Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Philly Papers & The Internet: The Long Goodbye?

I know first hand that although newspapers are leading agents of change, they have been slow to embrace change themselves. This is nowhere more evident than with the Internet and blogosphere, and the websites of Philadelphia's two major newspapers are good examples of the change-averse culture that permeates their newsrooms.

When I bailed from the Daily News in 2001, the print edition was losing readers in droves, but relatively few of them were being lured to the paper's website although the Internet was The Next Big Thing.

The website was a mess because almost no one except the webmaster took it seriously. Certainly not Managing Editor Ellen Foley and the other people with the big offices, who were too busy milking cows, churning butter and collecting eggs -- you know, the stuff that newspaper editors had been doing since forever. And no matter how big the story, updating anything on the website during a news cycle took an act of Congress.

Foley is long gone, thank God. But despite dramatic advances in website design and maintenance, five years later the Daily News website is only marginally better. It mainly just has more stuff. This failure to develop a website that reflects and builds on the News's biggest asset -- its street smart, in-your-face character -- reflects an institutional inability to move away from the old model (cow milking, and so on). This despite the fact that the paper has had a gun to its head for years and its survival remains in doubt despite having new owners who vow to keep it alive. As it is, even on a good day the print edition sells only as half as many copies as it did 10 years ago.
Worse, although the Daily News has in Will Bunch one of the best newspaper bloggers anywhere, they're trying to keep that secret.

Unlike many bloggers, Bunch generates lots of excellent original content based on his own reporting, but the link to his Attytood blog on the website home page is buried beneath practically everything except the foundation garment ads. Unless you already were aware that Will is lurking in the tall grass waiting to pounce on his prey of the day, you would never know that Attytood existed.

Worse still, Flavia Colgin's commentaries on her Citizen Hunter blog are reliably unoriginal exercises in liberal agitprop, but a link to her blog is displayed well above Attytood. Maybe it's because she's cuter than Will.

It's almost like the cow milkers are embarrassed about a guy who is trying to keep the herd from being taken to the slaughterhouse.
When I mentioned that the Attytood link is hard to find to the paper's webmaster, his response was lame: He explained that the paper is in the process of getting a new system with more flexible templates. In the process. Maybe they've sent to China for those templates and the slow boat hit a reef off of Singapore.
My question is whether the News will even exist by the time the new templates arrive.
The situation is in some respects worse upstairs at the News's sister paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Although people in Sioux Falls or Louisville are none the wiser, the Inky has had to use to use the same butt ugly website template shared by most of the papers in the late, semi-lamented Knight Ridder chain despite having its own character, as well. And the Inky does an even better job than the News of hiding Dan Rubin's Blinq and its other blogs.

This failure also reflects an institutional inability to move away from the old model despite the fact that the Inky also is bleeding readers. (There also is a certain high-mindedness that still permeates the Inky newsroom culture that is insufferable, but I've save that for another rant.)

As if all of this wasn't bad enough, the parent company of the News and Inky runs a dreary umbrella website called

This site looks like a ransom note. (No, check that. I've seen better looking ransom notes.) claims to be "the region's home page" and for me it's biggest draw should be breaking local news. Problem is, it sucks at that.
When I went to shortly before 5 on a recent afternoon, the top breaking news story was a nearly 24-hour-old home invasion in West Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, there had been a huge development an hour earlier -- an eternity in cyberspace -- in the JonBenet Ramsey case. Other websites were reporting that John Mark Karr was not being charged with the little dear's murder, but that sensational development was nowhere to be seen on the region's home page.

How many breaking news junkies like myself are going to twiddle their thumbs when they can get their fixes faster elsewhere? Damned few. And how many are going to go back to when they can't find what they want there? Damned few.
I can hear the hankie wringing in response to my wake-up call. We don't have enough staff. We don't have enough resources. Too many cows to milk and not enough time.


For better or worse, the Internet is the future of Philadelphia's newspapers and the people running the show still aren't getting it right a decade after the Web train pulled into the station and the smart money warned that they'd better jump on board with both feet or else.

In fairness, part of this malaise is the fault of Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder, who famously remarked in 1998 that he was moving the company's headquarters to San Jose from Miami so that it could be closer to the Internet. (I'm not making this up.) Ridder paid lip service to the notion of change while in reality embracing little beyond cutting newsroom staff and trying to lip lock with unhappy shareholders. (For my previous thoughts on journalism's Darth Vader, click here.)

I've been tracking my own changing websurfing habits over the five years since I left the Daily News.

Back then, I visited three or four blogs and 15 or 20 newspaper websites a day. Today I visit 15 to 20 blogs and five to 10 newspaper sites. Although I read Will Bunch and Dan Rubin regularly, I seldom do more than glance at the News and Inky websites and on some days don't even do that. Too little breaking news. Too little special content. Too much yesterday and too little tomorrow.
Don't get me wrong. Snazzy websites, world-class bloggers and interactivity out the wazoo are not cure alls for what ails Philadelphia's newspapers, let alone others.

But they are the only proven way to stanch the loss of old readers and (gasp!) even attract new ones, and that message has not sunken in at the old dairy barn at 400 North Broad Street.

I wonder whether it ever will.
(Illustration from The Economist)


Daniel Rubin said...

there is a difference, of course, between the page and the papers' home pages. the former is "dynamic." the latter are as immovable as the papers themselves. bunch and i are prominent on, which is where most traffic goes. that said, we're a bit of a greek diner menu, i think. lots of choice. less direction. but they say they're in the process of blowing it all up and reinventing the place. stay tuned.

Shaun Mullen said...

Hi Dan:

Welcome back from vacation.

Thank you for the insight, although it does nothing to shake my belief that it is the people who are resistant to change who need to be blown up before the place can be blown up.

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samrocha said...

Shaun, good stuff as always... not to mention the grandstand that blogging gives to half-wit pontificators like me to aquire a readership...