Memo To News Sites: There Is No Future In ‘Digital Razzle Dazzle’

John Yemma is Editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

Let’s agree that Rupert Murdoch is right: Content is king. You’ll get nothing but applause from a journalist of four decades like me. Saying it and believing it, however, doesn’t solve the problem of content racing to zero value on the internet. Paywalls such as the ones News Corp (NYSE: NWS). and the New York Times are moving to may seem like the next step, in the same way that sandbagging the tops of levies on the Mississippi are the next step during spring flooding. The problem is that the internet flood never recedes. It is the Great Deluge that grows more powerful every day. Paywalls for general interest publications cannot hold it back.

Nor can I agree with Jim Spanfeller, who says that we can win consumers with a certain type of multimedia/interactive content. Yes, people want multimedia. They want games, maps, 30 Rock on Hulu, bootlegged first-run movies from Pirate Bay, and whacked-out amateur videos on YouTube and a dozen other sites. But there’s no evidence that they want, for instance, a thoughtful interactive map/video/database mashup on Afghanistan or global warming on which they can comment. There’s no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site’s brand because of cool multimedia.

So here’s my position: There is no future in a paywall. No salvation in digital razzle dazzle.

There is, however, a bold future in relevant content.

Relevance doesn’t come easy. Just because a topic is trending on Google (NSDQ: GOOG) doesn’t mean you’ll win by slapping a together a quick blog post on it. Sure, you can place high in search results and get the initial click, but a dissatisfied reader bounces quickly, which forfeits the chance to point out related content and cheapens our brand. Cheese, after all, is just cheese, and people know it.

Technology (I agree with Mr. Spanfeller on this point) is the enabler, not the differentiator here. I run a modest operation specializing in global news that has been experimenting like mad this past year. Here are some lab results you might find interesting.

A year ago, we ceased publishing the daily, 100-year-old Christian Science Monitor newspaper and launched a weekly magazine to complement our website, on which we doubled down by reorienting our newsroom to be web-first. Our web traffic climbed from 6 million page views last April to 13 million in February. Our print circulation rose from 43,000 to 77,000 in the same period.

What we’re learning is that the key to building and keeping traffic is far more prosaic than multimedia and sharing buttons. It rests on overcoming a huge cultural barrier: evolving a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization. I use the term “evolving” because this is all about the present tense. Trying to understand our current and future audience is a work in progress that will continue for as long as we publish on the web.

One of the reasons our site traffic increased 20 percent from January to February of this year (even though February had 10 percent fewer days) was emphasis on search engine optimization. Everybody who is doing news on the web is thinking SEO, so best practices are — or soon will be — a given. It can be as simple as editors thinking like searchers and writing headlines accordingly. Breaking/developing stories like healthcare reform or the Chile earthquake provide opportunities to drive more readers to our site and keep them there longer. Embedding links to our deeper content (a healthcare reform 101 primer, a science of earthquakes piece) invites readers to understand what we are all about: news for people who are trying to understand the world and are searching for solutions. Paying this sort of attention to content can easily amplify a news story that garners 3,000 page views by a factor of 10.

Like everyone, we’ve had hits and misses. There are two types of misses: the spinach that goes uneaten and the junk food that makes you sorry afterwards. We do almost all original content, but we were experimenting the other day by posting AP stories. One that went up with too little consideration was on the marital woes of Sandra Bullock. It shot to the top of our most-viewed list. The problem is, we don’t do celebrity gossip.

We’ve had other misses as well. Usually they are earnest pieces we do from overseas. No amount of trying with buzzy keywords helps the Euro-zone crisis story. Which is not to say there isn’t a market for that story. It won’t be a big hit, but we are increasingly trying to use social networks to draw attention to those.

While SEO won’t cause readers to flock to stories about urban poverty or the Euro, people who care about those subjects are crucial to us, and — to be blunt — to a certain type of advertiser. They are the influencers, the tipping-point people. Influencers live in narrow channels and respond to articles that make it clear why things matter and how problems are being solved.

What about multimedia and interactivity? You’ll see very little video on This is not to say that we haven’t experimented with the medium. It just hasn’t delivered enough clicks to justify the effort. That will probably change one day, and if it does we’ll take another look as long as it enhances our editorial mission. As for interactivity, we typically don’t invite readers to comment at the bottom of our stories. Don’t get me wrong, we want thoughtful comments. But comment-happy sites that don’t moderate often allow a brilliant piece to be followed by a string of rotten tomatoes thrown by — how can I put this delicately? — comment jerks.

The multimedia debate needs a new question: How are we using technology to create a more relevant product? We’re not going to “save” media by out-featuring each other. We can and will re-cement media by using the technology to deliver the experience consumers want most: intelligent, meaningful news that’s accessible where they are in the moment.