jueves, agosto 31, 2006

Las 10 ideas (dudas) de la Industria

Rick Edmonds, investigador del Poyter Institute, visitó las redacciones de algunos diarios y cadenas de TV y obtuvo 10 conclusiones que permiten observar la forma como los medios tradicionales están observando la red, las tendencias informativas y las proyecciones del negocio.

Por Rick Edmonds
It has been just two years since a damning University of Texas study found that a majority of newspaper Web sites were stocked with almost nothing but "shovelware," recycled versions of the morning's print stories. With the exception of a few high-profile converged operations, local television station Web sites were even more barren.

No more. Economic necessity has combined with fast improvements in audio and video, wild-card technologies like the podcast and the high penetration of broadband to make a cornucopia of online offerings the rule now rather than the exception.

We might simply count the varieties of multimedia content, but that list is long and familiar, full of permutations like combining photo galleries with an audio report, which has been a signature format at NYTimes.com since early 2005. You could call it a Great Leap Forward for the industry, though there is no reason to think it will end as disastrously as Mao's 1958-1960 economic modernization movement in China.

In multimedia -- as in, posting breaking news online -- our survey of more than a dozen news organizations this spring found a range of strategies and a set of emerging issues. At one end are the large, well-established sites. There, the order of the day, as one online executive put it, is "slow and certain growth." Caution, especially directed at the explosive incivility of wide-open user discussions, is very much a factor.

Regional newspapers and television stations, late to the party, may be more urgent and experimental in their online endeavors. "A land rush," one online manager told us. Get more people to visit and linger at the sites as soon as possible in as many ways as possible. Monetize the traffic later and be ready to scrap what doesn't work.

Here are some of the current trends that we found -- some of them particular to newspaper sites, nearly all of them have resonance across the board, and a number have a flavor of paradox:

1.) Video and audio are hot -- but for how long?
The addition -- or, in some cases, the ramp-up -- of audio and video on local Web sites is nearly universal. Quality at both the transmitting and broadband-receiving end has been on a steady upswing. The introduction of AP online video this March at very attractive rates (free for now) gives further impetus to news organizations to supplement AP's national and international coverage with local video.

Still, there seems to be a certain tokenism at present -- a local post of audio/video once or twice a day and that's it. Several online editors told us there is a bottleneck for now, both in technology and staff expertise, that blocks exploiting these features in a more wholehearted way.

And dissenters see some glitches in the making. Efficient uploads and a complete high-fidelity play-through are still not a guarantee at many sites. One television executive volunteered that "audio is not our friend" in office settings, where traffic to news sites is robust during the working day. In an environment in which pop-up blockers are prevalent, there seems now to be a strong supply of 15-second spots looking for video content to sponsor, but consumer patience could sour as the clips become less of a novelty.

2.) Measurement is easy.
Actionable measurement is tougher. It has long been a feature of online content that it is easy to count which offerings draw traffic and which, comparatively, don't. So blockbusters are often as not instant hits and a guide to further content development.

But when some newspaper sites turn on the "heat map" (a track of what is most popular on the display front), they are confronting their own version of "if it bleeds, it leads." Crime stories and assorted novelty items are the biggest draw -- but does it then follow that they should be even more numerous and get even bigger play?

As a host of new features are being added, what is a reasonable time period to figure out whether one is catching on? If 20 news staffers are trying blogs, it may be straightforward to drop the ones that are not drawing an audience after only a month or two. But what about a midday, broadcast-quality news summary? That may be a bigger investment, more prominently featured, deserving a longer trial run.

The macro-numbers -- clicks, page views, unique visitors per month -- are even more problematic. As we have observed in an earlier story, much ado about users who visit a site once or twice a month, often through the side door of a search engine, is at odds with a traditional newspaper or local TV sales story that readers and viewers are engaged, making the media credible for advertising messages.

3.) Multimedia yes, interactivity maybe.
Old media certainly are trying new tricks. You might argue, though, that audio, video, picture galleries, podcasts, staff blogs, the deep background and interview tapes in big-story packages, are all new versions of us-talking-to-you. Using the Gillmor-Rosen terminology, these are more like enhanced lectures than true conversations.

Of course, there is a basic level of interactivity in simply choosing which bells and whistles users add as a consumer of a given story. For example, USAToday.com counts among a recent collection of interactive features one about off-the-Interstate summer vacation getaways. Users can click on each of five trips to access a story, a video and more information.

For more full-fledged interactivity on news sites, we see some cross-currents. Most sites allow users to post feedback to blogs. Many host sports and entertainment discussions. Some are responding to the yen out there to post pet and vacation pictures. But we found some balking at unfiltered citizen journalism with its penchant for anonymous posts and incivility. "Not for us," say some editors.

A bellwether could be WashingtonPost.com's decision this month to allow online comment on all posted news stories in the near future. Between a good profanity blocker and some reading behind by the site's staff, editor Jim Brady said, the benefits should outweigh the problems. The Post has had long success with moderated online discussions between the public and the paper's reporters and editors, as well as the occasional newsmaker. But for true-believer interactive enthusiasts, my sense is that this capability at many news sites still looks like a fenced-off sandbox.

4.) Bad at the basics -- where are the links?
As organizations charge ahead with new online features, the most basic element of presentation on the Internet -- linking content to other sources -- is often AWOL. We have heard two explanations. For stories imported from the daily paper or mid-cycle breaking news alerts, it would be cumbersome and expensive to insert links. Then there is the conventional wisdom that once a visitor is on the site, you want to keep him or her there rather than provide a path out. (Not that leaving temporarily to research a point of curiosity on Google is all that difficult.)

NYTimes.com has a halfway solution. In a foreign affairs story, for instance, you are likely to find hotlinks from "Condoleezza Rice" to other recent news stories and some background pieces. But all of those stories are from The New York Times. The Times has a beta form of RSS feed that allows users to construct a personalized display page that includes Times stories as well as other content. Among regional papers, some staff blogs do link out, many others don't.

Still, links have been around since the earliest days of a general-use Web, and their absence can be jarring. As Kathleen Fulton argued in a Columbia Journalism Review article a decade ago, online stories require a different logic for the writer and reader. Blogs, for instance, which often include short summaries of or commentary on articles elsewhere, use outside links plentifully.

In short, if you sense a missing ingredient in your online news diet, you're right. Were he not still alive, Tim Berners-Lee would be rolling in his grave.

5.) Additive online development makes for cluttered sites.
Several of the online executives we visited conceded their sites were nothing special to look at: More stuff all the time, not much space to put it on a display page and some organizational confusion about what's where. The situation has been aggravated by cookie-cutter corporate designs at several large chains.

As problems go, this one is fixable. Several of the Tribune Co. properties we visited are looking better already. A popular consensus format currently is to put the breaking news, Web specials and highlighted advertising "above the fold," leaving stories from the morning print edition for the bottom. Sites like NYTimes.com and AJC.com, for instance, typically have two full screens of Web specials before the rest of their homepage content.

How much is too much may be an open question. Lots of choices may be a sign of health, and there is an active body of studies (Poynter's EyeTrack project among them) at work to learn more about how online users read the news. Still it is easy to spot the distinction between a graceful look -- like KnoxNews.com, a 2005 Digital Edge Award winner -- and cluttered, densely packed sites.

6.) The movement online brings with it time-management and workload issues.
First-wave bloggers seemed content to squeeze time out of breaks and evenings to produce these works. But online work is work, and both managers and reporters are currently figuring out what else has to give.

You don't have to be a futurist to see more of a stretch for news staffs approaching -- as an increasing percentage of the old-media staff participates online.

In a general way, companies talk of adding online staff and "reallocating" slots from the flagship paper or television station. But we also heard that the budget cuts, which typically follow disappointing ad results, have been felt this year on the online side as well, despite its robust advertising growth.

7.) In television, the "broadcast-quality" barrier.
Posting audio and video online poses no great challenge for local TV stations. The issue, we were told, is what to settle for, short of traditional standards for on-air quality. If a site posts 15 videos a day, a number of those will be raw footage. "The threshold has to be lower than TV," one exec told us.

8.) Do froth and snarkiness have a place at media sites?
Froth certainly does. It's in the paper, too. AP Online Video isn't all Israel-Hezbollah and the stem-cell veto. One recent offering was "Strange Fish Has Human-Like Teeth" (someone apparently dropped a piranha in a Colorado lake). At NYTimes.com, the much-discussed article, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," in which a woman uses positive-reinforcement animal training techniques on her husband, is completing a monthlong run near the top of the "most e-mailed" list.

But should the sites be venturing into YouTube land, clips from The Daily Show, homemade lip-synching parodies and the like? They are hot -- and one broadcast executive argued at a recent Poynter conference that they could be the online equivalent of the comics: a fun traffic-builder that brings in a crowd, and keeps users on the site for a sound diet of real news.

Certainly staff bloggers are encouraged to be conversational and informal. Sports writing these days has been influenced by the popularity of radio and cable sports talk, and that seems all the more a fit online. But we found executives generally clinging to notions of seriousness of purpose and evident reporting/verification that rule out the wilder and meaner kinds of online discourse.

Youth papers like the Chicago Tribune's Red Eye or the St. Petersburg Times' tbt* offer another alternative -- be as snarky as you want in a venue that sober-sided suburban 60-year-olds are less likely to see.

9.) Convergence strategies diverge.
Early triple-threat operations like those in Sarasota, Fla.; Phoenix; Lawrence, Kan. and Tampa, Fla. (not part of Poynter's recent study) think the benefits are blossoming with time. All receive a continuing stream of curious visitors hoping to see the future at work, and Lawrence now has a money-making sideline offering convergence conferences. Joint ownership of the newspaper and a television station makes some collaboration and lots of cross-promotion logical. Where there isn't an ownership connection, papers are increasingly pulling back, ditching "sister station" deals and asking, "What's in it for me?" as they consider individual collaborations with several stations in the market.

Radio is on the rise as a no-fuss way to promote the paper itself or one of the newspaper's "branded" subject-area experts. The Washington Post took the full plunge earlier this year when it acquired a radio station that broadcasts a mix of Post-related and other programming.

10.) Mingling as managing.
A consensus question without a consensus answer is how to manage this change. (Likewise, what is the business model for making it all work.) As we noted in our report on the Future of News conference at Poynter in May, this may be an exercise in leading into the unknown, where the right direction is obvious -- but not all the details.

We did hear more than once about a trend over recent months to include online editors in all the key news meetings during the working day. Newsrooms are also being reconfigured to interweave the online and traditional media staffs together in the same space. Robert Thomson, editor of The Times of London, referred to the trend in an interview this month as "sensible newsroom geography."

Watch for more "radical restructuring" along these lines, something that the Financial Times recently announced it would undertake. Belo Corp. CEO Robert Decherd told analysts and investors in June that similar changes are being planned for The Dallas Morning News.

We found one structured approach at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where online development is organized around four guiding concepts: urgency, interactivity, utility and visual energy. Combined with a heavy emphasis on in-house training (30 hours a year for managers, at least 20 hours for other staffers), the structure gives the paper a vehicle for focused daily conversation about Web development and issues.

Organizing this report around emerging issues may imply that the fast movement to a more robust online presence is wracked with problems. To the contrary, though, the predominant tone of our visits to news organizations was excitement at finally getting on with it at an appropriate pace -- together with knowledge that plenty remains to be sorted out along the way.

If there is a big question lurking for these organizations, it is probably whether authoritative news remains both their mission and their competitive strength in the online arena. Or is that next-generation traditionalism and therefore a formula for too little experimentation to hold tech-savvy users?


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