USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Some Guidelines From One of Online News' Walking Wounded

News on the Internet has gotten a bad knock lately, as if it had an odor of failure. 'No one makes money putting news on the Web.'

That depends. Journalists hate the word 'content,' but we should be embracing it. The narrow definition of news - the classic paradigm of a reporter kicking up new information that is then tailored by an editor and sent, wrapped in ads, to a reader or viewer/listener - doesn't work online. Cybernews, to survive financially, has to come in a sophisticated bundle of news, services and e-commerce.

This is a fundamentally new paradigm. And it changes the relationship between journalist and news consumer. Some content providers, like AOL and Yahoo, have figured that out. Others, like most newspaper sites, have not. They may perish.

We at OJR have been trying to put up helpful criticism and guidelines for more than two years. There's no textbook on this business yet, and those about to be published will inevitably be behind the curve. I've watched blood flow at new media conference tables since 1982 (Times Mirror's videotex project, Prodigy, and have learned some painful lessons. Others, in a pragmatic way, have also been learning the Rules of the Internet. Here's my contribution:

Rule #1

Building a Web site audience is like making friends worldwide.

You have to simultaneously plan your news product and match it to a specific group of people that you want to attract - whether they be news hounds, sports fans, trombone players, collectors of Chinese vases. Define that international community as part of your business plan and stick to it.

Internet news is a dialogue with an identifiable audience, a global conversation on topics that can be broad, such as on a general news site, or laser-like specific, such as news, advice and products for animal trainers who use clickers. The audience expects you to have expertise on those topics you stake out on your front page. You have to deliver on that and then let them draw from you more news and information - a bottomless source of help. As part of the dialogue, they want you to prompt them, provoke them, respond to them, by e-mail or e-mail newsletters. You can't do that if you don't have a good sense of who they are. (Induce them to register.) And then you have to be available. Sites doom themselves by offering no Feedback button, no boards, no experts to connect with (when they may have a whole building full of them, such as at a major newspaper).

Rule #2

Deepen your database through interactivity.

If the niche you defined seems too narrow to build an audience on and make a buck, drill down into the niche and find creative ways to connect. I would have been a bigger fan of APBNews if it had helped me get out of traffic tickets or kept track of crime in my neighborhood through some automated database. But beware of extending logic trees downward, especially by means of non-automated, in-house applications. Each new topic box on your chart represents sunk cost. They are like puppies, cute when you bring them home but pretty soon they're wolfing down food and running up big vet bills. The labor involved with opening new areas on a site can be a killer.

Rule #3

Step on the technology throttle.

Find high-tech partners and push the medium into new territory.

Here I part with the 'keep it simple' people and those, such as at Slate, who believe that text will carry the day.

This medium has astounding potential, the most powerful news vehicle yet invented. Take a look at the information technology being developed at engineering schools, such as at MIT, Columbia and here at USC.

Look three to five years ahead, take broadband access as a given, and then figure out what the news of the future will look like: a totally interactive, digitally immersive experience, having little resemblance to today's news on the Internet. We're at the point now where film directors were at the start of the last century, when they were aiming their cameras at theater stages. It will pay to be at the forefront of technology development.

Rule #4

Don't pick a friend's pocket.

Respect the rights of your audience. Put privacy rules in place and stick with them. Don't sell data to third parties or abuse what should be a close relationship.

Rule #5

Take the consumer's side.

'Blown to Bits; How the New Economics of Information Transform Strategy' by Philip Evans and Thomas S. Wurster (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) should be required reading for anyone putting up an online news site.

The authors accurately theorize that the relationship between publishers and news consumers on the Internet is fundamentally different than between print publishers and readers or between broadcasters and their audiences.

Print and broadcast news consumers get the product cheaply because advertisers subsidize it. This allows advertisers to control important parts of traditional media, in that publishers and broadcasters offer goods and services with almost no guarantee of quality or value. A publisher makes no claim that a shirt advertised at the local department store is any good. It's caveat emptor.

Consumer affairs coverage today rarely rises above hammering on helpless ethnic restaurants or repair garages. A news staff that dares to do comparisons of produce freshness in local supermarkets, examines the tactics of car dealers or the ethics of plastic surgeons will earn a quick rocket from the publisher. As Evans and Wurster argue, the Internet creates a new role for the news provider, that of navigator, the helpful guide who takes the cause of the individual consumer to heart and wins their trust by being on their side.

This is a totally different paradigm, one that most online news organizations fail to understand or exploit. No wonder that Yahoo, eBay and dominate the Web. (AOL also lends a helpful hand and gets away with pushing goods at subscribers by being very careful about what it offers.) These non-news corporations have become the navigators of choice for millions, creating billions in capital wealth as a result, while media companies have watched them succeed.

Rule #6

Keep as much content, including archives, as free as possible.

The Net is an open platform and information on it should be shared cooperatively. If a content revenue stream is the only way to make a business plan work, tier the service and leave some of the good stuff out in the open. Have faith. If the proprietary content below is truly valuable, enough people will leave the free territory to pay for it.

Rule #7

Sustain the Internet dialogue.

Everyone at a news organization should be an active list participant, should answer board postings and exchange e-mail with the audience. If a news staff doesn't have time for that, management is doing something wrong.

Rule #8

Produce original content.

It's OK to have shovelware and plug in the wires and automated photo services, but if you're not also generating your own news, you are not a news organization. You are a phone company. Matt Drudge not only runs a wonderful phone company, with great links, but part of his value - and success - is that he does his own reporting, writing. We might argue whether it's any good, being possibly 20% off, but it is original, provocative and entertaining. Drudge has never been dull. Instead of carping about him, news organizations should be grooming their own Drudges - ones with more balance, integrity and discipline - armed with unique and challenging voices. We need more iconoclasts in journalism, and the Web is the perfect place to cultivate them.

Rule #9

Be humble and listen carefully, especially to the young.

With all respect to Dr. Koop and Martha Stewart, the Internet doesn't need father/mother figures. If you are a news Web site manager and are looking over your newsroom and can't see several key people under 30, you are probably doing something wrong. This is a medium for the young. It's OK to have writers with strong opinions and a hard edge to their prose, but avoid self-absorbed dwellers of the egosphere. Find writers and columnists who are avid Web surfers, who draw their information from the Net community and listen carefully to their audience.

Rule #10

Stay honest. (Don't fudge the traffic figures or cook the books. It will cost you in the long run.)

I've watched management presentations with user numbers that I knew were totally false, and we paid the penalty later. I've seen inflated ad revenues, barter counted as income. I've seen marketing money quietly used to cover editorial budgets, in order to disguise costs. I've seen bills go unpaid and freelancers stiffed. None of this breeds success. Hunker down for the long haul, keep costs under control and, above all, enjoy being a pioneer. It often seems crazy to be in this business, but few aspects of journalism these days deliver a more satisfying kick than a good day's work on the Internet.