Are newspapers missing the hyperlocal boat?

Time recently posted a good piece on the new focus on hyperlocal sites under the headline “Are Hyperlocals Replacing Traditional Newspapers?”

As I noted in previous posts,  a second wave of hyperlocal sites is sprouting up across the country. The first wave began before the economic collapse of news industry, most dying off due to financial concerns. But this year has seen a new commitment in hyperlocals and the revenue potential they hold.

Interesting to note that the hyperlocal sites the Time article highlighted are either independent ventures or are being bankrolled by major companies such as AOL and MSNBC. Who seems to be missing in the new push? Beyond the Tribune Company’s Triblocal, I’m hard pressed to find a mid-to-major newspaper heavily involved in hyperlocal.

Sad but true. It would seem to be a natural for local newspapers to either create a hyperlocal product or reinvent themselves into a hyperlocal. Instead, we’re seeing outside companies recognize the potential in readership and revenues and are moving in to an area that newspapers need to hold firm, lest they lose their very core of survival.

My gut feeling as to why newspapers are again late to the party is that publishers still believe good local journalism means having total control over its content. They are still wary about allowing readers to post their own stories and information. However, as Everyblock founder Adrian Holovaty notes in the Time article:. “I think good journalism can also be about organizing information in intelligent ways and giving people tools that let them help each other.”

You can still have good journalism and community involvement in a hyperlocal product. In fact, it is probably the most efficient allocation of your resources and those of the community in providing a solid site for local news and information. But as outside interest make their way into your territory and gain credibility, it’ll be tougher to sell a local site just on your good name.

As time goes on, traditional newspapers may lose the one ground they’ve held during the downtime.

And Time’s headline would then be very prophetic.

When journalism, reader experience co-exist in harmony

A lot has said about the ‘demise’ of  journalism. That the watchdog role cannot exist in a short-attention-span world. That Flash graphics and multimedia can muddy the telling a good story. In short, that readers cannot be a part of the storytelling experience.

That is simply hogwash.

Case in point, this week the Washington Post unveiled its two-year investigation of the U.S. intelligence industry, entitled “Top Secret America.” Online, it is a brilliant example of how watchdog journalism can become a reader experience. In addition to the words (which there are plenty), the reader can explore a deep database through various portals. Readers in California, for example, can look at a map to find companies and agencies in their locale that are a part of the burgeoning industry, and gain stats from the local end. They can slice and dice the data compiled through the investigation process to get information that is pertinent to them. For the time or attention-strrved, there’s even a “Cliff Notes” intro video that introduces them to the series.

In short, this is watchdog journalism that allows the reader to be his own watchdog as well — a true user experience.

Experience the series here

(An aside…The Post started the series on Monday, instead of Sunday. The paper’s reasoning was to coordinate the series with their online reader traffic, which is down on the weekends. That is a sign that the newspaper recognizes its readership is not exclusively tied to its print product. Does your newspaper recognize that?)

Granted, the average newspaper does not have the resources to come up with such a massive experience. But the Post’s series is a great example of how today’s journalist has so many more tools to work with when telling the story. In addition to words, journalists have video, audio, interactive graphics and databases to work with. Reporters and editors need to realize words are not the only way to tell stories, and in some cases, may not be the best way to tell the story. Good journalism relies on deciding what tools best tell the story, and not crutching one up with another.

Readers in today’s world should experience great journalism, not just read it.

Sell the experience, not the content

What makes your news organization unique?

What makes your readers WANT to go to you for their information?

In today’s world, the content that made you the go-to place for readers is no longer unique. Thanks to Google and non-traditional competitors both small and large (think AOL’s Patch), your content is fighting with others to command readers’ attention. And in most cases,  your good name just isn’t enough to draw on anymore.

As I’ve mentioned before, what is missing in online news is the “experience” of finding and absorbing news.  With print, generations enjoyed the tactile feel of paper, the smell of the ink, the ability to sort out sections on the floor and read at your pace and choosing, the ability to find something new while looking for something else. What is missing on the web sites is that ability to create similar experience. We can offer more through videos, visual galleries, searches, etc., but — let’s face it — web structure was never designed to mimic the print experience … and that includes PDF versions of the printed page.

But the development of the iPad and the expected introduction of similar tablet devices in the future, the opportunity presents itself for news organizations to once again create an “experience” current and future generations can pick up and enjoy … if you know what to do with it.

We’re already seeing some development towards that. Sports Illustrated’s iPad app — while not at the standard set with the company’s tablet demo unveiled last year — provides a user experience not found on its other platforms. MLB.com offers a fantastic user experience, and New York Times is starting to pick up on it with its iPad app.

Keep in mind the content found in all three of these applications can be found elsewhere, either in print or on their web sites, through RSS feeds or search engines, or as in the case of MLB, through other media channels like television and  radio. The content itself is not unique, so why would people be willing to pay $4.99 a month and up for these applications?

Simple: these sites are an experience to the user. Some of the things they offer:

1. User preferences: The sites target a specific crowd, so the interest is already inherent in the user. They also allow the user to customize the experience, allowing to rearrange and prioritize the site to the unique user’s interests. In effect, the user becomes the editor and picks what he wants and how he wants it.

2. Interactivity: They take the user to a level unavailable elsewhere. The ability not only to interact with the organization, but with other users as well. They can communicate and share with users within the app’s distribution group, as well as their common-interest communities through social networking.

3. Convenience: Again,  the content can be obtained through various other means, but the apps provide a convenient conduit to channel this information.

4. Sensory: The apps utilize functions that treat the sensory levels of the user.  The user can touch, view,  listen and utilize his cognitive skills while moving through the app.

It’s how you use these and other features that make your organization’s platform unique, and if your readers appreciate it, they will be more than likely to pay for it.

As the news industry creeps closer to pay-for-view, it’s imperative to realize that readers will resist having to pay for something that has been free … and especially if they can find similar information from other sources. If you are planning that route, give your readers a reason to come to their site. Your content isn’t enough anymore.

Remember, walls turn away people. Experiences draw them in.

Finding the forest through the trees

Do you know who your audience is?

It seems like a simple question, but you’d be surprised how many businesses — newspapers and news organizations included — don’t have more than  a general idea. And that disconnect could be the key into solving the dilemma news orgs have in continuing declines of readership.

Newspapers continue to see circulations decline. TV news continues to see the same in viewership. Despite redesigns,  new personalities, new focuses, the audience continues to get smaller. Why? Probably because the ‘mass’ audience no longer exists. 

Thanks to cheap or easily accessible internet access, the growth of search engine technology and, most recently, the growth of social networking, audiences who were fed news and information from a few media outlets can now filter their own news on their level. As a result, the masses that TV news and newspapers have appealed to in the past are bring broken into niche crowds who share similar interests, ideas, or mores.

As a result, the niche audiences no longer rely on a single source to receive information. They can get that information from numerous sources, or rely on one another to exchange news. And, since one person can be a member of several niches, information can be passed among niche groups.

Now, someone looking for news does need to listen to Katie Couric at 5:30, or wait until 6 a.m. to pick up a paper. With RSS feeds, they can find the news that interests or engages them. Through Facebook or Twitter, they can exchange information with friends and followers. If they find a news source that meets or exceeds their expectations, they can share that with their respective niche groups.

What this means is that those news organizations (and all business in general) no longer can focus on attracting one big crowd. To be successful, you’ll need to find those niche audiences that are interested in what you have to offer, and key on getting into those groups.  This will likely mean that publishers and TV execs, instead of offering one ‘general interest’  product, will need to break out several products targeted to specific niche groups.

And that’s where “knowing your audience” comes in. Part of knowing your audience is knowing how they get their information. If your target group is trading information through sources as blogs, Twitter or Facebook, you need to adapt your information delivery to those platforms. 

The more niches you successfully capture, the more readers you gain. And, if you build credibility and trust, your niches will pass your product to other niches, which could add to your readership.

It used to be trying to see the forest for the trees. Now, you need to focus on the trees to build your forest.

Know your audience. Know how to deliver to them. The rest will work itself.

Are PDFs better than paper? No, but …

 Tribune Company Chairman Sam Zell told CNBC this week that he sees a day when home delivery will be replaced by PDFs. Zell sees that as a way for newspapers to reduce overhead (the costly capital expenses of presses, delivery trucks, etc.) as it tries to make good with fewer advertising dollars, as well as adapt the product to new technologies.

I posted this story on my Facebook page, which ignited a firestorm of angst from some of my followers. The idea of eliminating the paper-and-ink edition, they say, is to eliminate an experience that is unique and, by far, superior to any electronic version.

I certainly agree with my followers that the tactile experience of reading a newspaper is far different — and more enjoyable — to reading the same edition on my laptop or iPhone. It’s an experience that  just cannot be copied on any current electronic platform.

However, when I look at my teenage children and their friends — as well as many of my younger co-workers — I see their faces  buried in the screens of their cellphones and iPods,  reading text messages from one another or updating their Facebook profile. I’ve come to realize that this is their “newspaper”  experience. They are growing up getting their information through this method, and that in turn will develop into their adult routines.

Yes, they are missing out on a wonderful experience. But that is their experience, and to survive, newspapers must adapt to that.

I can make a similar argument for music. The sound quality of CDs and MP3 are nowhere near that of a vinyl album playing on a tube-based  stereo system. The depth and richness of music cannot be replicated on a digital platform. Yet I’ve resigned myself to the fact that tubes will never return and that my music will no longer be housed in a grapefruit crate. I can still appreciate my old LPs on my solid-state amp and 25-year-old speakers, but the world has moved on to a new music experience, and if I want to be a part of it, I need to adapt. 

Likewise, PDFs will not replace the look and feel of reading a newspaper at the kitchen table. But we Boomers have to realize that if journalism is to survive for the next generations, we need to meet them on their level.