favorite topics in depth, and that is bad news for newspaper sections such as travel and real estate.

How can newspapers respond? They should be developing their own special-interest sites with plenty of interactivity and other Net-helpful features—as opposed to simply using a  patchwork of traditional feature stories as ad bait. These special sites could swap content with the regular paper.

In some cases, “special” could be part of the core newspaper rather than spun out. In particular I’d recommend the hyperlocal approach, which I advocated for the Lorain, and which in fact is already on the agenda of the Journal Register Company, the Journal’s owners.

I want hyperlocal done right, with less use of out-of-town journalists and with participation aggressively sought from the local community.

Thing is, zillions of news sources tell you what Barack Obama said yesterday. Precious few, however, can explain in plain English how a new zoning ordinance might affect the value of your home or condo. I’d heartily suggest that newspapers get on this case ASAP before specialized real estate sites and others “scoop” them.

Detail: The TeleRead plan, which would promote the spread of the right hardware for reading books and newspapers, would help. So would cheaper and more widely available broadband. Significantly, Vartan notes: “Online news reading is predominately a labor time activity while offline news reading is primarily a leisure time activity.” Improve the broadband infrastructure and it’ll be easier to enjoy newspapers at home.

Image credit: CC-licensed photo from ArTaide.

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4 Comments to “Google IS killing newspapers—but not in the way you might think”

  1. It’s the rare online newspaper comment feed that isn’t a cesspool of abuse, vituperation and trolling (if it isn’t simply empty). If newspapers are going to have an appealing comment feed, they need to have someone who knows what they’re doing actively moderate– which, as has been discussed elsewhere recently, includes not just removing offensive comments, but participating in the discussions and helping establsh their tone and focus.

    This often costs money to do right– good moderators for a business site don’t come free– but it could conceivably be an appealing draw for a local paper that does it well.

  2. David Rothman says:

    “…but it could con­ceiv­ably be an appeal­ing draw for a local paper that does it well.”

    Exactly, John! I want training and maybe even qualifying tests not just for in-house moderators but also the outside variety recruited from the community. At least in the past, newspapers have taken copy editing seriously. They should do the same about moderation. Community members would pick up a valuable skill they could use elsewhere.

    Needless to say, I agree with your first sentence about the “abuse, vituperation and trolling” present on so many newspaper sites. Moderation–the online equivalent of community policing–is the answer. Few papers really provide it.

    I speak with first-hand experience from the TeleRead site, where, except for a world-famous troll who has practiced his craft on many sites, we rarely had problems. In the end, we gave Mr. T a warning to abide by the rules or get tossed out. I have no regrets about expelling. In fact, I wish we had done that earlier.

    Interestingly, at TeleRead, I didn’t spend that much time on moderation of nonspam. The community more or less defined itself. Once people commented, they normally got access without approval needed. I’m experimenting but may well use this approach at solomonscandals.com.

    Last I knew, TeleRead was continuing such policies.

    Would the same approach work in forums dealing with political topics rather than mainly with technical ones? I suspect so, with appropriate rules and good moderators to enforce them.

    Yes, what’s “good” is subjective. But that’s what helps define a community.

    Appreciated your dropping by.

    Thanks,
    David

    P.S. An addendum: Perhaps training of online moderators is a project on which newspapers and local libraries and schools could collaborate. As I said, the basic skills are transferable.

  3. Don Smith says:

    Hi David,

    Somewhere I remember craigslist being accused of the biggest reason traditional newspapers were suffering. It’s effect of grabbing all of the local classifieds away from newsprint has been destructive throughout the industry. That ties in with your local community theme. I’m impressed with examples from both ends of the spectrum – my hometown newspaper the Cape Cod Times has quite a bit of interactivity on it’s website and the New York Times efforts in blogs on many topics. I’m particularly partial to their “Times Topics”. However, I think both of their tree based distribution systems will ultimately disappear.

  4. David Rothman says:

    Nice hearing from you, Don. Craigslist didn’t help, but newspapers were losing touch with their readers even before the Net took off. Yes, the examples you cite offer some hope. The NYT is far more respectful of reader comments than the Washington Post is. Can’t wait to read it on my iPad. Ready for the package on Saturday? Best. David

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