We mentioned earlier that LAT editor Jim O’Shea’s promise to beef up the latimes.com was made after receiving a harsh seven-page report from an internal committee that studied the paper’s Web site for three months. FBLA got our hands on the report, which states:
Without setting a numerical target, the committee notes that even doubling the number of editorial employees now at the site would leave latimes.com well below the staffing levels of peer news sites, both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the print workforce.
To aid in this transformation, all Times journalists should receive, as quickly as possible, a crash course in the basics of web journalism–including what works online and what doesn’t and the importance of the website to the paper’s survival.
Read the whole report here:
Dec. 1, 2006
James E. O’Shea, editor
The Los Angeles Times
Two months ago, your predecessor, Dean Baquet, appointed a committee of Times journalists to come up with proposals for increasing the readership and revenue of the newspaper and its website. When you arrived in Los Angeles, we were gratified to hear that you supported our work and wanted it to continue.
The original idea was to produce an overall report at the end of the year. But as we studied latimes.com, what we learned seemed important and urgent enough to warrant a separate, early set of findings and recommendations regarding the website.
This report draws on interviews with many people in the building and beyond. Members of the committee visited other newspapers’ web operations, reviewed public and proprietary research, and consulted leading thinkers in the new-media realm, including top executives at Yahoo, AOL and Technorati and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. We will share with you on request any or all of the research we relied on in drafting this report. Please let us know how we can help you in your efforts to strengthen the newspaper and the website.
Members of the Spring Street Project
T. Christian Miller
The web and the future of the Los Angeles Times: A report of the Spring Street Project December 2006
The current state of latimes.com
Latimes.com was established in April 1996. Its stated strategy is to be an indispensable “information retailer” for Southern California, providing news, listings, reviews, databases and the thousands of other tidbits people need to navigate their lives.
This vision is unfulfilled. The website’s own research demonstrates that latimes.com is virtually invisible in greater Los Angeles.
By some measures, the site is losing traction even faster than the newspaper. Latimes.com reports that traffic is growing and has reached 5.1 million unique visitors and 73 million total page views per month. But ComScore Media Metrix, an independent traffic monitor that uses an array of indicators, says overall traffic to the site dropped 9% in September, compared with the same month a year earlier.
Visits to nytimes.com were up 10%, at Yahoo News 15%, at AOL News 11%. Overall, traffic to news sites grew an average of 4%, according to ComScore.
Latimes.com has slipped from the list of 500 most-visited websites in the world to 766th and does not make the U.S. top 100, according to Alexa Internet. By contrast, nytimes.com is ranked 95th in the world (21st in the U.S.), and washingtonpost.com is 264th (54th in the U.S.).
Even in Southern California, the reach of latimes.com is dwarfed by that of sites such as MSNBC, Yahoo News and the New York Times. A 2005 study by outside consultants concluded that few in Southern California consider latimes.com a source of news or entertainment.
The study offered reasons why: The home page is visually unappealing and difficult to navigate. Search results are often off-target, and the site fundamentally fails to meet the needs of visitors. Consequently, time spent at latimes.com — a key measure of traffic quality — is dropping rapidly and is now among the lowest of all news sites. As measured by ComScore, the average length of a visit to the website — 11.9 minutes — is less than half what it is at Yahoo News or nytimes.com and one-third what it is at CNN.com or MSNBC.
How can this be? Why does one of the nation’s leading newspapers have such a feeble online presence?
Inadequate staffing is part of the explanation. The website has 18 editorial employees and essentially runs on shifts of three or four
employees. Two programmers who maintain the site and write computer code for new features are overwhelmed. No one is assigned to a critical area called “optimization” — the science of tweaking headlines and shaping the site’s offerings so they are more likely to be picked up by search engines and other news “aggregators.”
Creaky technology is a drag on the site’s performance. Although
increasing numbers of Americans get their news on Blackberrys and similar gadgets, information from latimes.com is not readable on these devices. Readers who receive our daily “Top of the Times” e-mail newsletter via Blackberry and click on a story link get an error message: “File Not Found.”
The site’s software does not recognize returning visitors by zip code (even though zip codes are collected from users during registration). As a result, the home page displays the weather for downtown Los Angeles no matter where the user lives. There are no live chats on latimes.com — not because Times journalists aren’t interested, but because the site’s antiquated platform can’t support them. (Chats are offered on our affiliated site The Envelope, which operates on a separate platform.)
When the newspaper cut back on TV listings, readers were directed to the website to find complete listings. Yet a visitor must enter her zip code and cable system on each visit to the site — an intolerable aggravation in a medium based on one-click convenience.
When the newspaper eliminated most daily stock listings on the theory that investors now track their stocks online, the website declined to purchase software (available on other major newspapers sites) that would allow users to track their stock portfolios every time they visited latimes.com.
Our approach to website content is, in some ways, as backward as our technology.
Successful sites attract and retain readers with news that is of-the-moment and constantly refreshed; with easy-to-use video and audio; with opportunities to interact with journalists and fellow readers; and with easily searchable stores of information. These are the qualities that inspire user loyalty, that make sites “sticky.”
Latimes.com is not “sticky.” The average user visits once a week and quickly moves on. The site offers few opportunities to linger to read blogs, explore databases, contribute comments on articles or engage in conversations with Times journalists or other members of the community.
Real-time news — indispensable to a successful news site — is largely unavailable at latimes.com, except for a handful of stories posted during the day and Associated Press items that flow automatically to the site.
On the Web, if you are not first in posting a story, you don’t exist. We are rarely first. One recent morning, a hay truck caught fire on the Hollywood Freeway and sent thick black smoke billowing into the sky. Trapped commuters who saw only the plume thought it might have been the work of terrorists. Nothing appeared on our website throughout the day. In fact, we told our readers nothing of the incident until the following morning.
Latimes.com has experimented with blogs, with disappointing results that reflect our lack of web-smarts. With the notable exception of the Lakers blog and Bob Sipchen’s School Me, few Times bloggers enliven their work with links and frequent updates that capitalize on the interactivity of the Web. Some allow weeks to pass between updates. Others fail to provide information that is unique and fresh at a time when the market for blogs is increasingly crowded and the bar for quality and originality is ever rising.
To put it bluntly: As a news organization, we are not web-savvy. If anything, we are web-stupid.
This partly reflects organizational failings and entrenched attitudes. Though they work in the same building, the website and newsroom are far apart. Many reporters and editors in the 3rd floor newsroom do not even know how to find the website’s offices (on the 5th floor) or how to contact their counterparts there. There is little awareness in the newsroom of the website’s plans, or of what attracts and retains audiences online.
In a few areas, such as entertainment, a functional working
relationship has developed between print and the web geared to developing new content. But overall, the newsroom-web relationship is not productive. The newsroom tends to view the website as a place to hang and dress up its print work; the web staff is frustrated by an inability to receive timely and web-appropriate content. Web initiatives have been stalled, delayed or killed in their cradle as the result of a newsroom environment perceived as averse to experimentation and innovation.
The website’s immediate future
A talented and dedicated staff at latimes.com is working hard to improve the site. A new product called mylatimes.com will soon enable users to customize the news they receive from the site via email. Enhanced use of video, in partnership with KTLA, is an important development at a time when Web users-and advertisers-can’t get enough video. “Your Scene,” a new feature allowing users to post their own photos, quickly became one of latimes.com’s most popular destinations.
But the site’s growth is hampered by a lack of trust between the management of latimes.com and its overseers at Tribune Interactive. That fight can be summarized as a philosophical difference over the benefits of local versus central control.
Even small technological fixes require approval from Tribune Interactive, followed by long waits for Web technicians in Chicago to “build” the technology requested by client papers.
After a long, acrimonious struggle, latimes.com recently won approval to hire a consultant in San Francisco to construct a highly interactive calendarlive site. But Tribune Interactive still wants all Tribune newspapers to eventually use an entertainment hub developed in Chicago called Metromix.
Rolling out the new calendarlive and a revamped Travel section are the website’s top priorities. Calendarlive will provide highly local and customized listings and reviews of entertainment and dining options. It will allow people to post their own reviews and comments. This platform can also be adapted for local news pages within latimes.com that would be highly interactive and customizable.
The Travel site will be integrated with the weekly print Travel
section and will focus on the destinations most frequently visited by
Southern Californians. It will be the site’s first broad experiment with e-commerce, allowing people to book the trips they research at latimes.com.
At the same time, the primary, Tribune-wide platform on which
latimes.com operates will be updated in 2007. The so-called Gen3 platform is being developed by Tribune Interactive in Chicago. The platform is touted as offering many of the interactive features lacking on latimes.com, but the leadership of our website does not think it will deliver on those promises. They fear it will put local properties in a straitjacket and leave them unable to innovate.
The long-term success of latimes.com depends on reconciling this conflict between local and central control, and clearly defining how much space individual newspapers will have to develop their own web products and shape their sites to serve the unique needs of their markets and readers.
What’s happening elsewhere
While the web is turning international and national news into a commodity, making it hard for newspapers with quality foreign and national reports to distinguish themselves, the best minds in new media are pursuing “hyper-local” strategies that turn news websites into news and information portals that aim to be indispensable to the communities they serve.
No sure-fire model has yet emerged, but other news organizations are experimenting energetically, trying to find the right formula.
SignOnSanDiego.com offers text-message alerts for breaking news. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s transportation website features live traffic cameras, maps of trouble spots and construction and lists of recent incidents.
A recurring theme of web innovation is to connect with readers, and connect readers with one another, in ways unachievable in print.
Reporters at Bluffton Today (South Carolina) have thrown open their newspaper and website to readers and created an online community that participates in newsgathering. Executive Editor Kyle Poplin says that the aim of the paper, launched by the Morris Chain in April 2005, is to create “a community in conversation with itself.” More than 6,500 readers have registered to create blogs, and 1,000 post at least once a month. The tabloid-sized print edition, delivered for free, features news written by journalists, but liberally incorporates material from the blogs in sidebars. Reporters mine the blogs for story ideas.
In Denver, the Denver Newspaper Agency has found Web success with YourHub.com, with localized content submitted entirely by users. The site features dozens of Web zones based on zip codes and neighborhoods. Users contribute more than 6,000 entries a week. Two editors select the best and package it in a 24- or 32-page tabloid section, inserted in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News every Wednesday. YourHub turned a profit within six months, generating $6 million to $7 million in annual revenue.
The Bakersfield Californian operates 10 local websites, two biweekly community newspapers created on the reader-participation model, a Latino paper printed in English and a website for music and events. The main site, Bakersfield.com, focuses on covering breaking and local news. Two-third of the company’s journalists are now producing print, audio and video reports. The operation was built by a group separate from the newsroom, under the publisher’s oversight.
Among major newspapers, none has embraced the Web as vigorously as the Washington Post. Its site is the third most-visited news site. At the Los Angeles Times and across the industry, online operations contribute 5% to 6% of newspaper revenue. At the Washington Post Co., the website’s share of revenue is 15% and is expected to reach 50% within a few years.
The online operation is a separate unit, with 200 employees and its own editorial structure. The innovative is prized over the traditional, and speed is a central mission. Reporters are being trained to shoot video, and the paper is experimenting with hyper-local coverage.
The Post relishes its role as the home of national politics. Unique databases attract visitors: One allows readers to sort every congressional vote by member, party and even Zodiac sign. Another allows political junkies to play March Madness-style office pools on elections.
The Post places great emphasis on posting and packaging stories as quickly as possible. At the center of the website’s office is “the news hub,” a horseshoe-shaped desk manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The team focuses on presenting breaking news quickly, with as many web extras as possible: video, audio, reporter commentary by phone–whatever they can get to make a story “sticky.”
The Post allows readers to contribute comments on each story. Two full-time editors, software and other readers weed out offensive posts. Each story features a list of blogs that mention the story. This drives traffic to the bloggers, who reciprocate by embedding links to Post stories in their blogs, thus driving traffic back to the Post. About one-third of the Post’s traffic comes from blogs.
The New York Times offers a sharp contrast, having gone in the
opposite direction, merging its newsroom and web. The Times’ is the
most-visited newspaper website in the world, with 13 million unique visitors and 476 million page views in October.
There is a web representative at every news desk. The effect is to combine the technological savvy of the web producer–often a young journalist or computer specialist–with the news sense and experience of a New York Times journalist. A continuous news desk of 14 people constantly updates and refreshes the site. The Continuous News Desk posts 30 to 40 stories on an average day, 50 to 60 on a busy one. All told, the website has about 50 editorial employees.
The website has enjoyed 30% growth in revenue every year since 2002. Unlike most websites, which depend on classified ads on affiliated but separate sites for much of their revenue, the NYT website gets about 60% of its money from display ads. Though precise figures are not available, the website generates 7 to 8 percent of the paper’s total revenue.
Latimes.com generates $60 million a year, about 5 percent of the newspaper’s total revenue. Nearly 80% of our web revenue ($47 million) is from related but separate classified sites such as CareerBuilder. Display advertising on latimes.com brings in just $13 million.
The Los Angeles Times has long stood for excellence. We would not tolerate mediocrity in the newspaper and should not tolerate it on our website. If institutional pride is not a sufficient motive to act, there is another: survival. The financial underpinnings of print journalism are fast eroding.
By some informed estimates, major dailies such as The Times have at most two to three years to reinvent themselves as multimedia news and information providers.
Based on our reporting and research, we offer the following
1) The editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Times must publicly and visibly assert control over the website and explicitly take responsibility for its growth and success. They must demonstrate that the site’s quality and reputation are as important to them as the newspaper’s.
2) The editor of the Times must kick-start the long-awaited integration of newsroom and website. In so doing, he must communicate to the newsroom in no uncertain terms that integration is an urgent priority in which everyone is expected to participate and which everyone is expected to support.
3) The website urgently needs to expand its capabilities in editorial, technical, video-production and other areas. The Times must move quickly to address this problem, both through hiring and through retraining of existing newsroom personnel. Beginning as soon as possible, the editor of the Times should designate newsroom staff members who will begin working for the website or will be trained to serve both the paper and website. These should be high-performing journalists with an aptitude for and interest in Internet journalism. We emphasize that this increase in website capability must be significant and must occur quickly. Without setting a numerical target, the committee notes that even doubling the number of editorial employees now at the site would leave latimes.com well below the staffing levels of peer news sites, both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the print workforce.
4) To aid in this transformation, all Times journalists should receive, as quickly as possible, a crash course in the basics of web journalism — including what works online and what doesn’t and the importance of the website to the paper’s survival.
5) The Times should develop immediately at least one pilot hyper-local news site within latimes.com. Depending on the results, additional sites should be created as quickly as possible.
6) To ensure the continued vitality and relevance of both the paper and the website, the editor of the Times should appoint a special assistant for innovation. This person will lead an in-house idea lab to develop new products for the website and newspaper, promote experimentation online and in print, anticipate new technologies and consumer trends, and guide The Times’ adaptation to them.
Our website’s strategy to serve as an “information retailer” for Southern California is a good one. The failing has been in the execution, not in the idea.
Consulting leading newspaper and Internet thinkers, the committee heard again and again that the Los Angeles Times’ most compelling opportunity on the web is in local news and information. No competitor yet dominates that niche, and none could bring the advantages we possess — a recognized and respected brand, deep institutional reserves of knowledge and talent, the largest reporting staff in California.
We can become an essential online resource for Southern Californians, providing news, commentary, video, audio and more: the ability to search for information, plan their lives, and interact with each other and with us. This is within our grasp — if we act.