Five myths I hope you don't hear at ONA 2011

Here are a few of the industry myths that I hope you will not hear during the Online News Association conference in Boston next week. The ONA’s done a good job over the years of inviting more speakers and panelists who are grounded in “real Web” experience, minimizing the number of speaking slots for print-side executives who’d rather pine for the days of their lost monopolies. Still, people who look at the Internet through an opaque sheet of newsprint still show up at ONA, and other industry conferences. These are a few of their favorite lines, ones that I invite you to ignore, or, if you’re looking for some fun, to challenge.

Myth 1: You can’t support a publication on online advertising revenue.

When you hear this line, here’s what the speaker really is saying: “I can’t support my publication on my online advertising revenue.” Just because one manager hasn’t figured it out doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist. If you want to seek foundation support, great. Go for it. But don’t fool yourself for a moment into believing that “non profit” means “no money worries.” Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model. You’ll still need to find sources of income, and in the non-profit world those sources come with many more strings attached than advertising contracts have.

Myth 1 is often followed in the same comment by Myth 1.a: You can’t make money on AdSense. Again, what the speaker is really saying is: “I can’t make money on AdSense.” People who say this typically make the lazy mistake of thinking that AdSense provides incremental revenue each time it displays on a website, so they stick it into every ad slot on the site they can’t sell themselves.

Well, if your local or small-scale advertisers didn’t want to pay to deliver their message on a page, what makes you think that the big industry pros who are placing multi-million-dollar AdWords campaigns want any part of those pages, either? Slapping ads on pages that don’t convert causes Google to cut your payment on pages that do. Adding extra AdSense slots to your site can actually decrease your revenue. The key to AdSense is to limit its deployment to pages that will attract interested readers who will click through to big-dollar advertisers. Never use AdSense as remnant inventory. Use it as a tool to attract ads to pages of interest to national and global advertisers you can’t reach with your local sales staff.

Myth 2: Readers have short attention spans, so you must break up your content.

Readers only appear to have short attention spans because the media revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries have left them bombarded with content options. They must make decisions within split seconds about which content to read or watch and which to ignore.

But once they make the decision to try your content they will stick with it as long as they continue to feel that it’s worth their time. People with short attention spans don’t spend hours without interruption playing Minecraft or Madden. They don’t read 800-page Harry Potter books cover to cover or sit through three-hour Lord of the Rings movies. But all of those were huge hits.

Breaking up content into multiple pages and components simply reminds people at each interruption that they have a choice and could be doing something else. Invest your energy instead into ensuring that your work is relevant and rewarding to your audience. Then craft an awesome lead or visual to grab their attention.

Myth 3: Online journalism = big Flash graphics

Back in the days of shovelware newspaper websites, staffers in the online department had to justify their existence while trying to define to their print-focused bosses just what this Internet thing was good for anyway.

Enter the big Flash graphic. Hey, I had a lot of fun with Flash presentations that turned investigative reports into facile video games, too. But there’s so much more for us to do today. And with poor or nonexistent mobile support limiting the usability of Flash content, I’d question continuing to invest significant resources in Flash development. Perhaps the bigger problem is the attitude illustrated by Myth 3.a: Interactivity = multimedia. No, they are not the same. Interactivity is the inclusion of the audience in the creation of a work. Multimedia is the use of multiple media, including photos, video, audio, text and animation, in a work. That readers must decide what to click on in a big Flash graphic doesn’t make it any more interactive than a Web browser, which also gives readers click choices.

Myth 4: You need a big editorial staff to do great journalism online.

This myth is a favorite of old-media managers who are trying to define away their competition. The market is evolving. Let’s deal with it, instead of trying to pretend that change isn’t happening. Devotion to large staffs explains why so many publications find themselves believing Myth 1, too. Their problem is using old-media models to compete in a new-media space. (Across-the-board cutting isn’t the solution, by the way. Reinvention is.) One-person websites can do great work. They’ve even won Online Journalism Awards in the past.

Myth 5: Paywalls are the best (or only) way to paid content online.

Paywalls work when you offer (a) highly-specialized, unique content of tangible value to people (see Wall Street Journal or Cooks’ Illustrated), or (b) offer enough free passageways through the paywall that the pay scheme becomes a voluntary contribution system (see The New York Times).

Despite how great you think your content to be, if you’re reporting daily news, your site probably doesn’t fall under (a). And if you are not a beloved national brand, you probably won’t make much money from (b), either. If you really want to sell content directly to the reader, do as I’ve been urging for the past two months and look into eBooks, an established market where consumers have shown that they’re willing to pay for content at higher price points than many paywall schemes have offered.

Have fun at the conference. Go ahead and poke the trolls. And, as with any conference, don’t forget to give yourself a daily goal of meeting at least five new people, then talking with each one for at least a couple of minutes. You’ll learn more from those interactions than from listening to any of these old myths.

Is it time for news websites to stop using Flash?

Like many tech-geek online journalists, I’ve been spending more time with my iPhone in recent months. I use the phone’s Web browser to update my various sites from wherever I am on the road, or even around the house.

And I’m not the only person using Apple’s mobile devices who’s reading my various websites. The percentage of iPhone, iPod and iPad users reading my sites now stands just a hair under five percent, but it’s growing swiftly – up from just over one percent at the beginning of 2010.

So it’s as both a consumer and a publisher that I’ve been following the ongoing battle between Apple and Adobe over the latter’s Flash technology. Journalism educators should be watching this conflict, too, as they need to be making decisions today about what technology their students will need to be able to use in 2011 and years ahead. Today, I’m offering a collection of links for OJR readers who want to get up to speed on this controversy.

Apple’s mobile devices do not display Flash content and won’t be in the future, for reasons Apple’s Steve Jobs laid out in his famous open letter last month. As an iPhone user, that’s led me away from websites that rely on Flash and toward other, more mobile-friendly alternatives.

I’m finding myself doing the same even when I am using my laptop. Ten years ago, I adored Flash photo galleries. Today, watching stuff move on my computer screen isn’t enough to excite me anymore. I prefer user interfaces that allow me to skim and scroll through information quickly, lingering on that which I find interesting and moving swiftly past the rest.

I don’t like having to click and click and click to see something. Nor do I like having to wait for large presentations to load, or annoying transitions instead of instant display when I do have to click. (My wife late last year expressed frustration with Flash-driven websites more eloquently than I could, so – as I often do in life – I defer to her for further argument.)

My experience as a consumer is leading me away from using Flash as a publisher. Is that the case for other publishers? I don’t know. But I think that journalism educators would be smart to start thinking about alternatives to Flash-based presentations when working with students who are trying to find the best form for their online storytelling.

Apple and other platform developers are pushing HTML 5 as an alternative to Flash for displaying motion on webpages. Streaming Media and Wired offer some interesting background suggesting why Adobe’s not been able to convince companies such as Apple to embrace Flash on mobile devices.

But what is HTML 5 and how can it do what Flash has done so long? Roughly Drafted offers a great timeline for the development of HTML 5, tracing it back to the early days of hypertext markup.

Online journalism’s go-to source for Flash training long has been Mindy McAdams, so it’s no surprise that she’s stayed on top of this issue. She defends the continued use of Flash in journalism while offering a sound overview of all that HTML 5 can do. And in a follow-up post, she goes into greater detail about the use of HTML 5’s “canvas” tag, which provides the Flash alternative that many developers are beginning to explore.

Please take a look at these links. Even if Flash survives and thrives as a publishing tool into the 2010s, its use will be influenced by the development of HTML 5, potentially narrowing and sharpening what constitutes the “best use” of Flash.

The controversy over Flash, at the very least, provides journalism educators a teaching moment in which to reinforce the important message that no publishing technology is eternal, and that journalists must be prepared to either train themselves, or seek training, on new publishing tools and techniques throughout their careers.

Basic training in Flash journalism

Phil O’Connor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch e-mailed me about the Post-Dispatch’s latest Flash journalism project: Reporting for Duty. O’Connor and photographer David Carson followed a group of U.S. Army recruits through their nine weeks in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. The result was a six-chapter series, supplemented with online video interviews and features, all wrapped in a Flash shell.

Flash accompaniments to major investigative or feature projects have become a mainstay of departments over the past several years. But how well does the format serve the audience? What have we learned about storytelling in the Flash medium and what ought journalists be doing to help production conventions evolve?

So I asked Jean Buchanan, assistant managing editor/projects for the Post-Dispatch, to reflect via e-mail on this project, then take a look ahead based on what the paper’s staff, online and off, have learned from it.

OJR: What projects at other news organizations or websites inspired the design for this project?

Buchanan: For the multimedia part, we basically started from scratch. The primary online programmer on this project, Rich Rokicki, says he went into this kind of blindly without checking out too many things beforehand. The idea was to keep it very simple.

OJR: Do you think that this is the most ambitious online project that’s been done to date at the Post-Dispatch? What are some of the Post-Dispatch’s notable previous online projects?

Buchanan: Yes, this is the most ambitious online project we’ve done to date. Here are some of our previous projects:

The Blues project

From Afghanistan

Feeding Africa

Recovery and Salvation

Stan the Man

OJR: What do you think is unique about the design and functionality of this project?

Buchanan: The “Meet the Squad” page was one of our favorites. The short video interviews with the recruits early in their training were very revealing and the flicking of each person’s pictures was engaging. The photos helped connect each of these recruits to readers because the treatment showed their humanity. We also put together a movie-type trailer that we released in advance of the project to generate interest. Once the project launched, that video became our introduction to all the videos.

OJR: What personnel and processes did the Post-Dispatch need to have in place in order to make this project happen?

Buchanan: A photographer comfortable with video and video editing, an online photo editor and Flash programmers. This project was a major test because the photographer, David Carson, had shot limited video before this, and this is the first project by Rich Rokicki, the primary Flash programmer. We learned that our processes need to be refined to ensure that we aren’t trying to change a lot of things in the last week or two.

OJR: Did you consider other formats before deciding on this design and functionality for this project? What were they and why didn’t they stick?

Buchanan: No. But after the project was over, we realized some things just did not work. For instance, viewing story copy in the Flash presentation did not work well. The stories should have been on their own webpage, not in the multimedia presentation. We’ve certainly learned more about the questions to ask next time.

OJR: How have readers responded to the project’s online presentation? What’s the traffic, especially in comparison with previous online projects and Post-Dispatch feature stories?

Buchanan: The traffic to this project is very strong, relative to other multimedia/interactive projects we’ve done in this manner, but it doesn’t show up strong in our pageview counts relative to other stories or features.

The one thing no one likes, and which we would definitely do differently, is the presentation of the story. Because of the limitations of the design, the window for reading the story is too small and people have complained about having to scroll so much. We’ve talked about a way to present the stories outside of the Flash next time up.

OJR: What’s the lesson that you’ve taken away from this project, that could be applied to others in the future to make them better?

Buchanan: We need to:

  • Learn how to think through the story we want to tell through video — still new for most of us.
  • Learn how to package content like this in a way that is well integrated with the rest of the site, but doesn’t short-change us in terms of pageview traffic. The self-contained nature of this project translates into one pageview per visit — regardless of how much time a viewer spends or how much content they view.
  • Learn to be more adept at some of the Flash tools that would plug us in better to our Omniture metrics software. Doing some could mean more pageviews.
  • Figure out how to integrate it in a way that offers advertisers more impressions. In addition to the one pageview per visit, we only offer one advertising impression.
  • Figure out a more systematic online marketing campaign to get exposure for our work.

    What is your reaction to the Post-Dispatch’s project, or to similar Flash news presentations? Please tell us in the comments.