Sites like Techmeme and Digg feed into bloggers’ competitive nature—displaying who specifically tipped them off to a news item and which blog has the best or most-read entry covering a news article, according to Mr. O’Reilly. Newspapers can do the same thing.
It’s all about giving users attention, because that’s mostly what people are looking for when they’re online these days.
Mike Germano, president and creative director of >carrot creative, a marketing agency that specializes in social networking and new media for brands like MLB.com and JCPenney, said newspapers can engage readers in the comments section. Although many newspapers have been weary of validating commentors in the past, drowning in a sea of “anonymous” trolls, Mr. Germano predicts that newspapers will start to see more and more commentors using their real names to participate in the conversation by using services like OpenID and Facebook Connect.
“On Facebook you were forced to be who you really are,” he said, noting the early days of Facebook when users needed a college email address to sign up. “When I see a comment now and it’s got that little [Facebook symbol] F, I know that is a real person,” he continued. “People take value in their Facebook profile, they’re not going to do something that could risk that.”
Once newspapers start validating their commentors, they will have more detailed data for their advertisers, according to Mr. Germano.
Newspapers can also learn something from Facebook’s preference toolbar by making their user experiences more personalized. How about customizable home pages for users? So when they go to NYTimes.com, it will display, say, only international news and science headlines, and eliminate maybe sports- and style-related articles. Users could set preferences to display more new podcasts or video posts and drag and drop any reporters’ column into a specific space on their home page. And if they want their Twitter feed or del.icio.us links integrated into their home page, so they can see what their friends are reading, let them set that preference as well.
Unless newspaper sites can become facilitators of the new status culture, they will be left outside of it. And they will no longer be the places where advertisers want to meet customers.
“I think that basically marketers need to go where their customers are,” said Jim Brady, until recently of washingtonpost.com. “And if their customers are spending significant time on the Web, then they need to be there. They need to figure out a way to engage with their customers in meaningful ways. Whether that’s the Web, or mobile, or something that hasn’t even been invented yet.”
Josh Quittner, a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for Time, is pushing what he somewhat awkwardly calls appgazines—a hybrid of a magazine and interactive software served to mobile devices. (This, of course, should not be confused with early experiments in HyperCard Stacks and CD-ROM magazines that were cutting edge circa 1994.) Mr. Quittner is planning to make a presentation about appagazines at Time Inc.’s quarterly management meeting in June.
It sounds like what Mr. O’Reilly was demonstrating on Feb. 20 when he gave an example the future of mobile by saying the word “Pizza” into his iPhone for an audience. Google’s Mobile iPhone App found places to grab a slice within walking distance of his current location.
“This is going to happen with news,” he said. “It’s really quite remarkable how much our future is going to be driven by information exhaust from the devices we carry around with us,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “We have to think about that future.”
Savvy technologists like Mr. O’Reilly have been predicting a revolution in online news that most publishers seem to stumble right over. Forget the print edition. And even if Times masters their Web-based news portal, with all the open-source features and applications they want, their readers might not want to be getting their content from their desktop computer or their laptop.
The idea is this: The news must go mobile.
And if the news is to attract rather than follow advertisers, it must do so right now.
“Brand advertising hasn’t transferred to mobile because no one has figured out how best to make that work,” Ms. Warren, of The Times, said. “You have that issue in the background. Most of the customers who haven’t really embraced it, at least for us anyway, are the luxury and goods manufacturers. They have web sites, of course, and they’re obviously all online, but they’ve been more hesitant to move online because they’re so fiercely protective of their brand. Brand advertising online, for many, has been elusive.”