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The danger of not understanding your medium [ClearOnMoney]
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Commentary

The danger of not understanding your medium

21 Jan 2010 by Jim Fickett.

It has been a major cultural shift for newspapers to build a web presence. Much progress has been made, but there is still room for improvement. We suggest two basic principles that may help: (1) space is free, but (2) time is more precious than ever.

In a Washington Post article entitled The New York Times announces a plan to charge readers for online content starting in 2011, Rob Grimshaw, managing director of the Financial Times website FT.com, was quoted speaking very frankly about the newspaper's experience in moving to the web.

In retrospect, Grimshaw said it was a “huge mistake” for publishers to give away their product. So why did they?

Grimshaw said newspaper publishers realized they did not understand the Internet, so they hired Internet experts and “let them do whatever they wanted and whatever they said was the right thing”

payphones.jpg Well, the newspapers should not feel too bad. At least they are in good company. The combination of a business that does not fully understand the IT they use, together with IT experts who don't fully understand the business they are working for, is a very common recipe for disaster.

Now it is time to do better. Newspaper websites still look like newspapers, which means they have not understood just how different from paper the internet is.

Two basic principles that may help: On the web, (1) space is free but (2) time is more precious than ever. Let's take these up in turn.

Space is free: well, not quite, of course. But compared to the world in which everything revolves around the precious commodity of column inches, space on the internet is essentially free. If the newspapers had realized this early on, they might not have been quite so badly beaten by Craigslist. Today they write traditional articles that evolved for a paper medium, and then separately work up multimedia extravaganzas. Instead, they should take advantage of the fact that column inches are no restriction, and write articles with nice big illustrations and links to further material for those who are interested. What's with the tiny, occasional graphs in the business news? The trend in the data is so revealing. Put in big, clear graphs! And explanatory sidebars don't need to just be in the long, leisurely articles on Sunday; they can be everywhere. Further, re-use them to your heart's content – a link costs nothing.

Time is more precious than ever: How can that be? First, information overload. Don't waste my time! It is hard to keep up with the onslaught, and I don't have time for writers who are more interested in writing flowery generalities than in telling me what is really new. Second, channel surfing. If someone has bought a physical newspaper and sat down to read it, chances are that even if an article does not get to the point immediately, they will not throw the newspaper away and buy a different one. But if a reader tires of something on the internet, the back button or the bookmarked competitor is only a click away. Write as much as you want, but get to the meat immediately, or you lose readers.

Certainly the newspaper websites are getting better. Now let's see them really take advantage of what the web can do. Otherwise it is all too easy to be left behind.