Investing in the future Thursday January 7, 2010, 3 comments

Yesterday I read a post by Greg Storey of Airbag fame called Bipolar. It was a response to a feature by the Society of Publication Designers celebrating an Art Director in the St. Louis area named Tom Carlson.

Carlson is, as both the society and Greg state, doing ‘a lot of smart, cool work.’ Apparently he is able to do this because:

“As free papers, these weeklies are removed from the restrictions of newsstand sales and subscription renewals. With improved printing and reproduction capabilities (although their art directors would probably disagree about the quality), these papers have been able to get much more sophisticated in their cover designs, now oftentimes rivaling and surpassing other, slicker publications in their regions.”

It was this attention to design that prompted Greg’s response.

“At a place that obviously celebrates really great design their website must glow like a thousand angels! And with Tom at the helm maybe a newspaper has finally awoken from their Adobe GoLive ’99 slumber.’”

Then, not a paragraph later, Greg admonishes:

“Oh look, as it turns out the Riverfront Times is just another newspaper that is living in the past and waiting for that Internet thing to go away and to stop bothering them. Pity.”

While Greg has done a good job of pointing out how traditional media – specifically the newsprint industry – has a long way to go when it comes to digital media, he has, in my opinion drawn the wrong conclusion.

I think we both agree that the newspaper industry has not embraced the digital shift as quickly as it could have and most certainly there is a long way to go, but to infer that the poorly designed website of a design-sensitive newspaper is an indication that the industry is ‘living in the past’ is perhaps wrong.

I work for one of the largest media companies in Canada. My development team is responsible for, among other things, the web efforts of six urban daily newspapers in Canada. While I agree with Greg that we’re barely scratching the surface on the potential of the web, I know that the digital side of our company is responsible for less than a tenth of the revenue of the print side, if even that. I suspect the figure is more likely one twentieth.

That figure is in flux, leaning more and more toward the digital side every day. Given adequate business models, digital revenue not just in our media company, but all of them across Canada, will eventually (perhaps even soon) exceed print revenue, but we’re not there yet.

Like most players in the newspaper industry, we are investing in the digital side, investing in the future. And we’re probably investing more than the ten percent the current revenue model would indicate. The fact is that right now the lion’s share of our revenue comes from our traditional paper business. Money must be invested there as well.

Companies like the Riverfront Times are probably engaging in similar behaviour. They’re probably investing in infrastructure right now, something that is invisible to the public, but is both expensive and essential. In the meantime, the larger revenue generating part of the business – more mature but becoming less relevant – has a solid infrastructure in place which allows for a great deal of design flexibility, permitting the Riverfront Times to spend a relatively larger amount of money on design and presentation in their traditional publications than they do in digital products. I suspect we’ll see Carlson’s excellent aesthetic sense transition over to the digital side as the company’s digital infrastructure matures.

It’s not simply that the industry is wearing blinders, though that is certainly arguable. It is largely a function of revenue. People like Greg or myself, who have been involved in digital media for a long time are accustomed to change and experienced with entirely different revenue models than those of the newspaper industry. These businesses are finally overcoming decades – and sometimes centuries – of doing business one way and learning to embrace the fast pace of change that we take for granted. Accusing them of ‘living in the past’ because of the current state of their website is both unfair and unfounded.


Greg Paulhus Thursday January 7, 2010

>> It is largely a function of revenue.

I disagree. Good design doesn’t cost much more than poor design. A good CMS doesn’t cost much more than a crappy CMS. Good ideas are about the same cost as bad ideas. You get the point. Money isn’t the issue. The problem is that newspapers and magazines aren’t translating their model to the web properly. It’s 2010 and still the best idea for ads is a top of page banner? Google ads in a side column? It’s poor placement, bad structure, it restricts the design possibilities, and it doesn’t provide enough ad space to generate the necessary revenue.

The other big problem is that a web publication doesn’t need a whole lot of people that a newspaper currently needs. No one is going to put a lot of effort into a project that means the end of their own job. So in that sense it is about money.

Adrian Thursday January 7, 2010

I think you are underestimating the costs associated with operating large websites.

An off-the-shelf CMS will not meet the needs of most newspaper business, requiring expensive development of add-ons or plugins.

Good design DOES cost more than poor design. Design isn’t simply prettiness. It’s usability, it’s figuring out what the audience wants. It’s inexpensive for us to create blogs and small websites that tickle our design fancies, but large-scale websites with sometimes hundreds of stake-holders are much more expensive to implement. Not that I am saying I like that they are. I am simply recognizing the reality of the situation.

Coupled with the costs of building infrastructure to handle these changes, it’s unsurprising that the newspaper industry isn’t there yet.

They will be though. Not all of them, but many will get there.

You've got a nice site, btw!

Greg Paulhus Thursday January 7, 2010

>> I think you are underestimating the costs associated with operating large websites.

Thanks for the kind words about my own site. It’s terribly out of date, I hate it. I know what it costs to build large, complex sites, I’ve been involved in building a few, dating back to 1995, and before the term ‘content management system’ existed. We called it a Site Control System, but it was the same database-powered concept.

I actually launched a community news site (with about 20 newspapers involved) in 1998, it was far too early, no audience, I let it die, but it did get some press, CBC and such, a smattering of national coverage.

I also spent a number of years in the newspaper industry as a production manager and designer. I know this issue pretty well, having years of experience on both sides. Websites don’t need to cost as much as you think, even a custom CMS (which is the only thing I’ll use).

What I envision for a proper newspaper website would cost less than 50K (including the entire back end CMS and ad system). And also including proper IA and design/usability.

I suspect the real problem is all those stakeholders. I work with a lot of non-profits, and it’s tough to get good work done because nobody is in charge of the total package.

I don’t think existing newspapers will get there, I suspect someone will come and start something fresh, web-only, and blow them all away. Why do you need a print component anymore? Why waste all those resources?

Commenting has ended for this post, but I'd still love to hear from you.

The website of Adrian Lebar

A Rain of Frogs is written, designed and built by Adrian Lebar, a twenty(!) year veteran of web design and development. He is currently managing web and mobile development teams at Canada’s largest and most beloved classifieds site, Kijiji!

He is a father, sailor, snowboarder, skier, cyclist, writer, artist, graphic designer, classically trained musician and afraid of heights.

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A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.”
- John Gall


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