Print vs. online newspapers

A very close friend of mine from college is a newspaper guy – he’s been a reporter at a number of papers, including the Wall Street Journal, and is now an editor at a major metropolitan paper (that will remain nameless). We spent last weekend hanging out in San Francisco (yes – on a “man date” 🙂 ).

He said that his paper is going through interesting times working through their print vs. online strategy (and he suspects that it’s like that all over). A lot of it has to do with deadline structure and work cycle – even though most papers have had online editions for some time, they have typically been either replicas or add-ons to the “real” paper, which comes out once (or in some cases twice) a day, with corresponding well-defined daily deadline hell. (The Wall Street Journal famously replicated even the multi-column typographic look of their print version.) But (my friend says) as his paper contemplates the print readership (eroding by only a few percent every year) and the online readership (doubling yearly?), they’re finally contemplating a phase change where the online edition drives the workflow and the deadlines.

In this model, the “real” paper is the online edition, and the thing that gets tossed on peoples’ porches is some kind of enshrinement of it, possibly with follow-up commentary, constructed at comparative leisure. The online edition is updated continuously, as stories break or assignments are completed, making all sorts of journalistic traditions about shared deadline crunches sadly obsolete.

The final interesting kicker was this: my friend’s online paper gets a lot more traffic than its competitor. Though all sorts of happy explanations have been proposed in-house for this, he believes in a simpler one: his paper happens to have the name of the city in its own name, while the competing paper doesn’t. You guessed it: the power of search engine referrals. It sounds plausible to me, actually; if you search for [city] [news-topic], his articles are going to have a lot of anchortext and body text containing the city name, and the competition’s articles won’t. What’s in a name? Retrievability, for one thing.

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