Click-Through Fatigue

Been busy, but I happened the other day to hear something interesting on MPR’s terrific little show “Future Tense“– a daily dose of reporting on the tech front that is a nice counterpoint to the tweed soliloquy of “the Writers Almanac” (is that even on anymore? Never could figure out how Keillor found the time to do that. He must book a studio for a week in the summer when he does all of his audio books.)

Anyway, John Gordon was following up on the Knight Ridder sale to McClatchy.

The question was whether Knight Ridder websites played any role in sweetening the deal. As everyone knows, the San Jose Mercury News was an early adaptor to the web, and has long dominated the field of second place (behind the NYTimes.com, which gets upward of twenty million unique visitors per month) in terms of respect among web-savvy readers of newspapers. Anyway, Gordon found that many Knight Ridder papers brought in somewhere between three and five percent of revenues–quoting from memory here. Well, first I’m surprised they’re that high, actually. We all know that the advertising industry is what is really holding back the migration of readers from print to the web. They are the trailing edge, stuck in the old paradigm of wanting to reach the greatest number of readers in the least number of ad buys, all in one swell foop (as my daughter says). Never mind “psychographics” and “targeted demographics,” never mind all the sophisticated “metrics” and “analytics” of the New Media. Dude, what’s your circulation? Well, one of these days, the bosses of all those safest-common-denominator ad buyers are going to knock on the door and say, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me about this Internet thing? Why didn’t you tell me that, instead of buying a single ad in the Sunday newspaper, I could buy hundreds of ads precisely where our growth opportunity is–among new readers coming to us on the web?”

The reason I say that advertisers are holding back the industry is that when they begin to understand that advertising on the web is an equal proposition to advertising in print, not just a “value-add” or a tack on to a print contract, that’s when they begin to underwrite a new medium. That’s when you’ll begin to see great journalism on the web that could never translate into the old paper medium, because it is unique to the web–where the readers already are. (This is not to say that targeted ad buys in print don’t work– they have their own role to play in the constellation of advertising strategies. The point is to do whatever you do because it’s your intention to spend your money in the most prudent way possible.)

Anyway, the point I really wanted to make before I got on that tangent, is this: John Gordon (I think) was talking to one of the internet VPs for Knight Ridder, who thought this would be a great opportunity for KR papers to reestablish some local indentity and flavor, and get away from what I always felt was a godawful template and an impossibly frustrating architecture, seemingly forced on local papers by upper management. I thought, “Right on!” And then I thought, Well what the hell stopped you from ceding more independence to the local paper in the first place? Who’s stupid idea was it to use this nationally-templated “portal” model that should have died ten years ago with Pathfinder?

I personally think the PiPress has been a solid newspaper–certainly just as respectable as its crosstown rival, and no more degraded by market pressures and trends, in an editorial sense. But being a guy who mostly reads newspapers online, I have to confess that I am steered to the PiPress website only about once a month, and if I tarry long enough to browse around the site, I am no more than two clicks away from intense irritation with how badly designed a Knight Ridder website could be.