The LAT Wakes Up, Realizes It Missed A Decade

To wit:

“We’re great about putting out a paper; we’re getting a lot better at putting up a Web site,” [Russ Stanton, editor of the Los Angeles Times] said. “We’re not very good on TV or radio, and we don’t do mobile at all. We need to do all of those things going forward.”

I don’t know about you, but if you’re the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in mid-2008 and you’re saying any that you’re “getting a lot better an putting up a web site”, then, wow, can we look forward to a 2018 quote to the effect of hey, lookee here, it’s the Facebook!

Newspapers have known for a long time now that the audience is changing. Fifteen years at least; that’s a good amount of notice. Fifteen years ago should have been the start of “what are we going to do next?” conversation. Ten years ago, a time of great experimentation (this period, we recall, was dominated by pointless registration tactics). Five years ago, the online team should have been seamlessly integrated into the editorial team and strong forays into blending the social web with solid news begun.

One year ago? Let’s just remember that the man said “putting up a web site” (yeah, my style guide says no caps). What in the world is he saying?

Just as the music business is killing itself, the newspaper industry is a prime example of committing hari kari without a noble cause. It is telling that when the editorial minds of the Los Angeles Times are told that people don’t read the print newspaper every day because they don’t have time, the first thought is to cut staff (personally, I think Stanton should have done the honorable thing and quit like his predecessors; you can’t save a newspaper by slashing headcount).

From day one, newspapers have had a hard time understanding the Internet. If only it worked like print, they reasoned, then we’d get it. So they spent a lot of time and money trying to replicate the print experience. Some papers have added a bit o’innovation here, some outside-the-box thinking there, but never the LAT. This is a paper whose search is so lousy that when you type the exact headline into the search box, you get no results. Only the intrepid and determined find content on the LAT site.

A few weeks ago, I waxed enthusiastic about the fact that the LAT was feeding headlines to Twitter. I’d subscribed because Kirk said it was a cool thing; he’d been doing a lot of clicking through to stories based on what came across Twitter. I found the same thing. I was able to focus incoming information on what interested me most. I clicked through a lot more.

My enthusiasm encouraged another friend to try the LAT/Twitter experiment. Of course, within days of my article, the Twitter feed stopped. Dead. Sure my Twitter traffic is down, but I’m wondering if a) the person doing this cool thing was “laid off” or b) the person doing this cool thing is on vacation. I’ve noticed in the past that headlines fed to my MyYahoo go through periods where they’re not updated — the timing suggests that a human is doing this work and humans take vacations.

Either way, wow, what is the overhead involved here? And, wow, why isn’t something this simple automated? And, wow, why is getting online so hard for newspapers?

If Russ Stanton had bragged about getting better about putting together a website in 1998, that might have been encouraging. The fact that he’s bragging about it now tells me that the LAT (and its kin) are focusing on the wrong problem. I imagine that, despite its lameness, the LAT site gets a lot of traffic. If advertisers aren’t paying premium dollar to reach these readers, then you can’t blame anyone but the newspapers.

Maybe if they’d treated their websites as part of the business model rather than something weird and intrusive, we’d be seeing less violent staffing cuts — though as businesses change, so do staffing needs — and more dominance in the marketplace.

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