Keeping online newspapers relevant

Editor and Publisher reports on Washington Post editor Len Downie speaking at the Online News Association’s convention:

Downie worried that as people’s attention spans become shorter due to the Web and more readers access news from mobile plaforms on the go, the “contemplative” features of journalism would suffer; he wondered whether online ads would eventually make up the difference from lost print revenue, and whether the results would pay for the kind of professional journalism that people expect; he asked whether edited and verifiable content — and branded content in general — would continue to be important.

Newspaper sites like and get a fraction of the traffic that portals like Yahoo! News, AOL News and MSNBC get.

There are a number of things newspapers can do to help ensure they don’t become irrelevant:

  • Engage readers in the conversation. For too long, newspaper writers and editors have spoken at readers from atop the mountain. Letting users speak increases their ownership in the paper. Look at blogs as a model. Many readers know more about a topic than the reporters or the sources quoted. Let them speak, and you’ll improve the overall quality of the product. is a leader in this area. allows users to comment on stories; they need to take the next the step and display the comments right on the story page. Sure, you’ll get the crackpot comments, but you can use the community to help police that.
  • Sell your personalities. One of my favorite features of is the chats with columnists and reporters. It keeps me coming back on a regular basis. Make sure that your columnists are available as feeds.
  • Set your content free. Let other sites remix and incorporate your content. (With attributions and links back, of course.) I would love to see Tom Sietsema’s restaurant reviews available through Yelp, a local search platform that’s much better than anything created by a newspaper company. I want to be able to plot news photos and entertainment listings on Google Maps.
  • Go hyperlocal. Local is the strongest differentiator most newspapers have. In major metro markets, this differentiator gets watered down in the print product. I really couldn’t care less what is happening in Leesburg or Springfield. offers this great page about Arlington County. But it’s buried on the site. If I register and provide my ZIP Code, put this content front and center. Let users contribute their own content about things your reporters don’t have time to cover. If someone wants to write about the Clarendon Day parade, let them. Just make it clear that it’s user-created content.
  • Connect readers to relevant information on the Web. This makes you a more credible source.
  • Don’t rely on classifieds. It’s a dying business. Whenever someone talks to me about buying a car, getting a roommate, selling furniture, I ask how they did it. Almost always, the answer is craigslist. One of the key reasons the classifieds business is as strong as it is today is: car dealers and real estate agents benefit from not having transparency in information. As more and more people use the Internet for these tasks and demand better tools, they will have to provide this transparency.

Disclosure: I used to work at


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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