News websites need sharper focus, consistent design to attract audience, advertisers

A reader wrote, in response to Geneva Overholser’s post relaunching OJR:

“You say that the ‘old business model for news is broken.’ What does that mean? What part of it is broken? What part of it can we expect journalists to put in its place?”

Let me take on that one today.

If we back up enough, I think we’ll find that core principles that power the news business remain viable in the Internet era. Advertisers continue to deliver billions of dollars to publishers. Heck, my wife and I make the bulk of our income from direct and networked ad sales on our websites, for a personal example.  

Other concepts can work, as well. Christopher Kimball and his crew at Cook’s Illustrated have shown that paid online content and offline subscriptions can support a robust ad-free publishing company. Non-profits such as the Consumers Union remain viable online, and other non-profits, such as ProPublica, show promise.

So people can, and are making a variety of concepts work, whether they be based on advertising, subscriptions and/or contributions and grant funding. So what has the Internet broken?

The biggest thing that the Internet has broken for long-time news publishers is their monopolies. With competition, publishers face lower ad revenue, compounded by lower circulation. Genres of advertising are changing, too, as Craiglist and eBay have made traditional newspaper classified advertising almost obsolete. 

Advertisers don’t want to buy the same old ad formats, for the same high rates, to reach an audience of readers who is no longer there. Publishers need to offer advertisers products that stand out in a crowded online market. They need highly targeted content that reaches a specific, well-defined audience. A “newspaper that serves a city” just isn’t granular enough in today’s marketplace.

But what can journalists do to fix that?

To start, we can try to get our readers back. A large and growing readership attracts advertisers (and grant funders). I wrote a bit about growing your audience last week,  and we can’t be afraid to be creative in offering different genres of content that we have before.

This week, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed chided the Los Angeles Times website for playing a photo of a  I Can Has Cheezburger kitten in the lead slot on the front page of the site. Roderick contrasts the front page with the New York Times’ website at the same hour, which fronted the progress of the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout plan (click the link above for screenshots). Roderick later noted a couple other traffic-boosting gimmicks at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When I worked on movie section of the Times website, each week I’d browse the photo wires for fun, cheeky, silly or sexy pictures from the week’s red carpet movie premiers and put them together into a photo gallery for the Times’ website. The feature soon became one of the more popular ones on the site, eliciting several thousand visits. So I’m not about to criticize newspaper websites for trying gimmicks and fluffy profiles (sometimes literally) to gain readers.

But Roderick and others who criticized the Times’ kitten photo do lead me to an essential point. It’s not that a website tries a gimmick – it’s where the website plays it that can make all the difference between its success and failure.

Here’s the lesson for journalists who want to help build a new, more lucrative business model for their websites – consistency. Let’s say you are a I Can Has Cheezburger fan who comes to the LA Times website fo the first time because it’s profiled your favorite website. And let’s say that you are one of those fans who actually does decide to click back and check again the next day, to see what other fun, quirky feature the Times has on its front page.

I don’t think you’re gonna be all that thrilled with yet another update on the U.S. financial crisis. Indeed, the flip side was what motivated the criticism from Roderick, et al.: A newspaper known for its serious, well-reported coverage of important global news ought not be leading with a soft feature on a kitten humor website. (In print, the Times played the I Can Has Cheezburger feature at the bottom of B1, in a slot it routinely runs features on various websites.)

Moving features, whether they be light or serious, around the website willy-nilly serves neither readers nor advertisers. Want to feature the quirky website of the day? Or the sexy starlet photo gallery? Fine, but do those with their own distinct, permanent URLs, RSS feeds, and e-mail alerts, where readers can always find the freshest updates. Give them a fixed place on the site’s navigation and home page. Not only will interested readers find the content they want, without disappointment, your ad sales team can more easily package the features for sales and/or sponsorship.

If you want to introduce a new website feature to your front-page readers, then assign a place on the front page where you will do that. But don’t bump front-page-caliber news down to make way. That just frustrates the readers who come to your site for your best reporting. (As well as the advertisers who want to reach those readers.) 

If you’re going to stick with an advertising-driven revenue model for your news website, you will need to provide a variety of tailored ad packages that target readers attracted to specific genres of content. Consistent play and placement of that content can help orient, attract and retain readers and advertisers alike. 

Of course, news publishers will need to do much, much more to attract and retain advertisers in a competitive online market, as we will continue to discuss in weeks to come. But imposing a more sensible order on the creative content your staff develops can help lay a foundation for building a new advertising model for the publication.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. This post brings up the question: are we (in the discussion set up by Geneva) primarily concerned with things that the news “publisher” should do, or that the news “journalist” (ie, reporter) should do?

    I understood the challenge articulated by Geneva as pertaining mainly to journalists, rather than publishers. However, this post exclusively focuses on publishers. The title alone – providing advice on how to organize websites – reflects that focus.

    The post goes on to suggest that publishers should produce “products that stand out in a crowded online market”, that reflect “highly targeted content”, and that cover “different genres of content.” Those are excellent objectives – the challenge is, and remains, defining what kind of products meet those objectives, and the possible roles in journalists, per se, in producing those products.

    This post also brings up another question: should the “news” be an end (the primary product being produced and delivered), or a means (a vehicle for delivering advertising or subscription revenues)? The post makes suggestions such as making products so they appeal more to advertisers, implying a view of news primarily as a means. I believe that this view (fairly common among journalism commentators) confuses the proper juxtaposition of ends and means, and ultimately leads to a diminished news product.

  2. This was really a great article!
    I’m new to OJR, and i can see i can learn much here!

    Kindly regards Retry