These are interesting times for the publishing industry. Newspapers are shuddering after watching their classified ad revenue disappear, their subscribers die off, and their readers migrate to news content that is more current than the morning edition. Editors complain bitterly about the public's apparent preference for unverified crowdsourcing and (even worse) blogs over professional journalism.
Google's recent rollout of Fast Flip (http://fastflip.googlelabs.com) is being heralded by some as the final nail in traditional publishing's coffin, but I question that dire assessment. What many found revolutionary about Google News was that it aggregated hundreds or thousands of sources, identified the key stories, and enabled users to effortlessly keep abreast of late-breaking news. Sure, you only got the first sentence of a single source's coverage of the news, but-just like you navigate through search results-all it takes is a click to move from Google News directly to the source of the news. The assumption behind Google News is that readers probably want to know about the most widely covered stories from sources that are generally considered authoritative (PC World for tech news, Bloomberg.com for business, BBC and CNN for world news, etc.).
If news is a commodity, this approach works just fine. But readers (that's right, we're not just consumers, we read) may want more than just the top three or four articles on a topic, and we often want to see the news coverage in context. Fast Flip lets us see images of the first page from each article, making it easy for us to browse until we find the source and coverage we want. Readers are better able to evaluate which news items they want to read, and one would hope that newspaper and magazine companies will recognize this opportunity to stand out from the crowd with clear writing, well-designed formats, and in-depth coverage.
Fortunately, publishers are realizing that they are in the information business and that the way to generate revenue is to offer new tools and resources that differentiate their content from competitors. For almost a decade, The Washington Post has encouraged readers to engage with reporters through daily online discussions, debates, and interviews, altering the relationship between reporters and readers by encouraging thoughtful comment and dissent. And every minute that readers spend on the site is another opportunity to sell ad space. In fact, I know that I have been exposed to far more ads as I follow an online interview than I would have by just reading the Post, either online or in print.
The New York Times creates "topics" pages for in-depth coverage of ongoing news, such as healthcare reform, global warming, the Taliban, and the Tour de France. Each topic page includes far more than just articles from the Times. There are slide shows and videos; links to the key organizations, advocacy groups, and influential bloggers involved with the topic; relevant documents from the Congressional Research Service and other sources; interactive maps; and so on. Rather than just offer current news on the topic, the Times has created in-depth collections of information in a wide variety of formats that offer additional perspective. What better way to make a website sticky than to entice readers in with a wide range of content that focuses specifically on their interests?
And it's not just newspapers that understand how they can use new media. In July of this year, Elsevier's subsidiary Cell Press debuted a prototype "article of the future" (http://beta.cell.com). More than a simple text-based article, Cell envisions articles with hyperlinked sections, embedded video interviews with authors, figures that can be clicked on to drill deeper into subsections of articles, and clickable citations that enable readers to see research in context.
These are encouraging developments; publishers are learning that readers want to interact with information rather than simply consume content. And while newspapers have lost their classified ad revenues to craigslist, they have something equally compelling to offer advertisers: access to the eyeballs of readers who, by their presence on a page, have shown exactly what they are interested in.
The challenge for publishers is to figure out exactly what readers want and how to engage them enough to keep them on the site. Reader "interaction" with a traditional newspaper is limited to writing a letter to the editor or posting a comment on the paper's website. The publishers that survive will understand how to create as compelling a story online as they used to in print.