Sunday, April 20, 2008

Functionality, Not Form, in Newspaper Content

Leon Levitt, vice president of digital media for Cox Newspapers Inc, was quoted in as saying newspapers can boost online advertising revenue by "slicing and dicing" content to suit reader needs.

I couldn't agree more.

Since I jumped off the newspaper bandwagon and into a job as editor of an Internet startup site, it's become clearer to me that what newspapers aren't doing is making their content functional beyond the stories they produce.

I've had several conversations about this with newspaper editors in the last few months, including one this weekend with a friend who was visiting from Ohio. One of the keys to the puzzle of finding ways to make money off traditional newspaper content, I explained to her, was finding a way to improve the long-term functionality of the news that's produced daily.

What do I mean?

About two months ago, I began to re-examine the content on my site, not just for quantity but also for utility. While we've done a solid job of news-related content, the functionality of the site from an encyclopedic standpoint needed some improvement. After a discussion with our CEO, Cotter Cunningham, formerly of, it occurred to me that the encyclopedic information is in the news content -- just not organized in a way that makes it easy for users to find it again once the news content was archived.

Obviously, my news background was affecting how I focused the web site -- not a bad thing. But I what about users coming to the site for a specific topic on a day when it wasn't a top story? Yes, we have archives, but is that really enough?

When I examined our bounce rate (the rate that's given to site after users come to the site searching for a topic and leave without finding it), I discovered it's better than the average web site. But I realized it was still an area that needed more attention from me. So I began working on a project that will improve the long-term functionality of site's content.

Since I'm still a news junkie, it occurred to me during my daily reading of blogs, topic content feeds and stories, that this was also missing in most traditional newspaper operations. While some companies are working on these efforts, no one seems to be doing it very well. Imagine what they could do with all the content they have if, after publishing the traditional newspaper story form, editors considered the encyclopedic functionality of their content.

Thomson, a former newspaper company that sold many of its properties to Gannett some years ago, appears to be building a business model of this type. In its recent $16.6 million merger with Reuters, company officials told The New York Times that it plans to refocus Reuters on business news -- using that content to build a database of targeted content for users who need specific financial content and all its related information.

For traditional newspaper companies to build something similar, however, would require them to stop cutting back on the content-gathering efforts of their news operations and focus, instead, on investing -- in the reimagining of function over form.

Perhaps then we could stop talking about the death of the newspaper industry -- and start focusing on its rebirth.


Dan said...

Marisa: Interesting post. It's always nice to find your bounce rate is better than the competition. However, I've found that many websites are not actively tracking their bounce rates. As you know, the key is to examine the bounce rate against your previous efforts. As all sites will experience different metrics, the real question is "are you getting better"?

I recently posted a blog about bounce rates that you may find interesting ( ). Part of the difficulty of web analytics is helping the "business owners" to understand which metrics to focus on and to take the appropriate action.

Marisa Porto said...

Thanks for reading. The bounce rates on the site are of great interest, and we study them as routine. I'll take a look at your blog. Appreciate your thoughts and any suggestions.