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by John Juliano

I was in New York a few days before Superstorm Sandy struck. On the one hand I was lucky to have left before the airports closed, on the other hand I wish I’d been there. I grew up on Long Island, went to university there and lived in New York City in Manhattan and Brooklyn in my 20s. In our industry in the US, business takes you to New York more often than any place else in the country.

Watching Sandy’s destruction from the other side of the country, and speaking to family, friends and business colleagues in the path of the storm had me thinking more and more about a favorite topic: what is the newspaper’s role in the community and what are the best tools to support that role.

There are two sides to the story, the first is how to serve the community, and the second is how to do what is right for the paper. In preparing my column I spoke with Rachel Shapiro the executive editor at Times-Beacon-Record newspapers on the North Shore of Long Island, Ken Ducey at HamletHub, a group of 16 web-only community sites in Connecticut and Long Island, and for contrast I spoke with Terry Schwadron of the New York Times. I also looked at what Newsday, which did not respond in time for this column, had done with Instagram.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Newsday dropped their paywalls. The NYT dropped it for five days, WSJ and Newsday for two. TBR and HamletHub do not have paywalls. TBR is a group of weeklies with a total combined circulation of about 44,000. TBR put a request on their Facebook page for pictures of the storm. Users sent pictures via email from both their handheld devices and digital cameras. However, most of the pictures and content used on the website and in the print publications was generated by staff who went into the communities.

Because of the Long Island power outages that darkened the TBR offices, TBR moved production to the home of their advertising director, which did have power. They picked up desktop machines and servers and produced both their website and print product at the director’s home.

They were one day late getting the print product out, only to find that the company that delivers the single copy sales to newsstands was not delivering and no one at TBR had the route info. TBR staff delivered the papers to outlets in their personal vehicles. Shapiro decided to make this edition free, and to hand-deliver copies to motorists waiting on line for fuel. The storm-effected edition was TBR’s election issue, which included coverage of local elections and endorsements of more than two dozen candidates. It was important to the community that the issue got out.

They also decided to go with a shorter press run, but saw a large jump in their web hits. TBR continuously updated their website (NorthShoreOfLongIsland.com) with community information gathered directly by the newspaper, or received local governments, the Red Cross, and others.

Newsday (Newsday.com), the large Long Island daily, provided extensive coverage of the storm asking users to use Instagram to send pictures. The paper set up a webpage where users registered their Instagram ID so Newsday could gather content directly from there. Newsday made extensive use of content gathered this way and promoted that they were doing so.

HamletHub’s Richfield, CT title provided continual updates on its website covering such important things as what roads were passable and where staples such as gasoline and groceries could be found. According to Ken Ducey, web traffic at the Richfield site quadrupled.

Terry Schwadron of the NYT was careful to point out that most of the New York Times reporting was done “the old-fashioned way,” reporters were dispatched on assignment to gather news. The New York Times made use of content submitted through its own website, Instagram and other public sources as well as Getty images and other traditional sources.

The Times never lost power, but more than 1000 employees worked remotely.

These pubs highlighted their traditional newsgathering capability. Shapiro of TBR said that they used very few of the user-generated submissions because of their poor quality. Schwadron said that he was in general suspicious of user-submitted content because of its susceptibility to fraud. Fraudulent twitter postings became the subject of numerous news stories and “cooked” photographs of sharks swimming in flooded neighborhoods were unraveled with delight by tech sites.

So what is the responsibility of news organisations in disasters? From the behavior of these publications, it is to fulfill their traditional role within their community – whatever size: to be the source for information about the goings-on in the community.

While dropping the paywall at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and giving away free copies by TBR was altruistic and supported their mission to inform their communities, it also increased awareness of the brand either directly through readers obtaining a free copy or free access to the website, or collaterally in the case of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal by being written about and debated.

Chief Innovation Officer an Digital First Media, Arturo Duran – Corporately and personally a very strong opponent of paywalls – retweeted “duranaca @jeffjarvis: RT @shirleybrady: .@NYTimes, @WSJ - #Sandy is knocking down paywalls left and right.” Seeming to support their position that paywalls would stay down rather than being an opportunity for brand promotion.

And what of mobile devices?

Users affected by Sandy made en masse one-day transition from reading the newspaper on a desktop device to reading it on a mobile device. The outlets that I spoke with who track such things saw an increase in the number of mobile devices used to access their website – understandable given the widespread power outages. Mobile’s complete integration into our lives was highlighted when priority coverage was given by TBR, as an example, to places where someone could go to recharge their phones and tablets.

Surprisingly not one of the titles mentioned has a responsive website. While Newsday, the New York Times, TBR and the Wall Street Journal each have a mobile website, the experience is not nearly as good as, nor does it carry over the look and feel of the full website. Either the look and feel changed greatly when an outlet redirected their users to a mobile site, or the experience was one of pan and zoom for the sites with a fixed size and layout.

Newsday, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal each also have a mobile app. While a good mobile app presents a good user experience I wonder, why not move to a responsive website that has the same look and feel in all form factors? Such a move reduces the production costs of multiple designs. By using a webkit browser within the mobile app, the newspaper retains all of strengths of mobile app and gains the costs reductions of a responsive website. Visit the Boston Globe at BostonGlobe.com,to see a well done responsive website.

What should we take away from all of this? Fulfilling the community mission is something all of these newspapers, and I expect newspapers everywhere, take quite seriously.

The outlets I spoke to for this column all dovetailed marketing opportunities with their mission. None seemed to engage their users in the type of two-way conversation that many newspapers talk about.

Submission methods varied from email to website to Instagram, but none seemed to have a very transparent way of gathering content from either side of the transmission. Newsday’s method of asking users to register their Instagram account is perhaps the easiest for the user. It allows the Newsday access to all of the Instagram postings from users who registered. But, the content was in no way proprietary to Newsday. Need it be?

It seems clear that spending on website design and reader apps follow the same depreciation cycle as more tangible items, and updates to those technologies happen on a multiyear cycle.

And finally, importantly, newspapers during Superstorm Sandy were an integral part of the community’s life and recovery.

Following the New Zealand earthquakes, Kaila Colbin from Christchurch, NZ, wrote in the American trade pub Editor & Publisher about the value of user generated content in covering large news stories.

Colbin wrote that UGC allows readers to find their loved ones, to learn where there is water and what supermarkets are open and that it must continue after the event has left the lede in the major news organisations. In my conversations with the outlets covering Sandy, UGC took a smaller role than I expected, but at least one of the organisations is about to begin a pilot of a mobile audience engagement UGC app, so the thinking may be changing.

Newspaper systems industry veteran John Juliano writes regularly for GXpress Magazine. You can contact him at john@jjcs.com

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