Going ‘web-first’ – extract from Magazine Editing (3rd ed.)

In the final of three extracts from the 3rd edition of Magazine Editingpublished by Routledge, I talk about the tension between publishing first online, or holding material back for print. 

Magazine editors worry about topicality. Stories they send to press on Monday may be out of date by the time the magazine appears on Wednesday or Friday. It is no consolation to know that similar doubts affect the editors of daily newspapers, fated to follow in the wake of television. The print media must play to their strengths. Even a weekly magazine cannot stay on top of a breaking story of national significance. By the time it has appeared, things will have moved on and its readers will have seen more recent material online, on television and radio, or in their daily newspapers.

The internet, however, levels the playing field. TV, radio and newspapers all increasingly begin their reporting online. This is called a ‘Web first’ strategy and has its advantages and disadvantages. Clearly the major advantage is ‘owning’ the story. If you are the first to report it online then you are likely to dominate the search engine results when people look for that story. This in turn is likely to drive readers – and potential subscribers – to your main product (whether that is print or online).

The major fear that publishers have with ‘Web first’ strategies is losing their exclusives to rivals. This, however, is to misunderstand the complexities of multi-platform publishing which should involve playing to the strengths of each medium you publish in. Some publishers, for example, will supply video interviews to broadcasters (and online) just ahead of the publication of the print version of their story. This helps attract interest from people who might not normally buy your publication, without ‘giving away’ the print version of the story itself.

A good example of how not to do this comes from Rolling Stone magazine’s profile of top US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The general was quoted making negative remarks about the vice president and key members of the US cabinet and the publication of these remarks in print led to his dismissal.

The dismissal, of course, increased interest in – and awareness of – the profile piece substantially – but the magazine failed to react to this interest on its website. As the website Talking Points Memo reported in a piece entitled ‘How Rolling Stone Won The News Cycle And Lost The Story’:

“Rolling Stone didn’t even bother putting [the story] online before they rolled it out [in print]. In fact, despite the fact that everyone else’s website led the profile, Rolling Stone’s site led with Lady Gaga … all day and didn’t even put the story online until 11:00.”

Nieman Journalism Lab explained why this cost them:

“The story made its way across the web anyway. Politico posted a PDF of the story and the Associated Press ran a thorough summary. Rolling Stone didn’t get much in the way of traffic out of it … After the piece ran [on Rolling Stone’s website], it started picking up incoming links, presumably driving tremendous traffic to the site. I checked in on the story today, exactly 24 hours later, to find that, despite the story completely dominating the news cycle — TV, blogosphere, Twitter, newspapers — only 16 comments had been posted to the story.

“Why? Of course the late posting was a factor. National security reporter Spencer Ackerman’s first [blog] post on the general’s apology, which went up several hours before Rolling Stone published, attracted 47 comments on his personal blog. Politico’s defense reporter Laura Rozen’s blog post on the AP’s summary of the story, which went up at 10:46 p.m. the night before the story appeared, has about twice as many comments as the Rolling Stone story itself. Twitter was buzzing with comments all day. There was nowhere to discuss at Rolling Stone, so the conversation naturally happened elsewhere.”

Another approach is to play to the community-based strengths of online publishing, by seeding an online debate with the main points of your exclusive, and using the best parts of that online discussion to flesh out the publication in print of your full exclusive.

In other words, do not fall into the trap of overvaluing the ‘exclusive’ at the expense of actual readers. If your objective is to attract the largest number of readers – online and in print – then be strategic in how you publish different parts of your story across different platforms. Can you involve online users at an early stage? Can you produce video or audio that bloggers and broadcasters might want to distribute? How can you give it the richest treatment in print that could not be duplicated in a broadcast or web treatment? And, once published, how can you ensure that discussion of the exclusive takes place on – or directs traffic to – your site (or indeed, where your revenue is coming from, which may include adverts embedded in media on other sites)? All of these elements require thought at the outset of any newsgathering operation.

A magazine has its own strengths it should play to. Instead of trailing behind newspapers and television – whose space and time is more limited, and news cycle more tempestuous – it can provide analytical coverage, based on its trusted relationships within the industry and in-house expertise. It can also focus its treatment more specifically than the mass media will – as a newspaper with a broader audience will not be able to assume much prior knowledge on their part.

Some editors, usually of weekly magazines, take the view that monthlies shouldn’t try to compete in the news area. They should simply use the space for something else. This is defeatist, and overlooks the role of the website in providing news updates as they occur. The slower pace of a monthly should mean that it can unearth and research genuinely exclusive stories. That way it will lead everybody else, which is good for morale and sales. It can certainly go deeper, using the sources it has had time to cultivate.

If you are going to do news in a monthly, you must consider the issue of the exclusivity of your stories and whether you wish to lead with the story in print or online. Given the increasing ability of sources to publish themselves (via a company or individual blog, for example – or even Facebook), or the likelihood that someone else might do the same, obtaining cooperation and silence while you wait for the next monthly print run to roll around is becoming increasingly difficult.

Ultimately you must ask yourself where the value lies: in the exclusivity, or in the treatment and distribution of that information? Do people buy your magazine purely for the exclusive news – or largely for other content? Is it better to publish part of the exclusive online, establishing ‘ownership’ of it and promoting further revelations or analysis in print? (While also attracting new readers who come across your publication when a link is sent to them)

Publishing a part of an exclusive online – and holding the remainder back for print publication – is a strategy often adopted by publishers. Your own decision will depend in large part upon where your funding comes from, where you are trying to attract it, what sort of people read your publication, and how.

More and more publishers are going for this ‘web-first’ strategy, playing to the strengths of each medium: speed, findability and social distribution online; and analysis and depth in print. It can also increase the life of a story from a single issue to a couple of weeks online, through printing, and back online with further reaction.

Building a relationship with sources often rests on the authority of your magazine and yourself, and the serious treatment you can give to their story. They will have to balance that against the control that they will have if they publish the story themselves, online. One factor that may be worth raising is that ‘exclusivity’ often attracts more interest from those who missed the exclusive, than a source-published story which all journalists can see at the same time. The founder of Wikileaks understood this when breaking the various ‘Warlogs’ stories – instead of publishing the logs online as they had with previous leaks, the organisation partnered with individual news organisations in three different countries, attracting wider coverage of the documents not just in those newspapers but also in jealous rivals.

The bulk of your coverage will not be exclusive. Use the focusing power of news design to achieve the right balance. You can give great prominence and projection to your exclusive stories, while covering the stuff most readers may have seen in a round-up box or column of news ‘briefs’.

Aside from the news that makes the printed magazine, a monthly news team tends to produce a continuously updated news page as part of the website. This may include one or more individual, team, or subject-based blogs, and a daily or weekly e-mail update.

Your own news feeds may be syndicated to other news sites and blogs, adding to your publication’s reach. Typically a magazine website’s news section will have an RSS feed of its latest stories; increasingly, they will have a number of RSS feeds for news about different parts of their field.

RSS feeds have enormous flexibility and potential for various uses. If someone uses an RSS reader on their computer or phone, they can read your feeds there; if they publish a blog they can ‘pull’ your feed to show your latest headlines (when clicked, the user will be taken to your site). You can also use RSS feeds to cross-publish your latest headlines to a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and various other places.

RSS feeds can be full (showing the entire story) or partial (showing only a first paragraph – the user then has to click through to the full story on your site – although this introduces an extra step that can reduce readership and create a frustrating user experience), and they can include advertising and multimedia. They are, in effect, one of the delivery vans of internet distribution.

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