5 Ideas to Transform Newspaper Sites

    by Roland Legrand
    July 7, 2009
    Columbia Tomorrow is an experimental news site combining blog-like news with in-depth analysis and a very close relationship with the community.

    I sometimes wonder whether we are held captive by old school thinking. At our newspapers at Mediafin, we are in the process of integrating web operations with the print publication, a move which I fully endorse. There’s one major risk to this: that we might end up seeing the web as just another way to distribute newspaper articles rather than a radically new opportunity.

    People who have spent years writing for print newspapers could easily fall victim to the horseless carriage syndrome — the belief that they can continue to apply the same thinking that they applied to an old technology to a new, fundamentally different one. At the turn of the century, many saw the automobile as a new variation on the horse-and-carriage, not realizing that the car was in many ways very different. Just as cars are fundamentally different from horseless carriages, or cinema is fundamentally different from theater, the web is fundamentally different from newspapers.

    Adopting a blog-stream style of posting would allow newspapers to update much more quickly."

    We have only begun to perceive those fundamental differences, like the streaming and social character of the web. Thus, many newspapers are still looking at the web in old print terms — and not using their websites as anything more than a place to post the exact same material that they put in print. We should at least try to think out of the newspaper box and imagine how our presence on the web could be completely different from what it is today.


    Five Suggestions for Change

    Let me suggest some possibilities for how a newspaper’s web presence could be radically different from the way it’s been so far:

    1. Create micro-sites.
    Instead of having a single website divided in sections which often replicate the sections in the print newspaper, we could have many different sites each focusing on a specific topic of interest to our communities. For example, at Mediafin, we know our community has various interests — financial services, markets, technology for consumers, technology for enterprises, etc. Why not have a separate website for each to better target community members’ interests?

    2. Streams of content.
    The news on each of those more specialized sites or networks would be like a stream of blog posts or microblog posts. In other words, it would look more like Twitter, Facebook or FriendFeed rather than a collection of newspaper articles. Of course, posts could be longer than the famous 140 characters of Twitter, but overall the look would be far more stream-like. There could be a special section for link journalism, using a tool such as Publish2.


    3. Use wikis for context.
    Instead of only posting static articles, newspapers could use wikis to help provide background and context. A wiki format would allow both the newsroom and the community to contribute their expertise. Of course, the comments would enable the community members to post links, see members’ profiles, and maybe even rate articles and comments.

    4. Boost audience interactions.
    Forums would enhance both synchronous and asynchronous interaction. One could imagine using some embeddable virtual 2.5-D environment such as Metaplace to enhance the interactive experience. Metaplace is a platform that enables you to make your own virtual environment and connect through hyperlinks or simply embed it on your site. A newspaper could easily transform one of Metaplace’s stock “worlds” to match the look and feel of the newspaper and organize chat sessions there.

    5. Give participants more control.
    It would pretty much be up to the user how all these components of the newspaper site(s) would be organized. Community members would also have the option to either participate in synchronous discussions using avatars in the 2.5-D space or participate in that same discussion using a text-only environment. The idea is to make the participation experience more user-centric: let the users decide how to experience the information, news and discussion flows.

    Advantages and Disadvantages

    Implementing any of these out-of-the-newspaper-box ideas would require that both journalists and community members adapt to something rather new. This could be a disadvantage for journalists accustomed to old-school print thinking; it could actually be more problematic for them to adapt than for the community.

    Another possible objection might be the reaction of the advertisers. Would they appreciate the possibility offered by some of these ideas — like creating separate websites for each topic — to better target very specific segments of the community? Or would they instead deplore the fact that the community has been split up, making it harder to reach a broad range of readers?

    I think the real benefit of separate environments/sites for advertisers is that they can focus on the relevant audience. The audience’s behavior — reading, commenting, participating in chat discussions, etc. — will offer insights that are relevant for advertisers planning their campaigns. The only thing is: advertisers will need to be convinced of these new possibilities. Journalists are not the only ones who tend to be conservative in regards to online innovation.



    A clear advantage would be that such a model makes it possible to react very fast on the news, with Twitter-like speed. Adopting a blog-stream style of posting would allow newspapers to update much more quickly than if they continued to shovel articles online in the old “online print newspaper” style.

    At the same time, wikis would provide in-depth analysis and context. The whole operation would be very much community driven, using sophisticated comments, forum and wiki systems. People would have the choice to refer to existing online networks for their profiles, to create a new profile on the site or they could stay anonymous.

    Some sites have already adopted some of these ideas. I was inspired to list some of the above elements by the Columbia Tomorrow site. I especially like that site’s combination of a blog-like news stream with in-depth overview pages, and that it offered the possibility for community members to start their own discussions on news posts. The site features a video explaining how this project organizes the interaction and the news.

    If you have other such examples or ideas for other components of the news site/network of the future, let us know!

    Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

    Tagged: future internet metaplace newspapers print trends

    22 responses to “5 Ideas to Transform Newspaper Sites”

    1. Betty Martin says:

      Please see my blog about the new news media (http://bettymartin.wordpress.com, “Why I’m Not Getting A Job.” I hope you and other new media mavericks will separate — and reward, appropriately — the trained journalists from the “everyman” citizen journalist, news from advertising, entertainment and key-word ladened managed news, before the business of informing people about real events is gone the way of the town crier.

    2. Assuming each micro-site would have its own unique design, that would be more expensive and time-consuming to create and maintain, and it’s not necessary for targeted advertising which can be programmatically assigned to sections of the single site. So what would be the advantages of micro-sites? I’m not saying there aren’t any. Just not coming up with any ideas right now.

    3. Assuming each micro-site would have its own unique design, that would be more expensive and time-consuming to create and maintain, and it’s not necessary for targeted advertising which can be programmatically assigned to sections of the single site. So what would be the advantages of micro-sites? I’m not saying there aren’t any. Just not coming up with any ideas right now.

    4. Maybe the different micro-sites could run on the same platform and have the same components such as a blogstream for the news, wikis/dashboards for context, a forum and a chatroom…
      The advantage would be that those interested in one specific beat would feel more at home and the advertisers would be able to target their audience in a more precise way.

    5. Improving community interaction is a great way for newspapers to cement themselves in place and increase their online audience; which many of them are doing with the simple steps of open forums and story comments. Beyond many have falter and they could benefit from looking at new approaches (as discussed in this article)

      My worry with any citizen journalism movement is the lose of integrity. If we open up the newspaper to world we will it loose its credibility. Other crowd sourced projects hit a similar wall – Wikipedia is a great tool but I don’t put my trust in it.

    6. @Matthew I understand your concern. Events in Iran and the impressive news flow on Twitter made it obvious how much context and curatorship are needed. Journalists can play an important role in this, but we will have to do it together with our communities. In fact journalists always worked in and with communities, but the scale, the urgency and the intensity change as people get more means to produce content.

    7. Jon Donley says:

      @matthew In my experience – which includes 30 years as a newsroom manager – the real problem newsrooms have with crowdsourcing/citizen journalism/whateveryoucallit is not with “integrity” but with points of view that don’t fit into the papers’ predetermined narrative. “Narrative” in itself, as it has developed over the past couple of decades not only undermines integrity of reporting, but in fact often produces what the is often called the “bias” of the media.

      Such narrative lured professional media into some of the most egregious errors of reporting during Hurricane Katrina, while the authentic voices of digitally enabled citizens told the most authentic story of all.

      In the end, much of what is called journalism is about control. Fortunately or unfortunately that is being ripped from the hands of the media.

      We can either prove that we have value in this new world, or continue pitifully whining into the clouds from atop our ivory towers.

    8. Tiffany says:

      These ideas are great! I actually know a company that has been hitting the cutting edge of online newspapers similarly–HometownTimes. The CEO of the company interviews all the time about the concept and it’s innovative online news source, so I could definitely connect you as he would be a very interesting leader to speak with regarding this topic.

      [email protected]

    9. Some fantastic ideas here. Your microsite idea makes a ton of sense to me (full disclosure, I work at Publish2, so thanks for the mention).

      I think the way some news organizations use their blogs goes a long way to build out some of the microsite concept, providing niche content with a lot of interactivity and links to related places on the Web, when they’re done right.

      Inexpensive white label social networking platforms like Ning can also help news organizations who want to try out a niche site without making much of an investment at all in development or design.

      One of my favorite Ning-powered niche networks at a news site is http://schoolmatters.knoxnews.com/ — that’s an education site from the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

    10. cube3 says:

      hello all,
      we put this online a few months ago. I had spoke to some AP news folk, but got the feeling it was easier to just”do it” and so i did.

      helpers needed… updaters, speakers and news junkies to moderate meetings….



    11. @cube3 thanks, I am a member now, I’ll look into it…

    12. Frederik says:

      Or as PwC states it in its Media Outlook-report: ‘The success of a newsbrand will depend on how it responds to disaggregating the existing product to fit into a digital environment.’

    13. News with open chat bridge from an online community would be an interesting component. So would the ability to have veteran news reporters take part in a discussion of this nature.
      I recommend Second Life- The Edward R Murrow awards were recently simulcast into Second Life where Helen Thomas appeared in avatar form.

    14. cube3 says:

      hi pooky
      yeah sl is great, but so much overhead just to “gather” and discuss.. thats why i put up the newspodz tests at newsgroups.ning.com

      id love to get a speaker and a flow of video stories to gather a meet up…

      if anyone wants to “use” the space.. just email me and let me know.

      open 24/7 and all it takes is a few links and image swaps to be relevant to a meeting.


    15. @Pooky Amsterdam The problem with Second Life is that it requires a download, rather good hardware, and corporate firewalls often are a problem. We are a business newspaper, hence many community members are behind corporate firewalls and use office computers lacking good graphics. For that reason a browser-based solution such as Metaplace seems to be more interesting, but we still have to launch that experiment.

    16. Pat says:

      You mentioned wikis… Check out WikiCity, which launched late last month & provides a wiki for 22K+ communities across the U.S.

    17. Hy Roland. I learned a lot from your post. Soy Social Media Editor diariouno.com.ar of Argentina. I would keep contact with you. Greetings.

    18. Hey Mario! I look forward to exchange ideas, tips & tricks with you! Hasta luego!

    19. Roland – interesting article – earlier this year, I wrote about similar ideas in a blog posting – my focus was primarily around your point #4 (“boost audience interactions”), which, to me, is a direction newspapers (online) should be headed.

    20. Hello Mario, thank you that you can use your idea to us from pockets.

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