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Web 2.0 and the Newspapers

(Based on my speech at PANPA this year)

Twitter – Web 2.0’s Poster Child

Web 2.0 was coined at an O’Reilly conference back in 2004. The aim was to capture the trend of new web applications that were emerging. Things like Flickr, Google Maps, Delicious and many others.

At its core, Web 2.0 is not about new technology. It is about using existing technologies to provide a richer, more interactive experience on the web for consumers.

The poster child for this new interaction is the web service, Twitter.

A simple concept. Let people broadcast a 140 character message. Didn’t sound new. Didn’t sound all that interesting. Yet, it has taken the content world by storm. Why?

It started with blogs. Blogs opened up publishing to the masses. They made it easy to regularly publish content. Joined with RSS to allow consumers to subscribe to the content in a way that is convenient for them, the blogosphere exploded. Suddenly, anyone could have a voice online. Google helped, driving traffic to the micro sites.

A person blogging from their bedroom could be ranked higher in Google than a major newspaper for specific topics.

Competition resounded.

Now, some blog networks gather more traffic than major US newspaper sites.

Conversation – An Old Idea

The secret of their success? Conversation.

Blogs provide for conversation in two major forms. The original approach was between blogs. Responses to a post were posted on another blog. This led to trackbacks, and support in blogging platforms for tracking them.

The view was that everyone who wanted to respond could have their own blog. The reality is that most people don’t. This led to comments on the blog post itself.

Fred Wilson, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist claims that the highest quality content on his site is the comments; the conversation between him and his readers and amongst his readers themselves.

Think about that. One of the most successful bloggers claims that his content is not the best on his site. That is game changing. He is no longer pushing content to readers, he is creating a conversation.


Twitter is a micro-blogging platform, only this time, everyone can blog. To post content, you write a message that is no more than 140 characters long. This is an arbitrary limit imposed by the system. This creates a social dynamic that keeps content brief and to the point.

The key to Twitter is that there is no difference between posting content and posting a comment. To comment on someone else, you reply to them with content of your own. This has led to everyone on Twitter being a content creator as well as a participant in a conversation.

One of the other smart things Twitter did was move beyond the web. Web 2.0 in its purest is about two way interaction with your audience in a way that suits them.

Twitter gets less than a tenth of its traffic from its website. Other use comes from mobile devices, from third party applications, from its open API. Twitter goes out of its way to provide open access to the conversation between its participants.

Newspapers & Web 2.0

If this is the kind of audience interaction that is working on the internet, how do newspapers compare?

Not well.

Recent statistics suggest that newspaper blogs fail to increase the public dialogue; the conversation. When hosted by a newspaper, 80 percent of bloggers do not respond to comments. If content is about conversations, this is not a good statistic.

Think about your own newsroom. If your web site allows comments, does the original reporter see them?

The early print only newspapers tried very hard to solicit feedback from their readers. This shows up in the Letters to the Editor page. There is an overhead to filter down the feedback and select which nuggets are suitable for print in the next edition.

However, the lead time is slow. Responding can take days or weeks, depending on publication schedule.

The web lets you take letters not just to the editor, but to any journalist. And you don’t need to wait for the next publication date to publish the letter or to respond. It can happen in an instant. Comments are a natural part of getting consumers involved in the news process, and they need to be included into your newsroom process.

Newspapers have generally seen the web as another distribution channel for content. A pure push. The stories, once vetted by the subs, were mass published to the site and then not altered.

Much has been done to enhance this new output channel. However, from the newsroom it is still that: an output channel. Not many have feedback from the web site back to the newsroom.

Newsrooms with a Web 2.0 Future

Let me describe a newsroom of the future, and how content should integrate.

I receive the stream of comments from the article into an Inbox, allowing me to comment on them. The system gathers information about which other sites are linking to my story. Are other news outlets picking it up? Has the blogosphere started reporting on it? This information is freely available by blog search engines such as Technorati. If a competitor publication or a small site wrote a response I can continue the conversation, by posting a comment on their site, or by writing a follow-up story linked to my original story and their response.

Now that I have a number of conversations, this feeds my news gathering process. The web provides metrics on how popular my content is. How many people have read the story, how many people have commented, how many other sites are linked in to my content.

This gives me a finger on the pulse of what my audience is interested in and assists in selecting new topics for research and discussion.

My newsroom also provides me with up to date information on topics that I’m interested in. This includes not only feeds from wire services, filtered by my topics, but also feeds from bloggers, interactions with leads and contacts via instant messages or social services such as Twitter. This allows me to copy taste a stream of information tailored to the kinds of stories I am reporting on.

If a story breaks half way around the world, my desktop provides me a stream of official content from the location as well as citizen journalists and general participants’ contributions. This allows for me to gather quotes and research background information.

I can quickly publish to the web and alert other journalists in my organization of the story. I can start to gather additional media such as images and video to build up my story package. I’m still receiving comments on the story I’ve just posted, allowing me to continue to update the story with new and relevant information.

No longer a single publishing event for the story, it is now an ongoing news event; a conversation.

Expanding Your Reach

Similar to Twitter’s API support, news content is being repurposed across multiple channels. Some of these are purely web based, such as portal sites integrating headlines and summaries or Google News. Others are becoming more diverse. The iPhone is showcasing what is possible for a mobile device. eReaders such as the Kindle in the US, the Sony PRS eReader or the iRex iLiad provide for a different reading experience.

This leads to more opportunities to syndicate your content, more options for expanding the conversation, but also a much more complex media landscape.

Reuters has led the way, providing an open API allowing third parties to remix its content into innovative ways of presentation and distribution.

The new audience

There is no single audience that can be reasoned about in aggregate. Instead there is a collection of participants in a series of conversations. What works for one may not work for another.

One approach is personalization: Allowing the reader to customize the site to their needs. This is something the portal providers, such as Yahoo, have focused on. Their theory is that if they can provide a one stop shop for the consumer, then they will see more of the traffic. They not only integrate their own content, but provide summaries and links to third party content. This gives the user a dashboard of what is hot in their version of the internet.

This becomes more interesting is when this information can be inferred. Say that I’ve been reading the newspaper site for the last year. The web platform can track what I’ve been reading and start to build a profile to infer what else I’m interested in.

Amazon leads the way in this inference approach. They know which products I’ve bought, which products I’ve browsed and serve up suggestions as to what kind of products I might like to consider.

There is no reason that a content site cannot do the same.


In the current incarnation of the print newspaper, we go out of our way to track circulation metrics to determine our audience. On the web, this can be handed to us but we’ve not been asking for it.

A good web platform can track an individual reader of your site and infer what kinds of content they are interested in.

This impacts the newsroom in several ways. Firstly by requiring a more interactive approach to content. Secondly, by providing more specific and targeted content. The niche is in. Have journalists specialize and allow consumers access to that specialty.


Consumers are used to being their own editors on the web. Their own copy tasters. They mix together content from multiple sources, from newspapers, from blogs, from their friends, from companies to produce a stream of information relevant for them. The content you produce needs to be able to fit into this new model. And it is about producing content. Not selecting content. Your readers can do that for you, and want to do it for themselves.

Google News is popular not because of their journalists, but because it provides access to content in a way the consumer can shape.


Be wary of your readers’ trust. Newspapers are brands that are trusted. It is trust that has been built up over generations. It is a trust that can be rapidly lost.

Make sure that you are open with what you are trying, why you are trying it and what implications it has for your users. There are no secrets on the web.

The other concern is that of quality. This I have no easy answer for as there is a trade off.

Bloggers have solved this by swinging to the conversation side. The tendency is to post often and be involved in the discussion, although with spelling and grammar errors that would make a newspaper cringe.

Newspapers have historically gone the other way. Pushing content to the web and not being involved in the conversation. There is space in the middle.


Some other things to think about: