Although many respondents were proud of their Web sites, the sentiment was far from unanimous. Example: “The site is soooo 1990.” Asked what the Web site’s best feature was, another respondent replied: “Nothing. By any realistic standard, it stinks.” Still others said, “Our Web site is a disaster.” “Our Web site is a mess!” “Our Web site sucks.” Nevertheless, for many, the site is where the significant action is, and the responses to this survey are chock full of insights and valuable information:
- • “The Web site is more search-oriented. Print readers tend to enjoy a more serendipitous experience, whereas readers come looking for specific information online.”
- • “The Web site is designed to do what the print magazine can’t—deliver breaking news as it happens.”
- • “The Web site makes available business tools that cannot be offered via print, such as spreadsheets, interactive calculation applications, Webinars, and educational video.”
- • One newsweekly has added a full-time traffic analyst (with a master’s in statistics) to help it figure out how to increase traffic.
- • Those who can afford it are hiring high-priced “content-strategy” consultants, “information architects,” and “usability” experts to design and redesign their sites. The results are generally based on how the eye moves (i.e. vertically), which is “why so many sites look the same,” one editor helpfully explains.
The bottom line: although CJR’s survey establishes that many print people still regard Web people as second-class citizens, that sites founded solely to promote print magazines are outmoded to say the least, that profitability is up but standards (i.e., fact-checking and copy editing) are down where Web editors are in charge of the site, the survey nevertheless reveals no consensus on best practices. It is, rather, the beginning of a long-overdue conversation. Among the issues to be explored:
What does it mean that when a Web editor is in charge of both budget and content decisions, traffic and revenue increase but quality and ethical standards decrease? (Not to mention what are the lessons to be learned from studying profitable sites where quality has not decreased?)
If it is indeed true, as the statistics about staffing seem to suggest, that most magazines don’t really take the distinction between Web and print seriously, what follows, short of making Marshall McLuhan mandatory reading? For example, if, as one respondent reported, material that has already appeared in the print magazine is never re-edited for the Web, shouldn’t that practice be revisited? On the surface it seems that one ignores the cultural consequences of the new technologies at one’s peril.
In light of the high percentage of profitable magazine Web sites that offer all their content for free (65 percent), should The New York Times rethink its recent announcement that it intends to charge for content? Or conversely, at a moment when Apple’s iPad and new iPhone apps may make the very idea of someone called a “Web editor” something of an anachronism, do we need to conduct yet another survey?