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June 26, 2009, 11:12 a.m.

What counts more than design in attracting an online news audience?

As I laid out on Wednesday, there seems to be no discernible correlation between the overall quality of a web site and how much time readers spend there.

In the heydays of printed newspapers, we had some similar anomalies: newspapers with terrible designs (as judged by the designer elite) would have market penetrations equally strong as those following the latest design trends and gimmicks.

So what keeps eyeballs on sites, once they’ve landed there? Here are some recent views of interest:

Phil at has a nice post building on Dave Brubeck’s breakout “Take Five”, raking over the coals the lackluster site of the News & Observer (once an internet pioneer), and agreeing with my conclusion that it’s not really about design:

My contention is that our failure has nothing to do with metrics, local visitors or site redesigns. I think it’s because we don’t care about our audience. We don’t know our audience. We make zero effort to connect with them, because newspapers are ingrained with the belief that the very people we write for, offer us nothing in return. We are a 20th century, one-way communication platform. We’re famous, they’re not. We’re important, they’re not. We own the ink, the presses, the paper and the delivery trucks and they don’t.

In other words, the world revolves around us, the editors and publishers.  As it ever did, in print newsrooms. Let’s lose that model. Phil’s solution is: build communities around our content. What a thought!  “What about a community built around making the website better? If you created a place for real discussion to flourish, there’s no better place to get ideas and keep your finger on the pulse of the very people who can help your site grow and be accepted by a wider audience. How about starting today?”

Similarly, Dan Mason in the UK looked around for the welcome mat at various news Web sites, without finding much of a welcome. Having done a little PR work on the side myself, I’ve often had the same experience — it can be damned hard to find the editor’s name, address and phone number on newspaper sites. “Contact us” ought to be a universally standard format, but it’s not. Some editors just don’t want to be contacted except through maddeningly frustrating online forms complete with Kaptchas to verify whether you are a human being. And that’s if you can find contact info at all. One site I happen to follow, the Lewiston (Maine)  Sun-Journal, switched publishing platforms a few days ago and seems to have neglected entirely, for now, to include a way to send the editor a news tip or feedback.

At the Paper of Record, the need to connect is better understood, so the Times recently appointed a full-time social media manager, Jennifer Preston. Her job goes well beyond making sure you can figure out who the editors are and how to contact them: “It’s someone who concentrates full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers.”

But how long before they get one of those in Lewiston?  Not only in the provinces, but at various leading metros, editorial policies regarding social media use by editorial staff are far from enlightened. At the Times, the policy is simply “use common sense,” together with the reminder that when Tweeting or on Facebook, news staffers still represent the Times. The Associated Press has the same sensible approach. But elsewhere, control mentalities are in evidence. At the Wall Street Journal, “sharing your personal opinions” is discouraged, as it may “open us to criticism that we have biases.” And at the Bergen Record, aside from four editors authorized to Tweet, “Twittering by anyone else on company time is discouraged.”

Contrast all of this with National Public Radio, which just plain gets it. To be honest, I don’t look at their Web site much. But I know what’s there, because they tell me all the time on the radio that I can go to their site to hear an interview in its entirety, to listen to an uncut piece of music mentioned in a review or story,  to see a painting, or to find links to more information. Gida Hammami of EditorsWeblog explains “Why newspapers should follow suit:

Since NPR has grasped the fact that social media is changing the media spectrum, it has embraced social media with open arms. NPR has reaped the benefits of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs and podcasts to allow consumers to define what is newsworthy. The NPR Twitter account has close to a million followers, while its Facebook page has just under half a million fans.

What could be considered the most important player in pushing up NPR’s ratings and swelling listenership is much owed to the fact that NPR is dedicated to making content readily accessible. Listeners and readers can access NPR on ‘their own terms,’ tuning in via radio, podcast, through mobile applications, you name it, rather than just online on NPR’s website.

Audience participation is critical to the success of social media. NPR has a ‘mix your own podcast tool,’ which allows listeners to create customized programming schedules based on NPR’s archives. In addition, NPR released a content API so that developers can ‘remix and reuse’ content created within the NPR organization; NPRbackstory attempts to decipher the news behind trending topics by searching through NPR’s archives. NPRbackstory automatically generates tweets with linked articles from NPR’s archives relating to a specific topic a user may search for.

In order for newspapers assure their place in the future of media, newspapers should follow suit by making their content easily accessible to readers wherever they might want to find it. According to Catone, installing pay walls only drives readers (or in NPR’s case, readers and listeners) to seek out lower quality journalism free of charge. Delivering news, especially local and hyperlocal news, to readers means having the option to use any platform they desire to find coverage on a wide variety of stories.

It’s not about how sexy-looking your site is. It’s not about having the absolute latest display technology. It’s about how you engage readers with conversations and with ways of interacting with news staffers and with each other. It’s about projecting personality — showing that behind the stories, the columns, the blogs, there are real people living in your town, sharing your concerns and your joys.

POSTED     June 26, 2009, 11:12 a.m.
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