Daily Planet

Newspapers and magazines have a unique opportunity with online publishing. They have the best content. They have the most talented writers, editors, and managers. The industry has survived everything the world has thrown at it since newspapers first emerged in the 16th century. But, making the most of the Web requires specialist help. Whether publications have a dedicated digital team, or integrate print and web together, there is a distinct difference in how editorial, design, and production need to operate. On the one hand, the recent furor about “deep linking” — where the legality of sites linking to individual pages was finally put to rest — showed the fragility of trying to apply standards that are reasonable in print to the Web. On the other hand The Telegraph has shown with its in-house video and audio studios, evolutionary news room and integrated advertising solution, that a radical content strategy can pay dividends. The whole approach for print media on the Web is evolving. It’s definitely a brave new world, but not everything has changed: content is still king!

Doom, gloom, flourish!

As some commentators, fueled by the news of falling readerships and economic woes, prematurely sound the death knell for print, The New Yorker published a beautifully researched article by Jill Lepore (in print and pixel) entitled Back Issues: The Day The Newspaper Died. In it, we relive the last time the death of print loomed large in America: November 1st, 1765. On that day the Stamp Act came into force. It required printers to affix a stamp to each of their pages, pay a halfpenny tax on each half sheet of paper, and a two shilling tax on each advertisement. Ostensibly, the tax was imposed in the “colonies” by the British Parliament to fund the French and Indian wars, but the backlash was severe. Printers were better placed than most to vent their frustrations. It has been argued that the Stamp Tax was one of the sparks that provoked revolution, bringing the issue of taxation without consent sharply into focus, with the ire and vitriol of printers like Benjamin Edes of The Boston Gazette, and Benjamin Franklin thrown in for good measure. They survived that calamity, and some newspapers like The Hartford Courant are still published today both in print and pixel.

Jill Lapore’s article in January coincided neatly with the month the credit crunch came home to roost. It was looming, it was imminent, then suddenly it was here. About the same time we also heard that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Christian Science Monitor was going online-only. The 27-year-old PC Magazine followed suit soon after. Various teen magazines previously had made the switch, including Missbehave, Cosmogirl, Ellegirl, and Teen. In December and January other publications also went online-only, including Hoy Nueva York, AsiaWeek (now redirecting to Time), and the Kansas City Kansan.

Far from “closing”, as some sources seem to suggest, publications are evolving just as they always have. The shift is perhaps a little faster and more pronounced than previous changes, but only a few titles are swapping print production for online-only. The vast majority of newspapers and magazines are augmenting print with online production. How well the transition occurs is the rub. Many will struggle with a half-hearted approach; others, like The Telegraph, are embracing the change, investing and flourishing. It’s also worth affirming that a publication doesn’t have to appear on paper to be worthy, a fact validated by the Pulitzer Prize Board when they announced in December 2008 that they were broadening the competition to allow online-only publications.

Content is almost enough

Print publishers still have the most important advantage: great content. The Web sometimes can seem packed with titillating dross, but people don’t thirst just for a quick bit of light-hearted refreshment; they also hunger for the substantial. Satisfying both with a content strategy specifically for the Web, putting the right infrastructure in place to support it, and understanding the behavior of the Web’s audience are the keys to success.

The Telegraph is investing in user experience design and using it to sell ad space. Get the user experience right and people will become subscribers and readers more readily than they ever have for print. The potential audience is global. The advertising revenue stream is global. The publishers who grasp the nuances of online publishing first will have the competitive edge to evolve into the first truly international news and feature sites. Those who invested early are already ahead: The Guardian launched in America in 2007. The paper predicts its podcasts will be profitable by April this year. Today, it has an almost equal split of readers, with a third from the UK, a third from the U.S., and a third from the rest of the world.

International audiences have very different requirements from content and advertising. Designing production and technical infrastructure that can deliver location-specific material is the future of truly international publications. The same digital content delivery channels (web site, RSS feeds, email, podcasts, and video) are still relevant. The material and style will respond to the context and the audience receiving it. Hot topics emerge much faster in the new era, and publications need the right technology in place to know what they are and be able to react. Some publishers are already providing location-specific content, and being very sophisticated in how they understand and serve their global audience. Advertisers are taking notice.

“Web 2.0” and all that jazz

Print publications provide an enacted narrative. Readers start at the cover, then flip, and read. They observe the story told by the publication in a pre-determined sequence, with only the words and images from the staff to tell the tale. In contrast, the narrative of the Web can be both enacted and emergent. The narrative emerges from both the published material of the professionals and the audience contributions. These contributions can be within the web site, on personal blogs aggregated by services like Technorati, or on social networks like Twitter. When Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Web 2.0”, user-generated content was at the core of his thoughts. Whatever we call it — user-generated content, Web 2.0, emergent narratives, or reader contributions — it requires an approach that is more sophisticated than just opening up a site to comments. There are many ways in which users can and should be able to reuse content, add their own, and participate. There are also many ways in which publciations can pull in content from around the Web to help them tell the tale. In fact, editing such content is a valuable service. You only have to look at the success of sites like Newsvine and Ffffound to see how citizen journalism can contribute to the industry. It’s not like the idea is new. James Franklin, editor of The New England Courant, had this to say about his editorial policy just before American independence:

I hereby invite all Men, who have leisure, Inclination and Ability, to speak their Minds with Freedom, Sense and Moderation, and their Pieces shall be welcome to a Place in my Paper.

Connecting the dots

The overall objective for newspapers or magazines remains the same as it’s ever been: a large audience to attract and retain high-paying advertisers. Meeting that objective online means combining the content with the best user experience. User experience is not a term found in the print world. Paper is a static medium. It’s a passive experience. Letters to the editor have been the traditional interaction of the audience with print publications. The Web is neither static or passive. It’s dynamic, with content being syndicated, read, and shared in new ways. It’s interactive, with content being augmented, reused and commented on as it’s published. Reader behavior has changed. Expectations have changed. People still want to passively read, but they also want to interact, republish, share, and comment — and they want these on demand. They want a different experience. It requires a different kind of strategy that understands the audience expectations and technology, and describes exactly how publications can use both to be successful.

User experience design

The first step is to have a clear set of business objectives in a reasonable timescale. Publications have to invest. How they invest is the big question. All the solutions are already available to bridge the gap between business objectives and audience behavior. Understanding audience behavior is the first step on the path to profitability. User experience design delivers just that. Rather than asking questions, it observes behavior. From that we can build a clear picture of how the audience experience can be optimized. That may involve more than just tweaking the design of the interface. It can encompass elements like content strategy: what is published, how it’s delivered to people, and how it’s written to achieve the business objectives.

Web application development

User experience design is nothing without the right applications to support publishing operations and deliver the content through the various channels. They should actively help journalists, editors, and managers do their job. Applications should make interaction for readers quick, easy and fun — an adventure. The software has to be secure. It has to scale well as (hopefully) increasing numbers of visitors find the great content, and keep coming back. The experience has to be fast, safe, and helpful. Anything less is a disservice to the reader in much the same way that badly printed text or art would be in print.

Internet architecture and infrastructure

Applications need machines to run on. That means intelligent technical architectures and infrastructure. If the audience is international then the infrastructure needs to be. That means multiple locations. It means twenty-four hour monitoring, often using tools written specifically for the task. It means rapid reaction times to fluctuations in traffic.

After our recent work with the award-winning National Geographic, their readership went up by 500%. The applications and infrastructure behind the site also had to handle massive traffic spikes as stories spread virally around the Web. Having infrastructure that can perform when the spikes arrive is almost an art. It can get expensive, and as we all become more conscious about environmental impact, performance is the answer. Friendster’s situation gave us a chance to show how to scale a site properly. They were about to launch in China and predicted they would need twice as many servers to do so. Page loading times were already slow at 9 seconds. With a little help from us, they launched in China with the same number of servers they already had. They doubled the number of users to 60 million, but pages loaded more than twice as fast at 3.5 seconds.

Stacking the deck

As good as the content might be, or the perception of the brand in the real world, when infrastructure or applications fail, or are hacked or threatened, the brand can be irreparably harmed in the eyes of readers. How this happens is often straightforward: using different vendors for design, application development, and infrastructure turns the gaps between them into critical fault lines. Under the pressure of success or failure, the fault lines are amplified. For example, vendors have to communicate with each other, often having very different processes, and contractual obligations. Trying to fix a problem, innovate, or improve performance becomes expensive because each vendor only understands their specialist area. No single vendor can see the whole story to find the most efficient solution. While all this is going on, the experience fails and the audience falls away in frustration.

The business case for separating different production areas no longer exists. Business objectives are best met with a holistic approach to design, development, and infrastructure. They all fundamentally affect the user experience, which is the single most important factor affecting visitor numbers on the Web. Combining great content with holistic technology will save money and encourage innovation. Publishers who do it early and do it right will give their readers the best possible experience, and stack the deck in their favor for years to come.