Helping the Audience  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Helping the Audience   

News organizations must do a better job of helping their audiences access their online offerings.

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


Do you ever notice the orange and white buttons on Web sites that say "RSS" or "XML?" Do you ever wish for a "What does this mean?" button or a "Tell me why I should care" button?

For most of its history, journalism has been delivered through technologies that don't involve a lot of explanation. Newspapers don't need operating instructions. A monkey can tune a radio or use a TV remote. (TiVo might require an extra-smart monkey.) Until now, optimizing one's experience involved a bigger screen or a more comfortable recliner.

Not so with the Internet. Getting to a Web site is easy but once there, many of our online readers and viewers struggle to appreciate the extravaganza of new options we've set before them.

According to an April report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only 14 percent of American cell phone owners use their phones to access the Internet, although another 16 percent are interested in doing so. According to a July 2005 Pew study, only 13 percent of American Internet users said they had a good understanding of what podcasting is. Sixty-four percent were not sure and 23 percent had never heard the term. Only 9 percent knew what RSS feeds are, 65 percent weren't sure and 26 percent had never heard of them. That report is now more than a year old, so let's say that awareness has doubled in the past year. That's quite generous, and still leaves three-quarters of Web viewers with little or no understanding of what those "RSS" buttons mean.

If awareness is low, adoption is lower. In an October 2005 Yahoo! report, only 2 percent of respondents subscribed to podcasts and 4 percent knowingly used RSS. (Many people have used RSS without knowing it, but it's doubtful those folks are taking full advantage of its capabilities.)

As news sites branch into new technologies such as mobile delivery, RSS and podcasting, should it also be our mission to teach people to use them?

The answer is yes, if we're smart. And so far we haven't done a great job. Here is how CNN defines RSS for visitors:

"RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is an XML-based format for sharing and distributing Web content, such as news headlines."

Most news sites' RSS primers are a variation on that uninviting theme. They sound as though they've been written by programmers for programmers. Novices, you're on your own. No wonder adoption is so low.

If news sites lack enthusiasm or clarity in the way they present certain technologies such as RSS, it's probably because the news organizations themselves don't fully grasp how they work or why they really matter. Many news managers aren't much savvier than their audiences, and many Web editors surprisingly enough are in the same boat. We usually think of ourselves as news professionals first, which is not a bad thing. But now is the time to move from vaguely getting the technical part of this business to really getting it. It's not just about smarter surfing; it's about survival.

For example: Joe Reader has a page on My Yahoo! He also likes your newspaper. But Joe only has a few minutes for personal surfing on his lunch break, and he chooses to go to My Yahoo! first. Unfortunately, that leaves no time to visit your site. Did you know that Joe can easily place your headlines on his Yahoo! page? Wouldn't you like to tell him how?

Jane Viewer has a Google Gmail account. She checks it obsessively throughout the day. Did you know that Jane can easily customize her e-mail inbox to display a ticker of your news headlines? Wouldn't you like to show her how?

And isn't this a better way to explain the benefits of RSS to the user and the publisher?

Adoption of new Internet technologies will grow with or without our help. We can accelerate that process, to our advantage.

The first step is to make sure that all advanced features are explained clearly, with pictures, and in a tone that welcomes the novice. If you work for a news organization with a Web site, it probably has RSS feeds. Take a few minutes to read the RSS explainer page; see if you can make sense of it. Try the same thing with your podcast page.

Next, traditional news managers need to use RSS feeds, podcasts and mobile sites frequently enough to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. If your Web editors are the only ones who know what's on your mobile site, that's a bad sign.

Once you have faith and confidence in the products you offer, sing their praises. Don't just announce that you have podcasts or RSS feeds; explain exactly how to use them and why anybody should want to. Several years ago I worked for a television station that produced a 30-minute show explaining how to use its Web site. The entire newsroom got an education along with the audience.

If all of this sounds like a lot of effort, it is. If we expect our online audience to connect with us in numerous ways throughout the day, it's up to us to provide the best directions possible.

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