Bigger papers. Better websites?

A while back I ran across an article that ranked the web sites of the top 25 US newspapers according to their print circulation. While there is loads of stuff about online rankings of news sites, this caught my attention because it claims to examine a fundamental divide. What works (or worked) in print, does not always work online. Most ranking stories and sites look at online sites based purely on their internet performance. Most print rankings deal exclusively with revenue or profit or paid circulation. This business/investment site looked at how the biggest newspapers (in terms of print circulation) were doing online as a way to advise investors about the future of newspapers.

What did they find?
• “… how uneven the quality is from property to property.” In other words, bigger papers don’t always have better web sites.
• “
Some of the smaller papers which probably have
modest resources have done an extremely good job of engaging readers,
using the best tools of the internet, and putting up content which adds
to the experience of the subscriber to the physical newspaper.”
• “
Other sites seem to be designed to keep readers away.”
The final judgment of a newspaper’s online edition
is whether, using the advantages of the internet, is it better than the
paper itself. As one industry expert told 24/7, “The strength of a
newspaper web site is its ability to present almost endless
information, far more than it could ever afford to print. The best
newspapers take advantage of this by explaining in their print editions
where additional information on a particular subject can be found —
the full text of a speech or a court document, for instance.”

A couple of caveats. The web site doing these rankings looks lousy. It is a glorified blog. I give credence to their evaluations because I know some of the web sites listed and agree with how they see them. Besides, as I often say, Google should have taught us that looks on their own mean nothing in the web world. Also, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are not included in these evaluations. Read their article for why.

What do I want to do? Periodically take a look at the listed newspapers and dig a little deeper than the folks at Wall St. 24/7. We will begin with those receiving the lowest grades.

The Sacramento Bee received a D- from the folks at WS24/7. They dinged it heavily for having little news on the homepage, poor use of interactives and multimedia, and very little organization of local news. I don’t know when sacbee .com had its last re-design, but  some of the criticism does appear justified. But not all.

A tabbed window dominates their home page. It has tabs for Top Stories, Local, Breaking News, Sports and Politics. some of those tabs contain very little. At noon on a  Monday there are only three entries. First was an updated weather story from the previous day, second was three sentences on an over-night accident, third was the results from a weekend NASCAR race. Top stories had nine entries, with a mix of Bee and wire material. A customize feature allows adding or subtracting tabs, but the RSS feed for the page appears to be just a single, generalized feed. Users can also register, which allows them to select email newsletters of Sacbee content they wish to receive. The latter seems to be their mobile strategy.

Tabs at the top of the page allow readers to drill down to more focused content. For instance, rolling over the sports tabs drops down a menu for direct access to sections on each team (professional and semi-pro, plus preps) covered by the paper, as well as blogs and columnists. However, there is very little content at many of these sites and none are stand-alone or even intuitive. The San Francisco Giants site has a game preview and game recap for the previous day. that’s it. No rosters, no ongoing schedule, no fan blogs. And to get there you go to sacbee.com/879. Who wouldn’t remember that? The preps section has a bit more, but precious little that would bring me back to any of this. The multimedia section is an undifferentiated collection of videos done in partnership with ABC News10.

Is it the worst newspaper site I have ever seen? Probably not. However, it is pretty unspectacular. And that isn’t good given the decline of printed newspapers in Sacramento and elsewhere appears to be accelerating.

Next week we’ll look at the D’s.


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