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Summary:

The secret to online success for newspapers doesn’t depend on technology or even specific kinds of content, says Emily Bell, the former head of digital for The Guardian. All it requires is a firm commitment to be “of the web, not just on the web.”

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The secret to online success for newspapers doesn’t depend on the choice of technology, or decisions about content, or even specific kinds of knowledge about the web, says Emily Bell — the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and the former head of digital for The Guardian. All it requires, she says, is a firm commitment to be “of the web, not just on the web.” Speaking at a journalism event in Toronto last night, Bell said the biggest single factor in the success that The Guardian had online was the determination to be part of the web, and to embrace even the controversial aspects of the online content game — including user-generated content and the use of tools to track readers and traffic. “Its useful to have the digital skills,” she said, “but more important to have a digital mindset.”

One of the most controversial things The Guardian did early on, according to Bell, was to launch the Huffington Post-style Comment Is Free platform in 2006, which allowed anyone to submit opinion or commentary pieces and have their blog posts run alongside the traditional columnists employed by the paper.

It was this last part of the project that really caused a furor within The Guardian, said Bell, because the traditional columnists didn’t want their pearls of wisdom to be appearing alongside the rantings of non-journalists, and they expressed their displeasure in no uncertain terms to Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. To his credit, Bell says the editor stood firm.

Bell also noted that one of the big factors in the rise of The Huffington Post was the New York Times‘ decision to put all of its columnists behind a pay wall, which it did in 2005. The wall was dismantled in 2007, but while it was in effect it locked the NYT’s opinion leaders away from the web, and effectively removed them from the discussion stream — which created a perfect opportunity for Arianna Huffington, and helped her build a business that AOL just acquired for $315 million. It remains to be seen what kind of impact the NYT’s new “metered” pay wall will have once it launches, which is expected to happen soon.

Bell said one of the mistakes most newspapers made was to not pay close enough attention to the technology side of the online content business, and to ignore the obvious impact of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Bell said she met with Google executives in 2004, and they warned that the traditional media industry was out of touch with what readers and advertisers wanted. But newspaper executives thought “that was just about search, and that wasn’t our business — but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was our business.” The same thing happened with the rise of social media, she says: “People thought, oh that’s not our business — but it was.”

The former Guardian executive said that using tools to track what readers click on doesn’t mean that “we will all just write about Britney Spears without her clothes on,” but simply means that journalists can keep an eye on what people are interested in reading about. The idea that paying attention to such metrics is somehow undercutting journalism is “just plain wrong,” she said. Bell also noted that newspapers have seen the digital side of their business as the risky part, when the reality is that the legacy print operations are actually more risky. “Even if you don’t know what is going to happen in your legacy business, you know what is happening now — you are losing money,” she said.

When asked during the Q&A session about how newspapers should blend their traditional newsrooms with their new digital operations, Bell said that “the jury is still out” on whether merging newsrooms is a good idea. But she said one thing was clear: that having traditional print editors telling digital staff what to do was “a recipe for disaster.” A number of newspapers that have merged their newsrooms — including the Washington Post, which used to have its print and online operations in two completely separate buildings, with separate management — have suffered after the merger because, as journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have pointed out, the “print guys won.”

Bell’s views on who should be driving the innovation at newspapers echo those of publisher John Paton, CEO of the Journal-Register Co., which owns a chain of regional daily and weekly papers in New Jersey and Connecticut. In a digital manifesto he wrote for the company last year, Paton said that newspapers need to “be digital first,” and that the best way to do that is to “put the digital guys in charge of everything.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kevin Lim and George Kelly

  1. Thanks Mathew, for an excellent and timely article. Marketers need to trust their markets enough to hand control over to them. That means letting customers have their say. It also means removing the barriers of bureaucracy and authorisation that slow down communication and render our messages inhuman, out of date and out of touch. Digital business is a human-to-human phenomenon and communication is its lifeblood. Let it flow.

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  2. Andrew Ferris Friday, March 4, 2011

    Wired is an even better example of the print types “winning” over the online folks with the result that the entire brand is diminished. That said, there are bright sides to big companies shooting themselves in the foot as more nimble people jump up such as Felix Salmon. Anyhow great article Mathew.

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    1. You’re right, Andrew — Wired is a great example as well. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Using descriptions like “user-generated content” and “non-journalists” seem to be missing the key point about this disruptive transformation — the high-cost traditional news media publisher business model is obsolete. Ignore the change and you must face the consequences.

    Case in point: some airline industry leaders misread their disruptive trend. TWA and PanAm Airways became insolvent because they didn’t understand that Southwest and Jet Blue used a different (inherently low-cost) business model to serve a significant segment of the marketplace.

    Some legacy big media companies will likely follow the same path, “different” is deemed unprofessional or amateurish. It’s being used as an excuse to mask their own longstanding inefficiency problems that they refuse to acknowledge and change.

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  4. I really appreciate this interview with Emily Bell. Her perspective is so insightful. The importance of a ‘digital mindset’ is underestimated by many traditional media outlets moving to the web. Traditional newsrooms have a different mandate than those folks tasked with delivering the content and creating the online space to attract readers and advertisers. That’s not a bad thing. They are focused on hard content and always have been. New digital teams are focused on the experience. I agree with Bell, the “jury is still out” on the blending of traditional newsrooms with digital operations.” I am not surprised “the print guys won.” Successfully balancing the two sides is probably a rare occurrence. The Guardian can boast some, but I wonder if the whole online environment needs more maturation before we see this divide dissolve completely.

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