Newspapers Need 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

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