While my former colleagues in daily journalism are dropping like flies I'm hanging in -- thanks largely to my wife.
I have learned a lot.
- Readers genuinely prefer style over substance. I could spend all day researching and interviewing about a new tool and draw no audience. I could spend five minutes writing, in effect, "Microsoft sucks" and people rush to the rail.
- Brands matter. By that I mean a publisher brand can define your audience based on the advertisers and readers it targets. Most individuals can't do this. A few did by getting in early and staying both persistent and consistent. But publishers have proven their worth in the online world.
- Incentives need to match expectations. I am proud to say that ZDNet has a business model, one that apparently works. But that model is entirely geared toward page views, not editorial quality. It could be tweaked and, over time, I expect it to be tweaked. Tweak yours regularly.
All this said those who claim the "daily newspaper is dead" are only talking about newspapers that were dead long ago. Let me tell you a few things that can turn your daily paper into an online money-maker.
- Everyone is always on deadline. Don't write up the city council meeting after it's over. Tape it, live blog it, and have people back in the office who can highlight what needs highlighting. See Theuptake for how this works.
- Your home page means less than you think. Ever since the Web was spun print journalists have had this obsession with the home page. They've tried to force links to the home page, worried over each pixel of space, and generally treated it as something identical to the print front page. It's not. It's where people go who know who you are but don't know why they're there -- that's all it is.
- You're not alone. A community Web site is nothing more than a brand under which members of that community can build their identities, with your help. Every newspaper is, at least in part, Facebook. Your job as a publisher is to spin the straw of businesses participating on your site into gold. Ad space is just one way to do that. You used to know a lot of ways to do that, back when you dominated your print market. Time to re-learn those skills.
- The inverted pyramid is dead. Stories are no longer static. Those first few graphs must change continually as a story develops, and to hell with continuity. Also, always go with emotion, always seek out a hook, and don't be afraid to change that hook as events change.
- Every story is interactive. Your "man" (or "woman") at an event is just one set of eyes and ears. Use and empower all others, with equal billing. That's a better way of finding your next employee than interviewing at j-schools, by the way.
- Whatever exists you are. By that I mean that you're a blog site, a community network service, a vlog site. You Twitter, you are the community Facebook, you want to build the community's Google, and when some new capability comes along you're going to jump on it. Immediately.
- Every employee is an entrepreneur. Your people don't have beats or assignments. They have personalities. They must each sell themselves. They must be encouraged in this, ethically. Get them to show their personalities online, to reveal themselves in a personal way that attracts readers to them. Yes, this will cost you if they jump ship later, but it's your infrastructure that keeps people, nothing else.
- Your site is a database. Everything you do must be fully indexed, and when the news day is done you need to add indexing features. Confirm names and titles constantly, add addresses and maps to businesses you mention and people you meet. You want your site to become the public record your reporters turn to, and the up-to-date source people depend upon day-to-day. So when that restaurant you reviewed closes or burns down, get it into its page.
- Collect everything. Any local document you can legally obtain, index. The same with any interview you can get, any video file you can obtain. Index it to the business, the person, the town so it becomes a resource, and you become a one-stop shop for those looking to do business in your town.
- Know your key audience. This is the mistake CNBC made. They thought they were what the floor traders should be watching. They were what Jon Stewart's mother was watching. Advocating for your key audience is the key to long term success. That is not your advertisers, not your sources. They're the people who depend on your site in their daily lives.
The job of a journalist is to organize and advocate a place, industry or lifestyle. This has been true for 100 years. In the online world too many publishers have forgotten the first half of that sentence, and have not added the value of organization to their sites.
Don't you make that mistake.
Right now the biggest opportunities are in local community sites. When newspapers die, you can become the newspaper, if you're ready to scale and address the business in a serious manner. As the Web continues to evolve you will need to serve ever-smaller communities to gain traction. But remember there are also lifestyles and industries still out there, waiting to be organized in this way.
I wish I were just starting out. The best time to be a young journalist is right now. Just remember, you're not a writer, you're a personality. And you're not running a site, you're building a community.
Now go and sin no more. Make some money.