Friday, May 11, 2007

If They Write It, Will They Come?

Sometimes you're the window; Sometimes you're the bug."
Mark Knopfler

If They Write It, Will They Come?
BY Louis Hau pers-readers-content-lead-manage- cx_lh_0507newspapers.html

As a former features editor at the Boston Globe, Lincoln Millstein has a good sense of what's required to generate engaging lifestyle feature stories at a daily newspaper.

So you might be surprised to hear what Millstein suggested Monday to attendees at the Newspaper Association of America's annual convention in New York: turn over all lifestyle and service-oriented features stories to readers and have them write the stories.

That someone would even dare suggest such a thing is a sign of the dire straits that the newspaper industry finds itself in as it struggles to hold on to readers and advertisers who continue to migrate to the Internet. Figures released last week by the Audit Bureau of Circulations highlighted these woes, showing a 2.1% decline in average daily circulation for 745 newspapers that provided data for a six-month period that ended in March.

To make themselves more appealing to Web-savvy readers, many newspapers are incorporating user- generated content into their Web sites. But Millstein, who is now senior vice president of digital media for Hearst, doesn't believe the industry has gone nearly far enough.

During an NAA panel discussion focused on the use of so-called "citizen journalism" and online resources, Millstein noted that he signed up for an AOL account back in December 1992.

"It's been 15 years folks,'' he said. "What's astounding to me is that daily newspapers today in most metro markets today are still pretty similar to what [they were] in 1992."

As newspapers struggle with dwindling circulation and shrinking newsrooms, "whatever you have left is a pot of gold," he said, referring to their remaining staff reporters.

"We need to dole out that gold with great discrimination and not waste it and push our journalists to do highly differentiated journalism," he said, citing as praiseworthy examples the Globe's coverage of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Washington Post's coverage of deficient health-care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Millstein said there was no point in providing readers with wire copy and other stories they can get through leading Internet portal sites, noting that the portals "have a larger audience than all of us collectively, they can move more copy than all of us collectively and they have a bigger audience than all of us collectively."

So what should newspapers do? Hand over their features sections to readers, Millstein said.

"You don't need professional journalists to put out a travel section,'' he said. "You don't need professional journalists to put out a food section, in my opinion. I had a hundred journalists reporting to me. I don't believe that model works, I don't believe it needs to work. I believe the user is actually better served by having user-generated, high-quality content in all those 'back of the book' sections."

But all of this is easier said than done. Millstein acknowledged that Gannett has done more than any other newspaper company to incorporate user- generated content in its Web sites.

When asked how Hearst newspapers have reacted to his proposal, Millstein conceded that "they haven't heard that from me yet.''

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