Why Newspapers Still Don’t Get It

During the Jupiter Consumer Online Forum last week, I played a little hooky. I awoke early on March 2 and walked to the New York Newseum on Madison at 56th Street to learn how print news staffs are dealing with the Internet.

This was to be found inside the sixth edition of the “Media in Cyberspace” study, compiled by PR man Don Middleberg and Columbia journalism professor Steven Ross.

This year, Middleberg and Ross sent out about 4,000 surveys and got back about 400 responses. Nearly nine in ten of those newspaper and magazine editors that completed surveys said they now have web sites, most sites share operations with their print brethren, and over half of all reporters now use the Internet regularly, Ross said, averaging nine hours online a week. That’s important, he noted, because it means technical staffs have worked out the security requirements of giving reporters web access from their desks.

If you want to make reporters happy-happy, Ross advised, make sure you put contact phone numbers on your sites – 81 percent said it’s what they go online the most for.

Sending a release via email won’t get you coverage, however. Most reporters still depend on personal contacts for story ideas. “Don’t get caught up in process,” advised Middleberg. “Meet the journalists. Nothing will ever substitute for face-to-face contact. There is never going to be a substitute for live contacts and live leads.”

That is the good news. Ross also had to take the media to task for some severe failings in training. Here are some highlights:

  • Sources like freeEdgar, Findlaw and the Thomas server of Congressional data often aren’t used because most reporters think they can reach them from Yahoo.
  • Papers don’t link to competitors, especially when that competitor has gotten the story first. If there are links to other stories, they’re the paper’s own stories.
  • Only one-fourth of newspapers and magazines let their web sites scoop the print editions.
  • Meta-search engines like AskJeeves, Google and Dogpile, which search other search engines, are almost never used.

For the most part, Ross said, this is a failure of training. “Good is the enemy of great – we’re seeing it big time. Specialized sites aren’t being used at all.”

The failure to link, which has disturbed me for years, also disturbs Ross. “We asked if you link to items elsewhere that might be inspiration to stories – they’re not going to give credit even when credit’s due. I think readers figure out what the news organizations are doing much more easily; this is an ethical lapse that’s also bad business.”

Younger reporters are far more web-savvy than old fogies, Ross said, so things are improving. But management still doesn’t get it, in ways large and small. The web is still seen as the enemy of print or, at best, an adjunct to print. Reporters aren’t properly trained, and a proprietary selfishness still rules the day.

Walking back to the Jupiter Forum, I came up with my own conclusions. The local web “news” battle is still being fought between daily papers and (in some cases) an online chain like AOL Digital City or Ticketmaster Citysearch, both of which rely on wire copy for their news. If you can work out the business model for local news (maybe creating a news bureau that also syndicates to the chains), I still insist there’s a great opportunity to eat the papers’ lunch.

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