When I went into the online news business eight years ago, I thought by now we'd own the Internet.
I thought that journalistic principles and abilities would be among the most prized commodities in a medium that requires searching and sifting. And I thought that journalism itself would evolve and grow profoundly stronger in a medium that magnifies our abilities to exchange information and tell stories with immediacy and depth.
I still think that could all become true. It's just been slower than I had hoped.
Over the years, I've developed a fair number of strongly held beliefs about where we need to go and how we need to get there. We can still be central players on the Internet; we just need to move faster and more decisively.
Push the print newsroom even more
One of the great triumphs of online newspapers in our first decade is that in many newsrooms, newspaper reporters are now filing on our clock.
But they're still not filing on our terms.
Even at papers with visionary leadership, where reporters routinely file Web versions of their stories, they almost never file Webby versions.
The Internet is an exceedingly visual medium. When imagery is available, reporters should routinely be creating alternate versions of their stories, as photo essays or Flash-type photo and graphic presentations, either narrated or with elegantly written cutlines.
And it's a multimedia medium. Reporters should routinely consider, when they hear someone's voice or see them in action, how presenting such information can add value to their journalism.
Reporters should routinely be attaching relevant URLs to their stories.
And reporters should routinely be churning out FAQs and primers on their beats, because on the Web this contextual information has enormous value -- and longevity.
When these sorts of things happen now, it's generally an exception, or it's done by online producers well after the story is finished.
It's time for a whole new round of serious conversations between online and print editors to get newsrooms to move to the next level and make exploiting the technological and journalistic possibilities of the Internet -- not just its news cycle -- a part of the newsroom culture.
Learn the lessons of blogs
What is blogging? A million different things. But what's undeniable is that the various tools used by the blogging community are brilliantly evolved for the medium -- and they work. The fact that a lot of people use these tools to generate badly spelled, overly personal, non-journalistic, unedited pap should not get in the way of us embracing blog tools and philosophy.
Consider if you were starting a "newspaper" today. Wouldn't you want to facilitate exchanges with readers? Wouldn't you want to encourage your readers to find out more than what you can publish? Wouldn't you want to make it easier for them to take action? Wouldn't you want to define and create a community? Wouldn't you want to make your readers feel important?
Blog tools give you all that -- not to mention the ability to easily and quickly post something you just found out about. (What could be more journalistic?)
Some reporters have already embraced blogs, with great success, and that trend should be encouraged. But that's just the start.
In the archetypal blog, the updates come around the clock, as the situation warrants, creating an addiction. Readers tune in at all hours, wondering, "What have they got? Let's go see." But who can really sustain a 24/7 operation like that? Who has talented people on duty more or less around the clock with the ability to collect, filter, and communicate important information? Newspapers, of course.
In fact, a newsroom-wide blog could very well give readers a better feel for the day's offerings than our increasingly chaotic home pages.
So I think that at least a portion of every online news site's home page should be turned over to some sort of blog space, where journalists can post items and readers can post comments, effective immediately. Try it and see where it takes you.
And there are other lessons to be learned from blogs.
The most successful blogs all have something in common. Their authors are unashamedly enthusiastic about the topic at hand. (Often, of course, they're outraged.) The lesson: There is no virtue in sounding bored online.
Online, journalists should not conceal their fascination for the topics they cover. They should not hide behind the traditional bland construction of news stories. They should still be fair, of course, but they should also have voice and passion -- and sometimes even outrage. There is a risk here that the line between news and opinion may get blurry, but so be it. We should be turning our online journalists into personalities -- even celebrities -- rather than encouraging them to be as faceless as their print colleagues. The Internet demands voice.
One last point about blogs. The blogs that many people read these days are creating a terrible echo-chamber effect. The blogosphere includes a lot of one-note wonders whose bread and butter is, ironically, riffing off the stories they read in online newspapers. To the extent that they attract reader comments, they can be very insular.
Real people are the antidote to the blog echo-chamber. And real people are what journalists can and should and do inject into the blogosphere, by telling their stories, by encouraging them to tell their stories themselves, and maybe even by "posting" what we hear from real people as blog entries.
Concentrate on geography
The tools have finally matured for genuine online community building: Blogs, social networking, phone-cams, ample bandwidth and penetration, etc.
But most of today's online communities are non-geographic in nature. (Some of the significant exceptions include matchmaking services, neighborhood mailing lists, and craigslist.org.)
The time has come for online newspapers to embrace online community-building as a geographical phenomenon. The tools are there, waiting to be exploited by smart, reliable, journalists rooted in their communities.
The most compelling attraction for local users, of course, is something that only local newspapers have: extensive, accurate, very local information. Supplement that with genuine local voices, and you?ve got a lock on the market.
And yet, there's a significant way in which newspapers have hamstrung online's ability to leverage the value of their local content. The data -- stories, listings, ads, etc. -- are not geocoded.
Newspapers should start appending metadata code reflecting geographic location (ideally, street address and/or longitude and latitude, but at the very least city and ZIP code) to absolutely everything.
Ten years ago, many of us envisioned online newspapers creating a virtual view of the real world -- online. Sadly, we've made almost no progress, because the first requirement is geocoding. Sure, this may require a moment of attention at the time of content creation and some technological improvements, but with geocodes we can give our readers a slice of our incredibly deep and unique content based on their very specific location.
Imagine knowing readers' locations and then being able to then show them the news stories, big and small, taking place around them and offer them information about schools, crime, restaurants, activities, homes for rent or sale, sales at stores, zoning decisions, swim meets and volunteer activities all near them -- and much more. Depending on how deep your data is, you could create a virtual representation of every street in your circulation area.
That would be enormously valuable today, but it will become even more important in an era of ubiquitous wireless access and GPS. Someone is inevitably going to make a lot of money letting people know what's going on around them, based on their location. So who's it going to be?
Serve the audience
Look at what gets clicks on the Web, and, unfortunately, you see that Internet users have an overly healthy appetite for zingy, scandalous, outrageous and -- in particular -- sexual content. Serious, heavy things are not typically the big draw.
Let's acknowledge that and consciously, strenuously leaven our Web sites so that they offer a mix of content. That may mean playing the sexy stories a little higher than we might be otherwise inclined. But if it's all heavy, we won't get the eyeballs we need and deserve.
We need to aggressively and visibly use the best tools of print and Web journalism. Our best, most important work should feature compelling narratives, visual story-telling, interaction with the authors and newsmakers, and Web tools that encourage and harness citizen action. Don't just put a big serious thing out there in big fat text parts (with a few links and maybe a poorly captioned photo gallery) and expect to make a splash online.
Also, sites that have a regular flow of copy from their print news operations should consider asking for, and playing up, something other than every obligatory breaking news story. Did someone just say something outrageous at a city council meeting, or on CNN? Is there a really funny e-mail going around? Why not write a little something about that, and pass up the story that's only going to be a brief in the morning or let the wires worry about the latest housing-start numbers?
Finally, online news sites need to spend much more energy exploring traffic data. What are people actually coming for? What is compelling? What generates that extra click? What does trying this or tweaking that or rewriting these headlines actually do? We shouldn't blindly chase traffic, but with most Web site managers just getting a few overall numbers and looking at macro-level trends, we don't fundamentally understand how people are using our sites. Home page editors, for instance, should have real-time data in the background to inform their decisions.
Push for better tools and support
The dirty little secret of online is that you build what you can.
These days, most online news sites are technologically so behind the curve that we can?t build anything close to what we want.
Every online news site should have a content management system that is essentially agnostic to media type, i.e. that handles photos and multimedia just as capably as text. If you can integrate media types, you?re a multimedia site; if you can't, you're a site with some multimedia on it.
Similarly, HTML output should be only one of many options. For instance, it should be just as easy to publish to a Flash template as to HTML. Publishing to alternative platforms such as wireless should be transparent.
Intelligent search and categorization is key to letting readers find what they're looking for.
Obviously, this won't happen overnight. But every online news site should have a well thought-out and widely-shared technology vision -- and at least some notion of how to make it a reality.
Building the new-generation CMSs may require collaboration across the industry -- or across corporate silos. Fine. Do it.
The other part of "you build what you can" is the non-technology part. Designers and production staff need to be huge contributors to the mission and vision of the Web site.
Evolve the sales side
When it comes to advertising, online news sites have always been fairly slow and not always competent trend-followers. But the truth is, we are different from other kinds of Web sites, and we should be proactively fostering advertising trends that are particularly appropriate to us and to our audience.
I think the best, most appropriate kind of advertising for a news site is informational -- clearly labeled as an advertisement, of course, but designed to entice people who are intelligent and curious and who are in the process of gathering information. So let's encourage our advertisers to try this, let's test it, and if it works, let's stop blindly following each and every new, horrifying advertising trend.
Also, online news sites need to start charging more for our supremely qualified audiences. That is true sitewide -- since we get such an affluent and influential audience. But it is particularly true as you get deeper and deeper into our sites. Sure, the numbers get smaller the more narrowly you target, but for "qualified eyeballs" we shouldn't hesitate to charge many times more than run-of-site rates, not just fractions more.
Finally, for a lot of readers, the best information in their daily newspaper is in the advertisements. Putting all display ads online has historically been resisted out of fear of hurting existing revenue streams and adding to workflow. Tough. Newspapers need to ask themselves: Do we want the local market in the future or not? Because it's about to become Google's.
Put all your local ads online right now, in attractive, searchable form, and you will have instantly created the pre-eminent local online destination for shoppers. Advertisers will soon see how valuable online is. Then you can start charging an arm and a leg for the upsell and encouraging Webby approaches. Start now.
Have more fun
Online news managers should encourage more risk-taking and more fun.
Many established news organizations have made a religion out of careful incrementalism, and it generally serves them well.
But online news managers should be constantly asking their staffers for big, new ideas. They should be relentlessly pushing their people forward, challenging the status quo, brainstorming across silos. Sure we can't accomplish it all, certainly not all at once, but without bold goals, our progress won't be at Internet speed.
And passion, vision, and ambition should be considered ironclad requirements for anyone in a non-menial job in an online news organization. (Menial jobs should be identified as such, and, ideally, staffed by people on term-delimited contracts.)
If the passion and vision ebb -- for whatever reason -- it may be time to move on. Constrained budgets and small staffs, especially when they're getting smaller, can make career advancement a real challenge. But if you're not having fun, ask yourself why. Talk to your manager and propose changes that will make your job fun again. If that doesn't work, it's time to get a new job and get out of the way.
And finally, lighten up. Amazingly, newspaper Web sites often take themselves more seriously than newspapers, which we sometimes forget do so much more than just news. Of course we need to maintain our high ethical standards and be respectful of readers. But we shouldn't be so damn serious -- especially in that all-important first screen of the home page. Newspapers have comics, and horoscopes, not to mention gossip columns and fluffy features. And the truth is, fun things click on the Web.
(Editor's note: This is Dan Froomkin's introduction to ideas on how to improve online journalism. Essays on specific points will follow periodically.)