“In the virtual world a year only lasts three months,” a manager once sighed. The innovations keep on coming very quickly indeed on the web, and a success story can turn into a tale of shattered dreams within months. Kazaa and ICQ were once extremely popular, for instance, but are now only marginal players on the web.
This high speed of innovation doesn’t mean that you cannot draw any lessons from the past. For example, Pablo J. Boczkowski was examining three online projects at American newspapers already in 1999 and 2000, but the conlusions he drew are still applicable.
At the New York Times he was studying the technology section; with the Houston Chronicle he was on board at the Virtual Voyager project; and with New Jersey Online he was examining a web tool for communities.
Boczkowski (by now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) wrote about his findings in the book Digitizing the News. Everyone reading this sometimes rather academic work will sometimes have to suppress a smile of nostalgia when looking at the screenshots. But the conclusions are still very much 2007.
He observed that newspaper publishers had already been experimenting with digital techniques (Videotext for instance) for thirty years. Not for the sake of innovation, but to protect their advertising market. Defensive, not offensive.
This explains why on the internet other players (Google News for instance) are much more succesful. These companies don’t think with paper products in the back of their minds. They don’t have to save scoops for tomorrow’s paper thingy. They are more flexible, more creative.
As far as I am concerned, you can add one more important reason for these differences in success. Newspapers online have to carry the DISadvantage of their paper image. In the world of dailies lives the widespread misconception that the name of the newspaper is such a strong brand, that it serves as a traffic magnet online as well. But it only gives them a headstart, and even then only in certain segments of the market.
Yes, faithful readers of dailies will also know how to find ‘their’ newspaper on the web: they associate it with quality and reliability. But there are also other, bigger groups in society (and it’s not only youngsters) that associate the product with the terms old-fashioned, biased and occasionally ‘something for the high-society’. In that case the title of the newspaper becomes a burden instead of a blessing.
This is indeed only about marketing and not about content. Traditional journalists will be horrified and blame the younger generation. Yeah, right. The generation that was said to not be reading papers anymore, but nonetheless embraced free dailies in a spectacular way in the past five years…
Instead of blaming others, newspaper publishers ought to be developing new, strong online brands alongside their dailies. No more volkskrant.nl, sueddeutsche.de or scotsman.com for example, but vk.nl, sz.de and… sm.com? Or did anybody already claim that last one?
Note: In an experiment with monetisation, Digitizing the News and other online journalism books can now be ordered through the Online Journalism Blog shop.