"Why can't a newspaper [use] more blog [technology]?

Barry Parr just concluded his “Why can’t a newspaper be more like a blog?” series. Over the last week or so, Barry has taken his “deliberately provocative” headline and explored how online news publishers could learn much from blogs.

While he covers a number of different related topics, his main point is that news sites should encourage — not just allow — readers to comment on their content, either through comments on the story itself (just like your standard blog comments) or through TrackBacks (which most blogs offer these days).

It’s a good idea, but it’ll be a hard, hard sell to most newspaper management, the majority of whom are uncertain about how to proceed on the web. Most stick to formats and features that are much (or exactly) like their print product. While there are some legitimate issues about liability involved, I think the bulk of the problem is a fear of losing control. Most newspapers tightly control their content and presentation.

They see news publishing as a one-way street with only the very limited “letters to the editor” section for allowing feedback. But, as I hope most readers realize, letters to the editor are completely under the control of the newspaper: they can (and usually do) edit the letters (and not just for length) and can pick and choose which letters to publish.

Allowing (mostly) unrestricted comments — letting loose of the control over the feedback mechanism — is a very frightening concept for most news publishers. Even by instituting registration or other validating mechanisms, the majority of news publishers would be at the very least uneasy about instituting comments on stories published on their websites.

However, in his post about using TrackBacks, Barry brings up some very interesting points that might go some way in relieving that unease:

Trackback also provides accountability that comments cannot. You can’t get a trackback link unless you have a site that supports trackback and you’re willing to disclose your identity (or at least one of them).

And that’s a powerful motivator for news publishers, because TrackBacks, as Barry puts it:

Trackback creates the kind of context and metadata for each story that you can’t buy at any price.

While Barry presents some powerful arguments for using features like comments and TrackBacks (and RSS feeds, which I haven’t even touched on here) on news sites, he fails to discuss a factor that should heavily weigh in favor of their use: comments (including TrackBacks) will build reader interest and therefore more traffic. Higher traffic can (and often does) result in either more advertising or better (for the publisher) prices for advertising. Not only do you gain all the benefits of having a more open feedback mechanism will bring (increased reputation amongst readers, valuable feedback that will help you improve your web and print offerings, increased traffic due to the community-building effect of comments, etc.), you’ll make more money doing it.

So, why aren’t more news publishers doing it? That is the $64,000 question. My opinion? Fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of the future. How to get publishers to take this step despite the fear? I don’t know. I’m still working on that one.

14 thoughts on “"Why can't a newspaper [use] more blog [technology]?”

  1. TrackBacks are a double-edged sword. I got to your blog via a TrackBack on Barry Parr’s article. Good for your traffic stats, but did it help Barry’s?

    Neither you nor Barry mention the significant differences between a major newspaper site and a blog. The former puts out a high volume of mostly factual dsecriptions of events, and does so on a rigorous interval. The primary purpose is to inform.

    The typical blog puts out a small number of interpretive entries on a more-or-less sporatic basis. The primary purpose is to interpret and persuade.

    What works well for one environment may make no sense for the other one. Fear is certainly one factor, but not the only one.

    PS: It would be nice if you had a “preview” option for commentors (and at the risk of being overly picky, a somewhat larger editing window)

  2. Terry –

    I think the blog vs. newspaper site title is a bit misleading. Granted the technologies he discusses were developed for blogs, but the content and audience are different for the two.

    While your visit to my site counted in my stats and not in Barry’s, why do you read his site in the first place? Sure it’s for the articles, but the comments on many blogs (including Barry’s) are a strong draw. It’s that draw created by his comment/trackback community that increases his traffic, albeit in a way that’s difficult to measure.

    As for the comment stuff here: yes, I need comment previews and a larger comment form. It’s on the to-do list.

  3. Steven,

    I agree with your comments.

    What triggered my original comment was your observation that newspaper sites “see news publishing as a one-way street” but would benefit from allowing unrestricted article-specific comments.

    While I certainly agree that (non-trivial legal liabilities aside) this might be interesting, it seems to me that the core function of news publishing *is* a one-way street. The point is to get the facts “out there” (after which the rest of us can have a good time interpreting what the facts mean).

    I see somewhat of a trend in the opposite direction. It seems that more and more online newspaper sites are scrambling to find new stuff to do and earn some additional income. But the new “stuff” they’re doing often has little to do with traditional newsgathering and publishing. It’s as if some of them are getting overly fascinated with what the online technology allows them to do, and letting that fascination drive their operation.

    The old suggestion that businesses should stick to their core competencies isn’t without solid logic. If you drift too far afield, you’ll enter areas (exciting as they may be) in which you are not especially competent and are likely to get creamed by those that are competent. And in addition, such ventures may also blur your focus by diverting attention and resources.

    One of the major competitive threats to newspapers are aggregators, yet many newspapers are trying to deal with them by collaboration. I think that instead the online newspaper might do well to focus on what they have that’s unique (like original reporting and extensive archives) and figure out how to make better use of those capabilities instead.

  4. Terry,

    Newspaper operations as a whole are about a lot more than newsgathering and publishing, ask any newspaper advertising director. I don’t think there’s anything that precludes news sites from getting into other, only semi-related projects (the print edition does the same thing). If they make money, they can support the news gathering and publishing side of things online and allow those functions to be more robust. But, I agree that if you’re going to do something, do it right, or you WILL get creamed.

    As far as the “one-way street” comment goes, I think that news organizations CAN benefit from having a more open dialogue with readers, and comments/trackbacks is as good a method as has been invented so far. As I said above, building a robust community through a commenting system can generate more traffic which usually translates into more advertising income. Also, it can help the organization (editorial and web) improve the product by offering feedback. But does it work well enough to warrant doing it? I don’t know. We don’t do it on our sites at my work, though I’d certainly be willing to implement and manage it if upper management were interested.

    There are good arguments for sticking to core compencies, but given the problems facing news organizations, not trying to innovate some will likely have far-reaching negative consequences for the operation. The goal, of course, is in finding a comfortable (and hopefully profitable) balance.

  5. “Newspaper operations as a whole are about a lot more than newsgathering and publishing, ask any newspaper advertising director. ”

    Terry:==>I agree. What I meant to express was a concern about losing track of newsgathering and publishing as your *primary mission* (though I realize I didn’t make that very clear).

    “I don?t think there?s anything that precludes news sites from getting into other, only semi-related projects (the print edition does the same thing). If they make money, they can support the news gathering and publishing side of things online and allow those functions to be more robust. But, I agree that if you?re going to do something, do it right, or you WILL get creamed.”

    Terry:==>Just a minor amplification – the further these new functions are from the area of your core competency, the more likely you will get creamed. It’s not just that there are other guys out there in this area who are already good at them; it’s that you can bring your real power/skill to bear (’cause it’s centered elsewhere).

    “As far as the ?one-way street? comment goes, I think that news organizations CAN benefit from having a more open dialogue with readers, and comments/trackbacks is as good a method as has been invented so far. ”

    Terry:==>I would certainly agree that *any* product or service provider benefits from customer feedback. As I suggested to Barry Parr, though, trackbacks make less sense for ordinary news articles than for editorials and the like (and blogs, of course). Plus, because of the time lag, and the fact that the newspaper frequently doesn’t offer the equivalent of permalinks, the mechanism will break.

    “As I said above, building a robust community through a commenting system can generate more traffic which usually translates into more advertising income. ”

    Terry:==>Yes, provided that you restrict comments to published articles. If it gets into a true “community” chat, participants may enjoy that, but the synergy (other than generating ad views) with the core news business may get lost.

    “Also, it can help the organization (editorial and web) improve the product by offering feedback. But does it work well enough to warrant doing it? I don?t know. We don?t do it on our sites at my work, though I?d certainly be willing to implement and manage it if upper management were interested.”

    “There are good arguments for sticking to core compencies, but given the problems facing news organizations, not trying to innovate some will likely have far-reaching negative consequences for the operation. The goal, of course, is in finding a comfortable (and hopefully profitable) balance.”

    Terry:==>Ahh, this is the core (no pun intended) of my intended point. Sure, you *should* innovate. But, everything else being equal, wouldn’t it be best to innovate toward offerings that were as “news-centric” as possible?

    PS: Thanks for widening the edit window – lots better.

  6. What a great discussion. We have been trying for years to get management to allow us to make a commenting system or run a forum from the newspaper website mainly as a form of feedback from the community.

    We are the only newspaper (www.chieftain.com)in our town so more often then not we get a bad wrap over the news that is published.

    I am not sure how usefull trackbacks would be for articles, but I think that commenting would be a big addition. Of course you would I am sure the management if they alowed it would want some heavy moderation. Though I think mose would be civil and you would just have a few bad apples to watch out for.

    As for permanate links all our articles are in a permanate location and never move, and at this time we have about 4 years of archives online. So using trackbacks in that case would be fairly simple.

  7. I guess I didn’t really say WHY I thought TrackBacks would be good. I would actually prefer comments, but TrackBacks would (a) not be hosted by the news website (thus removing some of the liability issues/fears) and (b) allow (as Barry said in his article) some sort of identity validation (in most cases) unlike the more anonymous and/or spoofable nature of comments.

    And I agree with Terry that permalinks are an issue for TrackBacks, but are also important beyond TrackBacks. We’re currently working to get past years of archives in our working web database but, as many papers are finding out, it’s a slow and/or laborious and/or expensive process.

  8. Put that way I could see where trackbacks would be useful and I bet after time you would generate a really good attention so your articles. I am sure that it would generate more traffic then it would send away as well.

    As for your archives all ours are stored in files and are made searchable through htdig. We tried at one time but the database grew beyond what we could manage on our servers.

    You discussions on views and Advertising is interesting we are in a horrible market and make little or no money on advertising.

  9. Barry –

    I’ve considered spidering pages and using htdig, but as much as I like to tweak designs (I’m working on a major redesign now) at work, I’d just as soon have the old content served up on new plates.

    As for advertising, we’re almost 100% supported by advertising (it covers our costs and then some; other revenue just adds to the profits). The key? Find (and retain) a kickass salesperson who understands the web (and especially understands your website) and works hard for his commissions. Easy to say, for sure, but that’s how we’ve done it.

  10. TrackBacks are a double-edged sword. I got to your blog via a TrackBack on Barry Parr?s article. Good for your traffic stats, but did it help Barry?s?

    Barry’s happy to share the wealth. Forgive the cliche, but it’s not a zero-sum game. Trackbacks make my site more valuable.

  11. The way we use htdig is just to index our articles only and not the entire site. This way when they search they are only searching through the articles. Also we use php to change the links to point to the page that will load the article from the archive. inside of our current template.

    It’s simple and effective though there are some downfalls to the system.

  12. I’m still not clear how TrackBacks would produce any benefit for online newspaper sites. How many (and what kind of) news articles from such a site would likely be quoted by other (news or blog) sites, and how many referencing sites would have any incentive to send a TrackBack notification back?

    If lots of TrackBacks mean “very popular”, what do zero TrackBacks mean? (Take a look at http://www.sjarvis.com‘s main page and you’ll see 2 dozen entries or so, all with zero TrackBacks. I think it’s clearly a very interesting site, so what are the relevance of the TrackBack scores?)

    Moreover, as mentioned earlier, what would be the point of using TrackBacks in a news site if (a) most readers only look at the current main page (which, because of the time lag, would be very unlikely to have any non-zero TrackBacks), and (b) most sites don’t offer the equivalent of “permalinks” (so there’s nothing to track back to in any case).

    Maybe I’m missing something (which wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened!) but I just don’t see the value.

    PS: Steven – just a reminder on the preview option.

  13. “So, why aren?t more news publishers doing it? That is the $64,000 question.”

    I think this discussion fails to make the distinction between content sites with a national audience and local commercial sites (i.e., most newspapers).

    The “online community” means diddly-squat to a typical, medium-sized newspaper publisher simply because they are insignificant to the business model. Trackbacks, for a site with a wide (topical, non-regional) appeal, are important to generate “buzz” for the product. They are a token, or commodity, of the users.

    For a geographically-bound newspaper site, the economic significance of someone outside your market linking to your content is negligible.

    In short, “community” is a good thing, but for newspapers it makes more sense to build that relationship between your readers and your advertisers than among your readers.

  14. jp – I think your comment leaves out what anyone might want in addition to commerce. There’s more to a news website than facilitating commerce between consumers and advertisers, though the “online community” should mean plenty to the typical, medium-sized newspaper publisher because building a robust community means not only more eyeballs but more loyal eyeballs, just the kind that an advertiser is looking for. It’s a win-win situation.

    Also, when I say “community” I’m thinking of the local online community, those with an interest in and who buy things in the local community, not a disembodied “virtual” community where it doesn’t matter where they are physically. I should have made that clear from the outset.

    But, still, even though I think that can be good for a news site in a lot of measureable ways, I think there needs to be a balance in goals between offering a service to the community and trying to get into their pants (pockets).

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