The post-Internet newspaper

The post-Internet newspaper
: I was wondering the other day how I’d design a newspaper — functionally, not aesthetically — if I were creating one today, in the post-Internet era.

And yes, before you ask your snide question… Of course, there’s a need for newspapers. That need is changing, though. Some are responding to that change by coming out with newspapers aimed at young people. But I say you never succeed just targeting a demographic because you inevitably end up pandering to that demographic. You succeed instead with a vision for a product and then you find your audience if you deserve it. (The vision I had for Entertainment Weekly is unchanged but the demographic is not at all what my business colleagues thought it would be — it’s much younger.)

So what’s a vision for a post-Internet paper?

Here’s Al Neuharth today talking about how he designed a newspaper, USA Today, in the post-television era. [via IWantMedia]

There is no mistaking, Neuharth said, the public’s thirst for knowledge. The question is what source is going to provide that. With new media forms like the Internet moving in, those in print journalism definitely have their work cut out for them.

He recalled when TV cut into the news pie, and “the television generation was not reading newspapers,” Neuharth said. “Now I think the Internet generation is not reading newspapers.”

One of the reasons he founded the USA Today was out of the observation “that the television generation will not fight its way through dull, gray newspapers.”

“What we did, we got a lot of credit for doing a lot of new things,” he said. “Very little was new in USA Today. We stole most of it from the tube or magazines, and made it colorful and graphic and aimed it at the television generation. It caught on.” Now the biggest USA Today readers are in their 30s and 40s, a group coveted by advertisers.

So what has changed with the Internet? What can print steal from the Internet? Well…

: We can get breaking news faster than ever before thanks to online (see the post below). Thus, you have to assume that there are no more surprises (unless you break them yourselves) and you have to stop believing that you are still announcing the news. Maybe your Page One should become a better summary of the news. If you’re the Times, the Post, or the Guardian, maybe it should lead with commentary on that news.

: We can look up background and source material on any story we want via Google. That means that perhaps papers shouldn’t waste so much paper on the standard background graphs, or at least separate them into a box I can ignore if I know the story already. Take that out; get to the point; tell me what’s new… and stories get a lot shorter (and more informative).

: We can get our news from great sources all over the world online.So perhaps a paper should also look at and summarize those sources — like a weblog (or The Week).

: We get commodity news from all those sources online plus, of course, TV and radio. So a newspaper has to focus on its unique value, which, in most cases, is that it’s local. In the longrun, online will be good at giving you the news in your backyard (we’re trying) but that will, by its nature, be a bit disjointed. A local paper’s packaging of local news — its news judgment — will still be uniquely valuable.

: We, the audience, get a voice online. That audience needs a voice in print. A paper should find and print new, surprising, compelling, controversial voices of the people. Sure, we try that with letters and op-ed pieces, but that is too limiting and that was before the web and particularly weblogs gave the audience a voice. Now we have to listen. We have to highlight that voice. We have to make the audience a star.

: We get opinion online (and on FoxNews) and its’ successful. Moral to the story: News has to be more compelling, to admit its perspective, to embrace debate.

: We search online. So we browse in print. Isn’t that ironic? The Internet was going to be the browsing medium but if you’ve sat in any focus group about online in the last two years, you’ve heard loud and clear that surfing is dead; people search for what they want to get, get it, and move on. So a newspaper’s strength is that it can surprise us — not, perhaps, with breaking news but with great recipes or other useful information or, of course, fresh reporting.

: We seek out the advertising we want and need online. Browsing in print means browsing through ads, of course. Print remains a great way to look at ads; magazines are bought more often then we know for their ads; newspapers, too. (When I was Sunday editor of the NY Daily News, we lost our coupons through a strike and a press-baron feud; when we got them back, our circulation went up about 100k that Sunday. People buy newspapers for ads, too.) There’s nothing wrong with starting sections that attract useful ads.

: We demand a clear user interface online. We should look at the user interface of print. Content is often not well-labeled or well-organized and it takes too long to dig to find what you want. Caroline Miller, the editor of New York magazine, said a few weeks ago that when she redesigned recently she realized that her table of contents is her home page. That’s the right way to look at print now.

: We expect utility online. So we expect it in print. At the Sunday Daily News, I started a section with only one mission: Everything in it had to be useful. No political thumbsuckers. No crack-baby tearjerkers. Useful. Media in general have become too useless. Online should teach us that the audience expects value and utility.

: We don’t waste time online. So the worst thing to do is waste my time in print. Can the show-off leads. Edit all stories down; they can take it. Make leads and headlines clear. Make it quick; I’m busy!

: Whew, I didn’t mean to launch into all that. It just happened.