John Yemma, the editor of The Christian Science Monitor, had some strong words for newspaper websites in an article he wrote for PaidContent: neither paywalls nor multimedia content will save you.
Although Yemma believes that content is king, no news organization has formulated an appropriate response to the problem of losing the value of content on the Internet. Erecting paywalls, like the ones News Corp and the New York Times will in the near future, is just like "sandbagging the tops of levies on the Mississipi," but they are not the answer. Paywalls can't hold the flood back, and the "Internet flood never recedes."
But, it is not multimedia that can hold back the flood either, Yemma claims. Even though users seem to be interested in YouTube videos and interactive games, no one says there will be a great demand for thoughtful interactive content, like graphs on Taliban stronghholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although some media commentators believe in the power of multimedia content, Yemma concludes that "there's no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site's brand because of cool multimedia."
The future of newspaper websites for Yemma does not lie in paywalls or multimedia, but in creating relevant content.
This is the approach the Christian Science Monitor has focused on since it made the switch to online-only. In March of 2009, The Christian Science Monitor became one of the first newspapers to drop its daily print edition and move to online-only, with a weekly magazine to complement the website. Since then, the newspaper has been constantly experimenting with new techniques to engage readers.
And, these new techniques seem to be paying off. A year after shifting the focus of their newsroom efforts from print to web-first, the Christian Science Monitor's web traffic has has climbed from 6 million page views last April to 13 million in February 2010.
In his article, Yemma explains the reasons behind the success of The Christian Science Monitor, as well as what they have missed. Other newspapers which are seeing their circulation and revenue decline could definitely take away something from the CSM's venture into the online-only realm.
For Yemma, the key to building and keeping traffic is "overcoming a huge cultural barrier by evoling a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization."
Search engine optimization has also played a large role. Journalists have focused on carefully crafting headlines and embedding links to deeper content in articles to garner more views.
But, what about those topics (the Greek economic crisis or urban poverty, for example) that will not draw in large numbers of readers? Although these stories will not be something an average reader will take a look at, these pages are important because they draw in a more sophisticated and dedicated reader -- a reader that advertisers value.
On the multimedia front, Yemma does not believe multimedia can help newspaper websites. In his experience, he has not seen numbers that justify an increase in multimedia creation; and this is the reason why the CSM does not rely on multimedia content. When it comes to interactivity, Yemma highlights that CSM readers are not encouraged to make comments too often so as to not encourage what Yemma calls "comment jerks."
The Christian Science Monitor's strategy is interesting, but it may only work for them. The CSM's readers are mostly older and female, and the newspaper does not seem to attract younger readers. Perhaps, this is why the newspaper does not focus on multimedia content. Since it aims to make the newspaper responsive to its readership needs, it will not necessarily make the same shifts that the rest of the industry has been making towards multimedia, interactivity, and user-generated content.
John Yemma will be speaking on new ways to finance quality journalism at the 17th World Editors Forum to be held in Beirut, Lebanon from 7 - 10 June. For more details please see www.wanlebanon2010.com