My Thoughts on How to Save the News

I recently posted about an article for The Atlantic that talked about how Google is working closely with traditional media outlets (newspapers mainly) to help them survive and become profitable again. This is a very noble cause, but one I am not sure Google alone can solve.

Why Google Will Struggle

Google is full of people much smarter than I, however, as evident in their products, they are not on the fore-front of design. Just take a look at their Google News page if you don’t believe me (it looks like a sideways box of Crayons). Google has a ton of smart engineers, and it would seem that design gets pushed to the back burner most of the time.

For instance which would you rather use:

Google Reader as presented by Google, or Google Reader as presented by HelvetiReader?

If you are me the latter is the only way to go, this is the same product with some time and thought put into the look and feel. Saving newspapers is about far more than just monetizing the model, but making it a place the readers want to go to read. It is about balancing ads, design, and readability with the content.

Whether or not a reader thinks they care about looks, does not matter, because the human eye always cares. We have a natural distaste for products that look like crap, and are drawn towards those that please us visually. One reason people prefer to read magazine articles in a magazine instead of on the web is because most of the time the website looks crappy in comparison to the magazine. In order to move people to prefer the web, content providers need to make their sites more attractive.

Dynamic Ads

Let’s take the New York Times homepage as our example, they are using 6-columns (grids) to align their content. Some ads span two columns and some just one. Something that was mentioned by Google was creating what they called dynamic ads, and I rather like the idea of this.

Ads change in size, automatically rescaling content based on the reader (more on this in a bit) and the amount of money the advertisers are willing to pay. So if an advertiser 1 wanted to have a large ad, perhaps it will span two columns on a homepage, but only for readers making $50k a year and up. Otherwise a smaller one column ad is displayed from advertiser 2, who is paying less for the smaller ad being served to a different target audience.

In this model both the ads are different (based on the reader) and the sizing is different (based on the amount advertisers paid for the space). This is a traditional model and one that is certainly in place, except for the fact that they are not dynamically set up for an algorithm to automatically change with no human interference, ever.

This would be a huge benefit for the readers of the site as well. I for one should not have to see impotence ads and rolex ads for quite a while. The ads would be far more valuable to me because they are now tailored for me, for what I like.

Requiring Registrations

Linking into the above concept is required site registrations. These registrations should be free, and very quick (1 minute at the most – no email verification). They should require the following information be provided: sex, age range, income range, username. That is all you need to accurately market to people, I would add race, but that is always a touchy subject to get into. (You can get their interests by tracking their habits)

This registration data would provide advertisers with a deluge of information and would allow the site to track what that reader likes to read. Now you would know several things for targeting ads directly at the user: what they can afford to buy, and what they are interested in. Most advertisers would kill to be able to target ads that directly at people.

All of this tracking and data collection of course will lead to more data, and with more data we can make more assumptions and better changes to how we direct users around our sites and the ads that advertisers direct at the users.

Higher Quality Ads

This is the biggest and most important aspect of trying to turn around news sites. The ads that are being displayed on the web these days are for the most part, terrible. The only advertisers that display nice looking ads are The Deck and Fusion, everyone else’s are terrible, Google’s ads seem to think you want to see more of their crappy text ads.

Now think about the advertising that you see in Magazines, not the crap that is stuck in the back, but those that are displayed near the front. They spent money making and designing those ads, thought was put into them and it shows.

The web needs higher quality ads, and it needs them now.

Any ad that moves or emits sound should never be displayed next to content that you want someone to read. Doing this distracts the reader, and detracts from the content.

Less is often more, you certainly want to get the reader to look at the ads, but you don’t want them thinking how much they dread your ads because it distracts them from reading what they want to read. There is a fine line to be struck here between ads that draw attention and ads that annoy people.

River Content Streams

Another thing that was mentioned in the Atlantic article was content streams referred to as ‘rivers’. This was done to help newspapers rank better in Google searches, given that they are always posting smaller updates to larger stories (instead of long recapped posts that are out of date). This is a phenomenal idea, one that needs to be better used and leveraged to help readers do more then get better search results.

If newspapers are not already tagging their content, they should be. If all articles are tagged, then why would you not let your readers create their own content page. There have been personal home pages in the past for The Wall Street Journal, but they only let you select sections of the paper. Tags should be the new sections.

It would be great for people to be able to say I want a page (and RSS feed) that shows me only articles tagged as ‘social media’. You could have your own customized news stream based on what you want to know. The possibilities are endless – the result is a happy customer and better targeted ads.

This approach gives the reader a reason to keep coming back, it adds value.

Pretty Pictures

Photography: this is where magazines and news sites can and should slaughter free content providers such as blogs. Bloggers don’t have the time, staff and resources to go out and get great photos, they are not posting AP and Getty photos, they are posting stock images, sometimes.

Newspapers (magazines and other news outlets as well) have these at their finger tips, moreover they have citizens willing and ready to hand over their photos and videos of stories as they are happening. Yet this very rarely makes into play.

News organizations need to do a better job of leveraging visual stories with the rich media that they have at their disposal. Writing an article on a congressional hearing? You should have videos showing the key players talking about the issue, include a slideshow the the key players and the things they are talking about.

One such news outlet that gets this is The Guardian a U.K. paper that release an iPad App called Eyewitness, displaying one picture a day. This is one of my favorite apps on the iPad, and they are making money off it through ads, yet they don’t bug me one bit.

The Guardian partnered with Canon to show these images, the Guardian selects the image and writes a caption, Canon has a watermark of their logo, and provides information on how best to recreate the image using professional photography techniques (this is my best guess of how it works). This is a very smart approach, so why has it not been carried out every where?

Dump The Paper

All you hear about Newspapers is how they lose money by continuing to print paper editions and deliver them. So get rid of the paper, or raise the price. As of this writing for me to get The New Yorks times delivered to my door each morning it would cost me a little over a dollar a day. That is nothing.

If you really want to keep with selling paper copies, raise your prices, and cut the production. Make it profitable through pricing, don’t try selling more for less, try selling less for more.

The Future

I don’t know the future and I have never worked in publishing, so I have no clue wether these ideas will work. However, my schooling in business, my knowledge of technology, my love of design, love of news consumption, and general frugalness leads me to believe that this is a feasible approach. There is no reason for the media outlets to not try some of these ideas that I have proposed, or the ideas that many others around the net are coming up with.

Originally posted for members on: May 14, 2010
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