Losing Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   September 2002

Losing Out   

Local TV management should get serious about the Web.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


In a phone survey conducted this spring for the Newspaper Association of America, 62 percent of Internet users who go online for local news said they visit newspaper Web sites. Fifty-five percent go to Yahoo! for local news, and only 39 percent use TV station sites.

In June, the Media Audit, a ratings service, announced that daily newspaper Web sites attracted more local adult visitors than other news and information sites in 51 of 81 metro markets in 2001; local city guides led most of the remaining markets. According to its ongoing survey data, there are only a handful of cities--including Madison, Wisconsin, and Raleigh, North Carolina--in which local TV sites meet or beat newspaper sites.

Reports like these feed the perception that TV Web sites are the underdogs of local online news.

How did this imbalance evolve, and why does it continue? Do newspapers have better Web genes, or have TV sites simply failed to develop to their potential? Is the difference nature--or nurture?

If traditional media consumption determined online preferences, TV sites would be on top. According to the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, 57 percent of Americans regularly watch local TV news, while only 41 percent regularly read a local or national newspaper. The Online News Association reports that Internet users find local TV news slightly more credible than local newspapers, both online and in their native formats.

Then why do people favor newspaper sites?

Here's the conventional wisdom: First, newspaper sites offer more local stories. They also specialize in listings and classifieds, hooking droves of visitors who become loyal news readers. And the online audience still wants text. Even with the capacity to deliver high-quality video to a growing base of broadband users, most online news is read, not watched.

"Frankly, newspapers have an editorial advantage," says Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle and founder of Lost Remote, an online publication devoted to media convergence. "They have more reporters covering more stories, and their copy is ready-made for the Web. TV reporters are chasing multiple deadlines, writing stories packed full of incomplete sentences, references to video and unnecessary punctuation.... [W]eb producers must step in and edit the copy before it appears online."

That's certainly a handicap. But if newspapers' classifieds and Web-ready stories were magic bullets, local stations like WRAL in Raleigh and WISC in Madison wouldn't be outperforming their print competitors. The best local TV newsrooms frequently beat newspapers in breaking news, capably convert scripts into substantial text stories with video and interactive graphics, and leverage the resources and distribution channels of content partners. The product isn't the problem.

The real challenge for local TV Web sites is winning the support of their parent organizations. If broadcast managers don't relate to their online efforts as key components of their news, promotion and profit strategies, they'll continue to lag in local markets.

Newspapers know their futures depend on how they adapt to digital delivery. That's why newspaper sites are attacking the profitability problem in earnest, experimenting with paid archives, online classifieds, reproduced print ads and inserts, and digital subscriptions. While they're simply transferring traditional sales models to the Web, at the same time newspapers are learning a lot about the medium, multiplatform delivery and cross-media collaboration.

Traditional TV revenue models don't translate as readily to the Web, and few TV sales teams are inclined to innovate when the payoff isn't clear. "Most TV sales departments still don't recognize the power of the Web," Bergman says. "Newspapers recognized the threat early, and they've adapted.... Broadcast managers...are less motivated to take the Web seriously."

They've also got their eyes--and budgets--focused on the next big thing: the transition to digital broadcasting and interactive TV. The vice president of sales for The FeedRoom, the largest supplier of streaming news on the Internet, recently described the company's Web presence as a "test bed" for digital TV. ITV promises to do for broadcast what the Web is doing for (or to) print.

That doesn't mean TV stations can shrug off their Web sites. Today's news operations need to maintain a continuous connection with people as they surf the Web, check e-mail, commute--and yes, lounge on the sofa. Each medium supports the others; each organization should adapt to all.

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