My kids, the children of two former newspaper reporters, love reading the paper in the morning.
Okay, they love the comics, but, hey, it’s a start.
So yesterday morning, as usual on a Sunday, they begged me to get them the comics section. I’d ask them to get it themselves, but experience has taught me that… they can’t. I have enough trouble finding the thing myself.
Whenever I open our door on Sunday mornings, I never see the Los Angeles Times flag staring up at me from the porch. Instead, I see a two-pound advertising circular that, I know only from experience, contains the LA Times buried somewhere within. Yesterday’s paper came wrapped in a plastic bag hawking some consumer product. After pulling the paper out from that, I had to peel away an advertising and a feature section before I could see the “front” page.
The comics? Ugh. The LA Times splits its Sunday comics into two sections. Both are buried among the coupons and flyers in the middle of paper. “Comics I” often is wrapped with a spadia. “Comics II” often is contained within another advertising section, forcing me to thumb through several such sections to find the ones with the comics.
I know, some ad rep is thinking to him/herself, “See? The strategy works! We got you to look through all those ads, didn’t we?” But let’s not forget that I am a newspaper veteran, a journalism instructor and, as such, about the last person in the community likely to cancel a newspaper subscription.
Here’s what normal people do when they can’t find the content they paid for in their newspaper: They cancel. As they have been, in droves, over the past generation.
News publishers like to point to television, free news online, English literacy rates and slew of other reasons to explain their readership losses. But the contempt that newspapers show for their readers by burying their editorial content beneath their remaining advertising surely is not helping keep readers around.
On the Web, we’ve gotten used to thinking about the usability of our websites. But our colleagues on the print side have been committing grave usability errors in their products over the years. And when that type of thinking infects a news organization’s attitude towards its website, news organization set themselves up to repeat its offline failures in the new medium.
Everyday I check the website of the Pasadena Star-News. And every day, the front section of the website’s homepage is obscured by a pop-up widget urging me to take a survey about the site’s new design. Click the red “X” in the corner to close the widget window, and the op-up appears every time you return to the page. (If you click the button decling to take the survey, the window disappears for the remainder of your session.)
If I register with the LA Times website, the Times insists on spamming me with commercial e-mails for products about which I do not care. If I opt-out of the e-mails, the Times cancels my website registration. (Which is why I don’t have a Times website registration anymore, and read the site via BugMeNot. More about that in a moment.)
And let’s not forget the slew of pop-up, pop-under and screen take-over ads that accompany any visit to more newspaper websites than I am any longer able to count.
Don’t get me wrong. I want newspapers and websites to have advertisers. Lots of ’em. I know the importance of surveying your online audience. I’ve run several online surveys myself.
But if news organizations are proud of their news content, why do so many insist on hiding it?
Readers owe you nothing. They have no responsibility as citizens to read your reporting, and no responsibility as consumers to look at your ads. The have the right, and ability, to go about their lives without ever once glancing at your publication.
If you want people to read your publication, you then need to do whatever is necessary to make them want to read it.
That means leading with your best shot. Sure, the newsroom tries to pick the most compelling story of the page to put atop P1, or the home page of the website. But that effort’s for naught if the ad or production department buries that news so that potential readers cannot see it. Just because someone has subscribed to your newspaper, e-mail or RSS feed or bookmarked your website does not guarantee that person is your reader. You must convert people into readership every single day.
Here’s the dirty, nauseating truth about the news business: Advertisers do not care about the high quality of your publication’s news content nearly as much as they care about the high number of readers that it attracts. We are all selling access to eyeballs, and that’s pretty much it.
You can, and should, design your website, or your newspaper or magazine, in a way that draws readers’ attention to your ads or in-house promotions. But when your design crosses the line and forces readers to look at ads they don’t want, you encourage those readers to look elsewhere, jeopardizing the readership levels that makes your business sustainable.
A generation ago, newspaper readers didn’t have alternatives, which allowed papers to get away with this stuff. Just as broadcast TV could, too. But look at how TV commercial viewership has declined in the face of ad-skipping DVRs, premium cable channels, DVDs, video games and other viewing alternatives. The same thing’s happening online, as news readers can choose websites, social bookmarks services and other online communities that do not hide their content behind ads and come-ons. And if they do want to see news content that is not otherwise available, readers increasingly are choosing Web browsers and browser plug-ins that suppress pop-ups and strip ad content from webpages. Or they read sites via BugMeNot, to get around registration systems designed primarily to enable publishers to spam their readers.
As a news publisher, you’ve got a choice:
1) Get mad at your readers and take steps to force them to conform to your will. Then, after you’ve paid millions to your lawyers, hope you have enough left in the bank to pay for the therapy you’ll need to overcome the frustration of not being able to control other human beings. Or…
2) Acknowledge that readers owe you nothing. Build your websites to serve them, with editorial and advertising content that you make readily available, easy to see, access and understand, but that you do not force on anyone. Hope that by doing that, you can build a readership that will be attractive to advertisers, allowing you to build and sustain an ad-supported publishing business.
If you think that option 2 is naive, ask yourself this: Has the advertisers-first, readers-second model helped the newspaper industry build its circulation over the past generation? Has that model helped broadcast TV increase its ratings? And if that model has not helped them, what makes you think it will help you and your website?
I want journalists and news reporters to provide the most popular content on the Web. I think that society benefits when large numbers of people read high-quality, accurate and insightful news on a daily basis. But those readers have no responsibility to do so. We, as a news industry, must make them want to do so. And wrapping our reporting with spam, pop-ups, take-overs and irrelevant come-ons is not helping us do that.