JP: Maybe. Or maybe it just takes a better apportioning of the resources that you’ve already got. See, you could argue (not saying I agree with this) that a newspaper doesn’t need a Web site at all. What good does it do for it at this point? It’s not bringing in any money, or subscribers. Nobody’s really relying on it for news. It’s hard to make money off of it.
But that’s not realistic. Most papers are going to want to have Web sites. So, OK, you’re going to have a Web site. And you’ve already got Web people on staff. Well, who says that your site has to look anything like your newspaper?
Why not take your Web staff and tell them: “We’re starting over. What we’ve got ain’t working. Give me something else. Come up with something that feels like it’s meant for the Internet; something that redefines the idea of a city newspaper in the digital age.”
MG: By “Web staff,” who do you mean? Designers? Online editors?
JP: Designers, programmers, Web producers.
MG: Okay. Would editorial people have a say in the decisions they make/discussions they have?
JP: Maybe. Maybe not.
MG: Well, it matters, though.
JP: Well, I think it’s a mistake for news orgs to assume that the primary goal of their Web sites should be to report and spread the news. Online readers, I think, don’t particularly care where their news comes from. They don’t care if they get it from the Boston Globe’s Web site or from the Times’s Web site. The news is fungible. Content alone won’t give you a successful site. (In general, I mean. I’m talking about newspaper-style news.)
MG: Well, can I add one caveat to that, though? When you say “newspaper-style news,” you mean news that is, generally, nonpartisan, straightforward, non-niche, etc., right? But we shouldn’t forget the extent to which many people don’t see those sources as nonpartisan or straightforward at all—which is to say, the extent to which they don’t ultimately trust those sources. ‘The NYT is nothing but a liberal mouthpiece,’ ‘The Journal is a lackey of corporate interests,’ etc., etc. And even people who don’t have as vociferous or specifically articulated a distrust of the MSM have been conditioned, over the years, to mistrust and otherwise question even the most straightforward of its messages. The counterpoint to branding, I guess.
JP: Yeah, good point. Even so, I think you could argue that most people aren’t like that. That when you open up Google News, one headline is as good as another.
MG: Okay, sure. In terms of aggregations, that’s right. And, actually, I think it’s more true among younger people—who are conditioned, via the realities of the digital world, to assume a kind of wisdom-of-crowds sensibility when it comes to online content. ‘If it’s on Google News, it has been collectively sanctioned.’ Etc.
So, yes: agreed. In that case, though: what else can news orgs provide?
JP: That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t rightly know. But there’s got to be something. A sense of community? Of interpersonal connection? Imagine a New York Times Online that doesn’t define itself by creating and posting articles of news.
MG: I’m having trouble doing that, though. What would it contain—and what would it define itself by?
JP: Maybe the community creates content. Maybe it’s not a newspaper so much as a convener. Maybe it’s just a space where people can come to yell. I don’t know. I don’t even necessarily think this is a good idea. But I think some interesting experimentation could be done in that space.
The thing is, you shouldn’t be making your plans for the future solely based on what you’ve got right now. Because then you’ll never get anywhere. This is a paradigmatic change here. Robert Altman, the director, once said something like “Nobody has ever made a good movie. Someday, somebody might make half of one.” And I think that’s apt to the subject at hand. Nobody has really made a great newspaper Web site yet.
MG: And that’s largely because we don’t yet know what makes a Web site great.