Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How Bill Keller's Reading Habits Indicate That Regional Newspapers Dropped The Ball

I Want Media has posted a great interview with Bill Keller, the New York Times' managing editor, on all things Times-related: New building, new organization, new journalistic frontiers. A great piece for sure, but one of the most interesting things in the interview is to see Keller's mind thinking.

Though only an e-mail interview -- those tend to come out guarded and overthought, as any reporter in 2007 knows -- we can still see through the defenses a bit and see that journalism in the digital age keeps Keller up at night just as much as today's front page story on the Middle East. He elaborates on a May comment that we "can't let our reverence for quality become a straitjacket in new media":

The Times is respected not because every story is perfect, but because we have excellent people making their best effort...the Web environment is different in several respects... [readers] bring different expectations to the Web than they bring to print...that does NOT mean the Web is a lawless frontier, or that you cannot aspire to high-quality journalism on the Web. It just means you cannot apply the same formal editorial bureaucracy to the Web that works in print. Because the deadline is constant, more stories will be posted on deadline -- and necessarily be less polished -- but they will be improved more quickly, too.

Well there's a lot there for sure, but the good news is that someone's starting to realize that the web isn't the same beast. All these thoughts seem to be a pastiche of company policy and his own thinking, and it's interesting to watch it being fleshed out on the page. In fact, Keller even admits to reading blogs:

I have a couple of dozen non-Times blogs bookmarked -- media blogs, political blogs, music blogs, food blogs, etc. The lineup changes, and includes a pretty wide spectrum of opinion. (Why read only things that confirm what you already think?)

I visit them less frequently than I did a year ago. In part that is because, surrounded as I am by journalists, I usually hear about anything interesting without having to spend my time browsing. Also, some blogs I used to enjoy seem to have said everything they had to say.

A few interesting points. Sadly, Keller doesn't go into detail as to which blogs he reads. (That's what I want to know -- is he reading the digitalized voice of an established MSM journalist or is he reading some fine citizen journalism or opinion? Sure, it changes often and it's a personal matter, but I feel that Keller's habits may reflect how "with it" he really is when it comes to the "Web environment.")

But you know what? This whole interview isn't about the Times at all. What this is about is every other paper in the nation, and how they've dropped the web-ified ball for their readers.

I know what Keller thinks. The web is a different beast, but we need to close the gap so that readers experience it the same way they read the paper. I can see the fruits of his company's thought on their website. But I continue to see terrible choices -- or worse, a lack of any at all -- regarding existing regional newspapers and the web.

As a part of my day, I regularly bounce from site to site reading our nation's best regional papers. The Dallas Morning News. The Indianapolis Star. The Chicago Tribune. The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Boston Globe. The Miami Herald.

The list goes forever on.

And almost every website I visit looks the same. A bunch of text in an unidentifiable font, a bunch of thumbnail pictures and nary a signature flourish of the printed paper in sight. Hell, half of these papers don't even have their mastheads in the font that they are printed in everyday.

That's like sending the Yankees on the ballfield without the "NY" and pinstripes. Could you imagine watching a ballgame game like that?

My point is, while Keller's dreaming up the finer points of journalism on the web, the rest of the nation hasn't even me any semblance of their paper on the web. Sure, the stories are there, but the packaging isn't. And it's a frustrating read.

I myself can attest that I spend very little time on the Philadelphia Inquirer's website because it's so damn frustrating. I've complained about their city-friendly portal before -- and still don't understand why they don't have their own standalone website that syndicates its stories to the "city" site -- but seeing "Philadelphia Inquirer" in small type trumped by a bigger "Philly.com" on the top isn't helping that paper at all be the national force it used to be.

Philly's not the only one, either: The Miami Herald is missing a real masthead, and has some space management issues. The Dallas Morning News gives its ads more important space than its own content, and is missing a masthead as well. Even with good organization, the San Francisco Chronicle can't even reconcile the fact that it's website operates as a separate entity from the newspaper altogether (SFGate? Ridiculous). The New Haven Register needs to ditch its Web 1.0 look and manage its space better (oh, and put the name of the paper in a size that is at least equal to the smallest ad). Et cetera.

It may sound like I'm whining over details, but many readers only go to the website. For any paper who's trying to extend reach without breaking the bank, all they need to do is find a web format that looks like a newspaper -- and not like a Yahoo! News compilation.

Makes the whole complaining about web-syndicated stories thing seem moot, doesn't it? They're worried about content and meanwhile, the paper's website, the front door and front page of the newspaper, looks like a 12-year-old designed it in Microsoft Frontpage.

I know that budgets are tight. But the nation's pillars of journalism need to look, well, like pillars, and not like driftwood in a sea of many websites.

If I can't differentiate a newspaper's site from a news-aggregate site, how will I trust (and buy) the real thing?


Daneman said...

What you are seeing is a reflection of the fact none of these companies are newspaper companies. There's actually no such thing anymore - these are all multimedia companies that put out newspapers as well as operate news Web sites. The flagship product might be the dead tree thing put on doorsteps every day, but that is declining rapidly. Keeping that in mind, is it fair to say 'your sites suck because they don't look like newspapers?' when readers are indicating they don't want newspapers and when these media companies are heading toward the day when they don't actually put out a physical product anymore?

Colin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin said...

While it may be true that the "flagship" product is no longer the actual paper, I would have to question how wise it is to mix web metaphors. A portal or a front page? Which is it?

Most of these papers take a certain amount of pride in their on-paper layouts, at least I hope they would. Some newspapers are just laid out really, really well. I mean, look at this front page for the Morning News.

What we need is web designers working for these companies who actually take pride in their work. And also, someone talk to google about how to do ads on-line correctly. "Swat the fly" is, perhaps, the greatest detriment to trying to read something online that I know of, and it may work for Yahoo! Games, but it's just not right when a paper hopes you'll actually read something on their page.

Where have all the web 2.0 designers gone? He who lays out A List Apart should put some effort into newspapers . . .

The Editorialiste said...


You're right -- none of these companies are primarily news organizations. But keep in mind, the newspapers serve as a public face to the company (why else would Rupert Murdoch keep the always-in-the-red NY Post?) -- why wouldn't you want to "put your best face forward"?

Your mention that the printed edition is on the decline supports my argument that the websites need to resemble the printed page. Few people are leaving the paper because of the look; they're leaving it because of the price, or because of the time it takes to read a paper. People are already on their computers -- so bring the paper to their monitors, not their driveways. Just make it recognizable.

Food for thought.

@colin: I'm not trying to mince my words, so I apologize for being unclear. Bottom line? The online game pales in the face of the printed page, and if readers are migrating online, it might be wise to consider the move before it's monetarily necessary. You're right -- we need some web-ified layout designers. Some papers have them -- but they're too busy working on the printed edition. Maybe time to consider a switch?

Thanks to you both and keep on reading,
The Editorialiste.

Colin said...

Haha, I wasn't speaking at you about mixed metaphors, my apologies! Online newspapers in general can't seem to decide if they want to be community portals or the front page of a newspaper. SFGate.com is a perfect example, though there are plenty more subtle ones.

Also, I'm not even convinced paper layout and web layout are so different. I think that's one of the great divides that will have to be crossed (or, discovered to have never been there in the first place). Too many people think the web is something substantially different than the real world. This is all from a layout point of view, of course. There are plethora of contextual differences.

Thanks for responding, keep up the posts.

Anonymous said...

You should consider updating your layout too--hello blogger template