Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Going with the (copy) flow

Every investment banker and media investor I've ever met reads PaidContent. But very few of the B2B reporters I talk to are familiar with the site.
That perplexes me.
First, PaidContent covers our industry. And I think that folks in B2B should be reading it for the same reason I think they should be reading Folio magazine -- it pays to know what's going on.
But perhaps more importantly, PaidContent is the best of the Web-centric news operations in the media space. And watching how Rafat Ali and his team structure their operation can be instructive for anyone looking to move to a Web-first model.

PaidContent is a blog. It's also a full-service news operation with a few offices, some talented reporters, global reach and a number of related sites on such subjects as mobile content. But it is, at its core, a blog.
Each story has a comment function and a slew of social bookmarking and other Web 2.0 features. The entire site is published with the ExpressionEngine content-management system. Each story is brief -- more of a blog post than a traditional article.
But the most blog-like feature of PaidContent is that it's published in reverse-chronological order -- the newest stuff is at the top of the page.

Last month, Scott Karp at Publishing2.0 wrote an interesting piece on the differences between how traditional and Web-centric publishers present news on their home pages. Traditional publishers such as the New York Times, Scott said, arrange the news "by what is most important." Whereas Web-centric publishers arrange news by what is most recent or, in the case of sites such as Digg, by providing an option to read by timestamp or reader ranking.
Scott notes, correctly, that the traditional method of "organizing news by importance as the default makes sense when you’re only delivering the news once a day (and the “default” is all you get). But when news publishing is continuous, it’s not the best way to serve frequent news consumers."
Publishing a home page in the traditional fashion, in other words, creates a situation where it appears to frequent visitors that nothing has changed. And in a world full of 24/7 news providers, Web-only publishers and industry bloggers, that's not a good idea.

Twice in recent weeks I've had conversations with B2B editors who were upset because they thought their Web sites updated too frequently. They were angry that new content pushed their old content out of the top spot on the home page. They preferred a system where their stories sat in the lead position for days on end.
But that is madness.
Although it's perfectly appropriate to give some special treatment to some special stories, a Web site should serve users, not writers. In particular, a home page should serve those readers who turn to it most often -- the frequent visitors.
Or, to put it another way, a home page should more closely reflect the most efficient of the online distribution systems: an RSS feed.

So what does it look like when a traditional, print-based publisher adopts a Web-centric approach to the home page? Take a look at ReadyMade. Or, even better, check out the beta of the new Popular Science home page. That site has a top slot for a story that editors choose, but it also gives users the option to choose a home page of most recent, most viewed, most popular or most commented on stories.
Take a look at those sites, and then ask yourself six questions:
1. Just how many times a day (or week) do I think a reader will come to my site and hit the refresh button before he gives up?
2. How much time do I think a reader will spend drilling around my site looking for something, anything, new?
3. What message do I send to a print subscriber who comes to my home page and finds the exact same stories that he just read in print?
4. Is the industry I cover so unchanging and uninteresting that the most important story I can tell my readers on Wednesday is the same one I told them on Monday?
5. What would my home page look like if readers, instead of editors, had their way?
6. Since my home page isn't how readers find my content, why am I worried about my home page?

(Note: PaidContent's Rafat Ali recently posted a video of a speech he gave to a group of journalism and business students. It's an instructive look at how a young, Web-centric journalist was able to see past tradition and find a new way of publishing. It runs for about an hour. But it's worth your time.)

tags: , , , , , , , web-first publishing

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