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.

News publishers shouldn't just 'set and forget' their websites' automated tasks

Do you know what your bots are doing?

Many news websites have set up automated scripts and agents to handle a variety of tasks on their sites – from story migration to registration confirmations to page customization.

But how often do you check on your automated processes? Or do you take the Ron Popeil approach to Web publishing: “Set it and forget it”?

This week, when news of the Casey Anthony verdict broke, I just happened to be checking Yahoo! News’ mobile site. Here’s what I found:

Yahoo! News mobile front page

First, a point to Yahoo! for not leading with the Anthony case, the latest media circus designed to channel public anger toward an insignificant person and away from anyone with actual power to abuse. But I take away that point and dock Yahoo! News an extra one for leading with a PRWeb press release instead.

That leads me to wonder if Yahoo! News has turned over its mobile site to an automated process that no human being is reviewing. Because I can’t imagine that any competent news producer would choose to lead what should be a major news site with a press release. Nor can I understand why a major news site would completely ignore such a popular story, as regrettable as it might be. The Anthony story didn’t show up on the Yahoo! News mobile site until it topped the “Most Popular” section about an hour later. Never did make “Top Stories” that I saw that afternoon.

Yahoo! News has been having other problems with its mobile site, too. I tweeted on June 25 that the site’s footer still read “© 2010.” A few days later, Yahoo! News debuted its new mobile design (with an updated copyright notice), and that’s when the PRWeb and other inconsequential stories began invading the front page.

Dead links began appearing behind stories, too, such as this one I got when I clicked one of the site’s designated “Top Stories”:

Yahoo! News 404 error page

This is not an isolated incident. Every time I used the Yahoo! News mobile site after the new design debuted until I gave up on the site yesterday, I found at least one broken link off the mobile front page. Is anyone at Yahoo! actually using the company’s mobile site? It appears not.

Not that other news publications aren’t having problems with their mobile versions. Here’s USA Today’s front page, from the same day and hour:

USA Today's mobile front page

The photo’s so large that it pushes the news off the front page. (Though USA Today does keep the ad up prominently, though.) You have to scroll down to get to any usable news:

Scroll down of USA Today's mobile front page

I understand that frugal news managers are turning to automation to develop more and more complex services for readers and customers while keeping labor costs manageable. But automation never excuses a publisher from maintaining human control over the publication. You can’t ever “set it and forget it” in the publishing industry. All news publications should assign an actual human employee to review automated processes on a regular schedule, and give those people the power to order immediate changes when something breaks.

So assign someone to look at those mobile sites every day. (And not via a computer – they should look at them using mobile devices.) Look at the pages that your scripts are generating. Don’t rely on readers to tell you when something’s wrong. When I worked at Disney, we were told during our company training that 99 people would experience something wrong before one would complain. That’s 99 potentially lost audience members or customers before the complaint hits someone’s in-box.

Why take that risk? Use your own product. “Eat your own dog food,” as the developer cliche says.

Trying to run your website on the cheap by creating automated tasks that no one ever checks simply makes your website… look cheap.

Breaking news doesn't work best on broken mobile sites

How did you find out about Osama bin Laden last night?

I found out checking my Twitter feed on my iPhone. I suspect that many people first heard the same way, though tweets, mobile alerts, text messages and Facebook posts. The news was 15 minutes old on Twitter before I saw the first TV network break in to report that President Obama was about to make a statement, then soon after confirming that bin Laden, the man behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was dead.

(And if you’d really been paying attention, you might have read earlier in the day this Twitter user live-blogging the attack in Pakistan that killed bin Laden.)

I hadn’t planned, obviously, to write about bin Laden for today. (Nor had any of the journalists around the world who were tearing up old budgets and remaking their pages late last night.) But I had planned to write what I fear will become a recurring nag to online journalists to pay closer attention to how their work comes across on mobile devices.

Given how I – and millions others, I suspect – first heard the news last night, that advice seems all the more relevant to me now. So now we join our regularly scheduled post. Mobile must not be left an afterthought in a news organization; it must become the first thought. It’s the first thought already for our audience – the way that more and more people are first hearing about breaking news, or even non-breaking viral news, online.

And yet, news organizations continue to make the mistakes I complained about last year, and the year before that.

If there’s one item of advice I wish that all news organizations would be embrace, it would be this: Please, if you tweet a link to a story on your website, and I click that link on my mobile device, do not then redirect me to your mobile home page, instead of sending me to the article you tweeted.

Home page redirection is the lazy programmer’s way of ensuring that mobile users see your optimized site. Stop it, please. Stop it now. Any programmer worth employing ought to be able to create a device-sniffing script that redirects readers to the mobile version of the specific article instead.

Beyond that, most of the frustrations I have as a mobile user stem from an apparent belief in some news organizations that “mobile = text.” While I encourage news organizations to remember the millions of would-be readers out there with feature phones, we’re long past the era when anyone could assume that “mobile = ” any one thing. Mobile’s as diverse as the Internet itself now, and designers and editors must be ready to craft presentations that meet individual readers’ needs, regardless of the device that they are using.

With no visuals available as the news broke, the bin Laden story could be told to mobile users using nothing but text. (That lack of visuals put television at a disadvantage as it waited nearly an hour for the President to speak Sunday night. My children started timing the loop of stock bin Laden footage one network played in between its various talking heads.)

That’s hardly the case with all news stories of course. Consider Friday’s royal wedding in England. And before anyone sneers that the wedding wasn’t ‘news,’ lemme say that if a billion people around the world are watching a live event at the same time, that event is worth covering. Just put the event in appropriate context – in this case, as a cultural celebration that will might end up having a significant effect on the global fashion industry, the wedding industry and the tourism industry. And that millions of people around the world enjoyed as at an excuse for some fun parties.

That now said, if you’re going to tweet a story about a photo of someone’s dress, and I get a mobile version of that story, the story better include the photo of the dress. Yet many websites, as a formatting matter, automatically strip photos and video embeds from their mobile stories.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter wether the photo is of an evening gown or a battle scene, images are a part of journalism and ought to be a part of journalism on the mobile Web, as well. Even the cheapest feature phones today have the ability to show a photo. Employ smart programming that gives your editors the ability to deliver newsworthy photos to feature phone users, more liberal use of photos to smart phone users and photo-rich displays to tablet users.

At the same time, let’s also use the need to better optimize the news reading experience for mobile users as an excuse to kill some of the bad design habits that have infected some news organizations. My current pet peeve is stories that present lists as multi-page galleries when the items in the lists don’t need a visual presentation.

Galleries for a list of the top 10 news photos of year use that format well. Galleries of the 10 most useless college majors, not so much.

It’s annoying enough to click through all those panels (with the interstitial ads) on a laptop Web browser. Try doing it on a phone. Yuck.

Let’s fess up. Those types of presentations are designed more to pad page views and ad impressions than to effectively communicate information to an audience. That’s not journalism. It’s spamming.

I asked on my personal Twitter feed if anyone knew of an ombudsman or readers’ rep who had addressed online design issues in defense of readers’ interests. I didn’t get any responses. If you have a link to one such piece, send it my way, or drop it into the comments.

Let’s quit hiding behind the excuse that we need to make money with our news websites. Instead, let’s recognize that the way to make money, in news or any other industry, is to find and meet the needs of audience and customers. It’s not to annoy them, harass them or frustrate them. Pageview-inflating galleries, lazy mobile “optimization” and one-size-fits-all design might help the bottom line in the short-term by inflating revenue or cutting costs. But ours is an industry that’s too long put off long-term thinking in favor of real and imagined short-term crises.

At some point, if you fail to meet your audience and customers’ needs, you fail. We don’t have to end up that way. But we will if we don’t start doing a better job of doing things such as creating better mobile news designs.

Here’s hoping more of us learn this lesson, so I don’t have to write this piece again next year.