I have to read a lot of newspapers, and I enjoy doing it. Recently I found myself in a gentlemens’ club, chatting, in passing, with a couple of fairly senior chaps from the better known ones. This is the kind of situation I would generally avoid, but emboldened by the Diet Pepsi I began to offer unsolicited advice on what newspapers should do with the internet: as a punter, as a microfamous internet oligarch and, of course, as a gentleman. These were my words of wisdom, many of them developed in conversation, and therefore not entirely my own.
I’d be properly interested to know your thoughts.
- Forget trying to foster linear discussion among your readers. You are a national newspaper, pulling in millions of viewers, the comments threads beneath your articles will always be rubbish, because the community is too large. Nobody will read all the other comments before writing one themselves, so there is no discussion, and in such a large community there is no shared pool of knowledge. At best your discussions might work with threaded comments, or with peer voting, like on bigger communities such as Slashdot. But linear comments – for communities that pull millions of visitors – can never produce interesting conversations.
- If you do a podcast, do not make it like an even cheaper version of commercial radio. We already have bad commercial radio. Multimedia is cheap to make and distribute: so take advantage of that. Stick some extremely well informed people in a room, for example, and let them have a long, structured conversation about interesting stuff. Do not edit this. Or interview someone extremely interesting – you have access – as if it were a live event. Do not edit this. Spend the time you saved: look for more interesting people.
- Aggregate other peoples content. We enjoy a newspaper presenting a coherent world view, and we like to see that in your choice of stuff from other papers, magazines, blogs, and more. Do not write a long blog post telling us what you think about these articles: just link to them, like the Miniblog (to your right). We can read. We get it. Have more than one: let your best writers or editors show everyone what they’re reading.
- If you see anything anywhere on your website which could possibly have been in the paper, if it weren’t for space, delete it immediately. Your website isnt the place for second rate newspaper content, it’s for good stuff that was too narrow in appeal to be worth the newsprint. Give us more detail and obscurity, not more Polly Filla. Link to the other Polly Fillas if you must. Let your economics guy really go off on one about something you find leg-jigglingly tedious. He knows his crowd, and if he doesn’t this time, then nobody will notice or care.
- Employ more editors, and fewer journalists. The lesson of this site is that journalists are not good at mediating the knowledge and understanding of experts. Instead, give us unmediated expertise. Do not write about the expert: get the expert to write for you, and get an editor to make it read better, if you need to. Editors are the unsung heroes of print media, not journalists. Understand this: unless you’re a voice, a Charlie Brooker, we don’t actually care if you think you can write “like a professional”. Online we can go straight to people who actually know about stuff, and they can usually write just fine. Give them to us, or we will enjoy them without you.
- You are serving geeks: offer them very clever tailored feeds (RSS or better). I want to be told the next time Gary Numan writes about gardening for you. Tell me when he does, and I will come back to your site, which gives you advertising money.
- Ditch all registration barriers. You don’t need me to tell you this. You’re not important enough for me to fill out a form and register, simply to read an article on your site. I can barely be bothered to use Bugmenot: if you hinder me, in any way at all, I won’t read your page.
- Make all of your content work on mobile phones, blackberry browsers, old computers, and PDAs. You have no idea how many people own these. You have no idea how bored they get at the bus stop, on the loo, and in meetings under the table. Give them all your content, in a simple text format that will work fine on small screens. This will also make your site accessible to the sensorily impaired. Don’t make this feature fancy, and don’t make some silly special “tailored” sub site, with a tenth of the content of the real site. It’s not 1998 any more, we don’t use WAP, and in fact nobody ever did. WAP was shit.
- Do not use flash, or other complicated animated web nonsense. It looks good on the developer’s laptop, when they come to show you the site, but it’s slow to load, and irritating to browse. Clicking open a mass of pages from the home page – and then skipping between them with ctrl-tab in Mozilla – is the modern equivalent of skimming a newspaper. If your site stops me doing that, and you make me load pages one at a time, I will leave.
- Video production should not require any piece of equipment too big to fit in your trouser pocket. The image will be three inches across on my screen. If any of your staff use the phrase “production values” sack them. Do not under any circumstance employ anyone from TV. They do not know how to help you: they are the problem, and the reason we come to you instead. Concentrate on the ideas.
So there you go. Bit shouty, no surprise, I blame the Pepsi. I’d be very interested to know what you think, I’d really like newspapers online stuff to get better, and I’ll add in your suggestions.
Additions from the comments:
- Link directly to your sources: absolutely, don’t know how I missed this one, it’s what keeps the bloggers honest, since it’s very hard to get away with misrepresenting stuff credibly when the original source is but a click away. This especially goes for the kind of lame comment pieces you get in print, which misrepresent the pieces they are “responding” to: that’s simply impossible when the original is but a click away.
- Having a PDA friendly simple text version of your website is also good for the sensorily impaired (inserted into 8, above).
- Via email from a good-hearted and anonymous newspaper person who doesn’t deign to use comments like everybody else: “related to 3 and 4, don’t plagiarise bloggers, lift their material, attribute it, and pay them. This makes me particularly sick. TV and radio have always thought that ‘investigative journalism’ means ‘plagiarising print media’, but now everybody happily plagiarises bloggers, who take no wage from anyone and only write for links and reach. It’s just rude.” Quite right too. And there is a certain repeat offender at Radio 4 who has a very public surprise coming from some friends of mine, on that front. You probably don’t even know who you are, foul, insightless creature.
- One more from email: if your website makes any noise at all, music, speaking, anything, then I will close it immediately. I will not spend my time looking for the tiny little volume control icon that your developers persuaded you was really cool. It could be the silent dead of night for god’s sake, have some manners. Nothing makes a noise in my house without my choosing it to.
Meanwhile, might I subversively suggest that you start a blog, write natually, and start offering the world your unmediated expertise, on whatever it is you know about the most. They will come. Oh, and click to Digg this, or Reddit, to make the chaps in the gentlemen’s clubs listen up.