WWF – throwing the web 2.0 kitchen sink at saving the planet

I received an email today inviting me to help save the tiger by contributing a photo to an online tiger mosaic that WWF are building. When I got to the site and had uploaded my photo (which was of an actual tiger, by the way), I had a look around and it’s amazing how much they have been doing.

They have:

* RSS feeds
* A creative commons licence
* A page explaining how to use their content on your site
* A Digg this link
* An add to link
* Browser toolbars
* A search plug-in for Firefox or IE7
* The tiger mosaic, of course, at

They’re also doing some very interesting CRM work, based on participants accumulating points for involving themselves in aggregated actions like emailing a government minister.

I have no idea who’s doing this work for them, but it’s impressive how much they’ve embraced interactivity.


Streakers, Gunmen and The Death of Network News

by Rohit

Here’s a fact: if you get naked and run across the football field at an NFL game, you won’t get on television. The World Cup and most international soccer leagues have also instituted the same policy. If a streaker makes it onto the field, the television cameras cut away from the action and the commentators simply fill time and the action will continue once he or she is removed. The thinking is, if you remove the incentive of getting fame by being on television, streakers will stop disrupting games. The added disincentive for the NFL is that you are likely to get crushed by a 300 lb lineman who is not too happy you are on his field in the first place. Most network television news and cable television news programs (hereafter referred to as network news), on the other hand, have exactly the opposite incentives in place. The more horrific your crime, the more network news time you are guaranteed. And if you are really hungry for publicity, just send any type of video or added commentary on your crimes, and you can get media far beyond what you would ever imagine. This is clearly what is happening in the VA Tech gunman case. Has network news always been like this?

No, I would trace the beginning of the end to the rise of CNN in the 80s. I don’t blame CNN directly or Ted Turner, but the situation CNN’s launch created was that having a network dedicated to 24 hours of news meant that everyone had the challenge of finding that much more news to report. The idealistic justification for 24 hour news was that having more time would allow the network to report on the real stories that never get covered. To be sure, some of that took place. But what also happened is news became more of a competition as other outlets tried to compete, and that was the start of the model of news as entertainment. To stand out, news programs stopped reporting the most important stories and started reporting the most sensationalistic. The news became about murders, deaths, violent crimes, and what you don’t know about your toothpaste that could kill you.

The battle to maintain relevance and compete with each other has led to the sad state of network news today, and the reason why more and more people are giving up on it as a source of credible information. Ask any member of Generation X or Generation Y if they watch network news and you’ll understand how the death of this format is already here. The alternative is video produced by individuals (some journalists and some not) who are reporting live from the scene through outlets like Current.TV and other more direct sources. Even in the case of the VA Tech case, much of the early reporting was simply taken off of websites created by victims or rereported from media created by eyewitnesses. In some cases, media had to be warned that those images were not for exploitation. If you look at some of the recent commentary on blogs online, it’s clear that the choices made by large news outlets in terms of what to report and show has had a big effect on how the entire US is seeing news media today. This is not like 911, where social media was not near where it is today in terms of being a force of real life information, opinions and commentary. This is a sad, tragic story that much of media is exploiting and more than ever before, large groups of people are seeing and talking about this exploitation. One day, we might all look back on this story and realize that this was the moment when the old model of news media really died.


How 7 basic human needs are driving the new social web

Yet for most, Web2.0 is about the next evolution of the Internet and how it is becoming more useful for everyone. Yes, there are lots of cool technologies, and the search for the “killer app” that Hunt brilliantly deconstructs in his paper is important. The underlying theme, however, is how new services are helping each of us to solve some of our most basic needs from the Internet. In my opinion, these include:

1. Search – There is no doubt search engines are the dominant tool for finding information online. More recently, the search for meaning is about more than using powerful algorithms to offer hundreds of thousands of search results. The social search revolution is about how people are helping other people find information. The most innovative Web2.0 tools for search are the ones that combine sophisticated algorithms with the ability and dedication of individuals to help highlight, describe and categorize information.
2. Discover – If search is about actively seeking information on a specific topic, discovery is about uncovering information that is likely to be relevant for you presented to you based on your browsing history, habits, related content, or relationships and declared interests. The popularity of StumbleUpon as well as the millions of people using social bookmarking tools such as Digg and point to the rising use of sites, tags and recommendations to discover new websites or web content.
3. Connect – Managing relationships through contact managers such as LinkedIn is not a new activity online, but there are new tools that are helping each of us to get smarter about how these contacts are managed and make them more useful. A core concept that Hunt talks about which is now starting to appear is the idea that not all relationships should be treated equal and there needs to be a way to rate the strength of a particular relationship. When contacts are measured in terms of degrees, connecting to others through your network becomes a much more valid exercise, and one more likely to mimic offline behaviours that take the strength of particular relationships into account.
4. Protect – As technology enables more innovation, it can also have a dark side with hackers, phishers, and spammers. Web2.0 has not just been about finding better tools for communication or information, it is also about new thinking for protecting each of us from the dangerous, or just plain annoying. As more of our digital lives, transactions and communications move online – this area will continue to be vitally important for keeping the Internet a trusted and credible channel to conduct these activities.
5. Publish – Central to the rise of social media is the ability for individuals to easily publish just about any type of content from blogs to podcasts to online video. This includes publishing in the sense of contributing to dialogue online through reviews or comments. New services are likely to help make it easier to publish as well as better tools to customize your efforts. Also, there will continue to be more new sites and social networks on which to publish your content on just about any topic.
6. Organize – Whether it relates to organizing your personal life through “lifehacker” style tools such as personal calendars or to-do lists, or organizing your bookmarks and saved content, Web2.0 innovation continues to produce many tools for doing so. On sites that offer access to content published by others or through sites that could be considered “aggregators” (for RSS feeds or other content), organization is a core principle that is seen as another key human benefit.
7. Share – This is a broad concept that includes each of our desire to share our thoughts and expertise, as well as the cause related side of this which includes sharing wealth or supporting causes one believes in. New tools for giving, and new sites for sharing expertise fit into this category.


The Participation Ladder

Forrester segmented the online audience into several different stratas – what they call a ladder of participation. They found that “Inactives” are by far the dominant group (52%). They’re followed by spectators, joiners, critics, collectors and last but not least creators. This last cluster, according to the analyst firm, dabbles in lots of different activities but few do all of them. See the chart below for more.

This is the first report I have seen that really delves into what drives and motivates people to engage with the web. It’s worth purchasing and it really has got me thinking about its impact on PR and marketing.

While extroverts get all of the attention, the thickest part of the ladder is in the vast majority of people who have no desire to participate. I imagine this number will shrink some in the years ahead, particularly as the generation that grew up with the Web enters the workforce. However, there will always be a meaty portion of the online audience that remains just that – consumers.

This got me thinking: what can the Participation Ladder teach us about PR and marketing? The answer is a lot.

If you work in either of these professions, cut the above chart out and stick it on your wall. For each program, assess where your audience sits on this continuum. Are they inactives, creators or somewhere in between? The key is to then devise the right kind of communication strategy depending on what you discover. Let’s put this into action.

For example, let’s say you have a start-up that has a new piece of blogging software that bloggers will love. Then you should execute a peer-to-peer program that primarily targets creators, collectors and critics while largely ignoring inactives. This means you can go guerrilla with peer-to-peer program that taps into social networks, blogging and other Web 2.0 communities. Place your chips there. Mainstream media coverage can help here too. Focus your attention on outlets that bloggers read.

However, if you have a tech product or service that has value say for all users, then clearly you want a broader mix that combines the best of new media/mainstream media, all while reflecting the ladder.


According to an article on PaidContent today, newspaper companies are seeing a slowing in online ad revenue growth. This really struck me as interesting. Especially in light of a lot of smaller newspaper companies striking deals with the search engines like Yahoo to handle their online advertising.

It seems that the online version of the newspapers are increasing feeling the competition from websites by TV Stations and magazines like Time, Inc. What’s interesting to note, some of these websites from the TV Stations and Magazines, are increasingly adding Social Media pieces.

From voting on stories, to forums to discuss “hot topics” these sites are increasingly giving the “consumer” more control. However, they aren’t putting the entire reigns over to the reader. Instead they are giving their readers a “piece” of the action that creates a stickiness. This stickiness brings back the readers time and time again because of their time investment.

Granted, I’m not saying that newspapers need to totally plunge into Social Media, but it is an opportunity that is definitely worth investigating. From “sharing” local photos, to a “sound off” message board and adding voting on the top stories, or the ability to comment on articles, there’s a lot of different ways newspapers can incorporate their users into participating on their site.

The other end of the spectrum is for newspapers to strike deals with the search engines. Yahoo, seems to be really moving to capture all the newspapers it can. In the past two weeks, Yahoo sealed a deal with 250 newspapers to provide the advertising for the papers from contextual ads to HotJobs and classified listings.

Yahoo I really took notice to this when my old hometown newspaper, the Pottsville Republican Herald had an article about it’s parent company, the Times Shamrock, Inc., striking a deal with Yahoo! It’s basically the same one described in the LA Times article about the deal with 250 newspapers. I emailed the article’s author to see if I could get some kind of clarification if Yahoo! was going to help them with the banner and image ads they have on their sites, but the author never replied back. So, I’m still left wondering.

What’s interesting is that Yahoo!’s replacing Google on most of these sites. I guess Google isn’t seeing the same value in the news industry as Yahoo does. I guess for the newspapers, any help is great for them, seeing their numbers continue to fall.


How the web is/will affect journalism

(Video – worth watching 1 time at least)

Lessons From a Newsroom’s Digital Frontline

“What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people
are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for
their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a god-like
figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the
religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented
as gospel. ” Rupert Murdoch

A ‘Box’ that will transform media

Adapt or Die – American Journalism Review

Ultimate Guide to Online Video

“…the notion of mass media is fast becoming an oxymoron.” (Alan Moore)

” [Over the next 10 years audiences will move away from the linear,
scheduled world where relatively limited number of distributors who push
their content at the viewer….] “we will instead enter a world where
content is increasingly delivered through internet- protocol- based
networks that are non-linear, on-demand and entirely self-scheduled. In
that world, the viewer – not the broadcaster – will decide what is
consumed and how.”
Lord Currie, Royal Television Society Fleming Memorial Lecture, 2004

Merrill Brown, author of a Carnegie Corporation of New York report on
media consumption says, “The future course of news is being altered by
technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news
outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways.”

“77% of Americans seek their primary news today online.”

“Jonathan Schwartz COO of Sun Microsystems believes that the 1000
bloggers at Sun have done more for his company than a billion $ ad
campaign ever could.”

“With the ease of access to programming that computers now have, younger
viewers in particular (a commercially very attractive group) may become
increasingly infrequent television users. There is for example, already
evidence that television has lost young male viewers to computers.”
John Ranelagh, Founding Commissioning Editor Channel 4 Television

“The biggest story on Thursday was Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia
that Internet users around the world freely add to and edit. Yesterday’s
entry on the London bombings was amended, edited and updated by hundreds
of readers no fewer than 2,800 times throughout the day. The entry has
photographs, detailed timelines, contact numbers, a complete translated
statement by the jihadist group claiming responsibility for the attacks
and links to other Wikipedia entries.”
Newsweek (July 9,2005)

Jeff Jarvis’s 1st law:
“Give us control and we will use it. Don’t and you will lose us.”

The end of TV as we know it: A future industry perspective (IBM
Institute for Business Value study)

Here are two tip sheets from a session at the annual conference of the
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) on “Technology: A User’s Guide
to Software, Hardware and Other Tools Revolutionizing Journalism”:

 From Jeff South <>
 From Amy Gahran <>


The Race

By the usual indicators, daily newspapers are in a deepening downward spiral. The new year brought reports of more newsroom layoffs, dwindling print circulation, flat or declining
ad sales, increasing defections of readers and advertisers to the Internet, and sullen investors. Wall Street so undervalues traditional publishing that McClatchy’s stock price briefly rose when it sold off the Minneapolis Star Tribune at a fire-sale price, mainly for the $160 million tax benefit. As succeeding generations grow up with the Web and lose the habit of reading print, it seems improbable that newspapers can survive with a cost structure at least 50 percent higher than their nimbler and cheaper Internet competitors. (“No trucks, no trees,” says the former Boston Globe publisher Ben Taylor.) The dire future predicted by the now-classic video, EPIC 2014, in which Google, Amazon, and an army of amateurs eventually drive out even The New York Times, begins to feel like a real risk.

Yet a far more hopeful picture is emerging. In this scenario the mainstream press, though late to the party, figures out how to make serious money from the Internet, uses the Web to enrich traditional journalistic forms, and retains its professionalism—along with a readership that is part print, part Web. Newspapers stay alive as hybrids. The culture and civic mission of daily print journalism endure.

Can that happen? Given the financial squeeze and the shortsightedness of many publishers and investors, will dailies be able to navigate such a transition without sacrificing standards of journalism? Or will cost-cutting owners so thoroughly gut the nation’s newsrooms that they collapse the distinction between the rest of the Internet and everything that makes newspapers uniquely valuable?

Which newspapers are most likely to survive? And, while we are at it, why does the survival of newspapers matter? In an era when the Web explodes the monopoly of the print newspaper as authoritative assembler of the day’s news and invites readers to be both aggregators and originators of content, what remains distinctive about newspapers?

Defenders of print insist that nothing on the Web can match the assemblage of reportorial talent, professionalism, and public mission of a serious print daily. The 2006 State of the News Media Report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that just 5 percent of blog postings included “what would be considered journalistic reporting.” Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote a skeptical piece about Web journalism in The New Yorker last July, concluding that not much of the blogosphere “yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media—to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.” John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, says, “Take any story in a blog and trace its origins, about eighty-five percent of it can be traceable to newspapers. They break nearly all of the important stories. Who’s going to do the reporting if these institutions fade away?”

By contrast, celebrants of the Web contend that the Internet is freer, more democratic, deliberative, interactive, and civic than the self-interested elites of old media dare admit. “The priesthood of gatekeepers is being disbanded. It’s over,” says Christopher Lydon, a one-time New York Times reporter, now hosting Open Source on Public Radio International.

In exploring whether newspapers as we know them are likely to endure, and why we should care, I sought out Wall Street analysts, press critics, journalism professors, business consultants, publishers, editors, reporters, and the search-engine companies and multifarious originators of Web content that are challenging newspapers. The Internet has famously turned the authority structure upside down; so perhaps not surprisingly, one of my most informative interviews was with a colleague, a twenty-two-year-old prodigy we can call Ezra. Before we defenders of newspapers become too smug about what makes us special, he’s worth listening to.

I opened the conversation by inviting us to compare how we get our daily ration of information. I begin my day, I immodestly confessed, by reading four newspapers. What do you do?

Ezra suppressed a smirk. I use about 150 or 200 rss feeds and bookmarks, he explained. Ezra scans four newspapers online. He checks sites of research organizations such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He indulges his taste for gossipy pop culture with a few favorites such as Ezra surfs a few political blogs, too, but he particularly relies on expert sites that are not exactly blogs and not exactly journalism; rather they are a very important category often left out by old media critics who divide the world into amateur bloggers versus trained reporters. Many such sites are operated by academics or think-tank researchers who have developed a taste for a popular audience, mixing blog-style comment on breaking news with original analysis, and serious research.

This category of Web site doesn’t have a name, and it trivializes them to call them blogs. Let’s call them crogs, for Carefully-Researched Weblogs. For policy wonks like Ezra and me, some of the most interesting crogs are Dean Baker’s site on how the press covers economics; the crog on Middle East affairs by the University of Michigan professor Juan Cole; and a superb crog on health policy carried on Daily Kos and written by a physician and researcher calling himself Dr. Steve B (he has a sensitive position and won’t publish his real name). There are thousands of similarly high-quality crogs on just about every public issue, of great value to both journalists and ordinary readers. The sites are rich in hyperlinks, too, so a reader can move sideways into more detailed reports and primary sources.

Ezra also uses Google’s popular “alert” feature. Let’s say you are particularly interested in Iraq, health policy, Indian cuisine, and the nba. You can request Google News to send you a daily message offering links to the latest output of your favorite writers, bloggers, or specialty sites. Google News is a little cumbersome to use for this purpose—its inventors imagined readers ordering a relatively few favorite links. But what makes the Internet so dynamic is the ease with which innovators can learn from their publics and try things out. The New York Times will soon introduce a more sophisticated variant called MyTimes, aimed at the Web reader who, like Ezra, wants to pre-assemble an all-star Webpaper that no single newspaper can possibly duplicate. With MyTimes you can roll your own daily, beginning with, but not limited to, the admittedly high-quality content of the Times. And this kind of customized search technology will only get better.

Ezra wagered that his hour of Web culling gave him more and better news and analysis than my hour of newspaper reading. He guessed—correctly—that 90 percent of the three pounds of newsprint that I skim every day gets thrown away, unread. (Indeed, at The Boston Globe, surveys show that two of the top reasons nonrenewing newspaper readers give for their lapsed subscriptions are “not enough time” and “green guilt.” In an age of environmental consciousness and scarce time, people feel bad that so many pounds of newsprint go virginally into the trash.)

So I started playing my few trump cards. Even for casual readers, scanning a newspaper contributes to civic democracy through what sociologists call “incidental learning.” You pick up the paper for the sports or the crossword puzzle, and you find yourself reading about the school board election or the international diamond trade. What about incidental learning? I asked. Don’t newspapers do that better? Nope, Ezra replied. You’d be surprised how much interesting serendipity you pick up from skimming a lot of blogs. For instance, the Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong, who operates an excellent blog on economics topics, also peppers his blog with Star Trek trivia.

But, I persisted, you are hardly typical. As diligent self-improvers go, Ezra is to the average Web user as the nfl is to Oberlin football. Maybe, countered Ezra, but search technology is making it easier all the time for citizens to be their own aggregators. Isn’t that just what we want?

By now I was feeling very last century. And then Ezra, perhaps taking pity, handed me a trump. You have one thing right, he volunteered. The best material on the Internet consistently comes from Web sites run by print organizations.

So journalism reigns after all. But can this supremacy continue? Here we encounter a paradox on top of an irony. The paradox is that new forms of media, while challenging the very survival of newspapers, are quickly becoming their savior—both as a journalistic and a business proposition.

Newspapers are embracing the Web with the manic enthusiasm of a convert. The Internet revenue of newspaper Web sites is increasing at 20 percent to 30 percent a year, and publishers are doing everything they can to boost Web traffic. Publishers know they are in a race against time, they are suddenly doing many things that their Internet competitors do, and often better.

The irony is that in their haste both to cut newsroom costs and ramp up Web operations, some newspapers are slashing newsroom staff and running the survivors ragged. At many dailies, today’s reporter is often pressed into Web service: writing frequent updates on breaking stories, wire-service fashion; posting blog items; and conducting interviews with a video camera. If journalism is degraded into mere bloggery, newspapers will lose their competitive advantage, not to mention their journalistic calling.

That is a deeper problem at papers with the deepest cost-cutting and layoffs. At the quality dailies, which are adding Web staff, most reporters, after initial hesitancy, have embraced the new hybrid news model. “This is our salvation,” says Steve Pearlstein, a longtime business reporter at The Washington Post. “Most people around here say, ‘Bring it on.’ ” In my interviews, I expected mixed reviews of the hybrid life, but found nothing but enthusiasm.

And if most reporters are taking happily to the Web, the several editors I interviewed are positively euphoric. Five years ago, editors were haltingly and grudgingly adding a few bloggers and chat features, because the Web was something that had to be lived with. “It wasn’t very long ago that I and a lot of other people in the newsroom were worried about the competition from the Web, and its effect on the journalism,” says Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post. “We were wrong. The Web is not the distraction we feared it would be, and all the feedback improves the journalism.” For example, for several months last year, the Post ran a highly praised series called “Being a Black Man.” The Web allowed a vivid extension of what could be done in print, including narratives, photo galleries, videos, and extensive reader involvement.

“There was an amazing difference between 1999, when I left the Post to join AOL, and 2004, when I came back to the Post,” says James Brady, the Post ’s online editor. “It went from pockets of cooperation to pockets of resistance.” The Post, says Brady, saw the Web as a huge expansion opportunity in part because its print readership was almost entirely local. Today it’s Web readership is 83 percent national and international. now has about eighty-five people on its Web editorial staff, and roughly another forty technical people, plus dozens more techies shared with Newsweek and Slate.

Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor in charge of integrating print and Web at The New York Times, says blogging can often help a print reporter think through a story. “Many of these print and Web activities are mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict,” he says.

Where print and Web are integrated at the Times, the Post still has its separate Internet operation across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia. This was set up over a decade ago, partly so that the Post could pay young Webbies nonunion wages in a right-to-work state. However, as New York University’s Jay Rosen observes, allowing a separate Web culture to emerge outside the Post’s print culture turns out to have been shrewd. “Today, most of us would like to see one newsroom,” says the Post’s Pearlstein. “But if we had been in charge of the Web back then, we would have screwed it up.”

By most accounts, the Post leads the nation’s print papers in its use of the Web’s interactive potential with readers. To a far greater extent than the Times, it offers readers live, real-time talkbacks with reporters. “At first,” says Brady, “the reaction was, ‘I already get enough crap. Where am I going to find another hour to read all this stuff?’ ” But reporters soon found that readers who linked to talkback features had at least read the story, and the Web generally produced higher-quality feedback than reader mail.

For publishers and business strategists, the Web is about nothing less than financial survival. Donald Graham, the Post ’s ceo , was an early Web enthusiast, taking losses of more than $100 million a year in Web operations during the late 1990s in order to build up the Post ’s Internet capacity. “Anyone looking for quarterly returns should not invest in Washington Post stock,” Graham says. The paper’s much-admired Web journalism turns a healthy profit now. Online revenue at the Post was $72.7 million, in the first nine months of 2006, up 31 percent. The Post Company’s $1.1 billion Kaplan test-prep and tutoring company
is increasingly an online product, too. Caroline Little, ceo of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, says online income has vast potential. “The ratio of the huge amount of time people spend using the net to the relatively low ad revenue realized from the net is way out of whack,” she explains. Internet ad income should grow rapidly at the expense of both print ads and TV ads. “The question,” Little adds, “is how can we contribute enough to the bottom line to keep the core journalism alive?”

The Internet now accounts for about 5 to 6 percent of newspaper advertising income. With Web income soaring and print revenue basically flat, analysts expect the lines to cross within fifteen years. By about 2020, if current trends persist, half of a newspaper’s income and most of its readership will be via the Internet.

Despite the seeming anachronism of paper in a digital age, however, the economics of the business require newspapers to persist as partly print media for at least another generation. Some Americans still want to pick up a daily paper rather than read content on a screen. And as a business proposition, the average monetary value of a visitor to a newspaper’s Web site is only 20 to 30 percent of a newspaper’s print reader; Web ads command lower rates because of the greater competition among Web sites. So even if a newspaper shut down its print operation, published only on the Internet, and somehow managed to keep its entire circulation, the revenue loss would exceed the cost savings.

A key to the transition to a hybrid world is investment. The New York Times is currently spending several million dollars a year on a new R&D unit, Web staff, and new products. Depending on how you count, the Times has over 100 people in the newsroom whose duties are more Web than print, including producers, software developers, and reporters and editors. (Full disclosure: For the past twenty-two years, The Boston Globe, now owned by the Times, has published my weekly op-ed column.) The Times is rolling out a nifty digital device called Times Reader, developed in partnership with Microsoft. (For the next few months you can try out the beta version yourself, free, at

With Times Reader, the on-screen page offers stories in the same fonts, look, and print-like appearance of the familiar print Times, but allows a variety of search, page-flip, and rearrange options. For instance, you can click on a word or phrase and get a little clickable chart of all the stories in the paper that touch on that topic. It’s easier to read than a standard Web page, and even more ingeniously searchable. Times strategists imagine a reader at the breakfast table or on a plane curling up with Times Reader as with the print newspaper, and not promiscuously surfing around the Web. Can’t competitors just imitate it? “We certainly hope so,” says Michael Zimbalist, the one-time Disney “imagineer” hired in late 2005 to head R&D at the Times: “The more this kind of platform is widely used, the better we’ll do.” If it becomes a common way of reading a newspaper, he explains, the Times has a head start.

For its digital revenue, the Times has bet heavily on a mainly ad-driven business model. Both print and Web content are mostly free, though users have to register, which helps the Times maximize advertising revenue by pinpointing demographic characteristics of its readers. Only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the material in the paper or the online edition—most notably the columnists—is “behind the wall” and requires an annual premium subscription of $49.95, unless you already subscribe to the print edition. The strategy, according to Times Company executives, is that a content-rich Web environment will entice more readers to bond with the Times online and spend a lot of time with it, thus making the paper a very attractive advertising buy. The Times Company last year earned about $273 million in digital income, out of total revenues of around $3.3 billion. Of that, about two-thirds came from the Times itself. Only about $10 million of that Web revenue is from premium content, the rest is ad income.

In 2006, the Times had a down year, taking a one-time $814.4 million charge for the reduced asset value of its New England media group, principally The Boston Globe . Even without that charge, the Times Company’s operating profit was about 8.9 percent, or less than half the industry average. Responding to a reporter’s question at the Davos meeting about the survival of local newspapers, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. recently observed that the Times is not a local paper but a national one based in New York. E-mails of the comment rocketed around the Globe newsroom, a local Times property where people are still smarting from buyouts, layoffs, and foreign bureau closures.

The more highly diversified Dow Jones Company, meanwhile, enjoyed increased earnings last year. Its Wall Street Journal uses a business model that gives far greater emphasis than the Times to paid Internet content. Dow Jones executives believe their material is so specialized and valuable to its affluent, Web-savvy readers that the potential audience is in the millions. A great deal of Web effort goes into online updates to provide investors with breaking business news, according to Web managing editor Bill Grueskin. At the end of 2006, the Journal reported about 811,000 premium online-only subscribers who paid $99 a year each. An undisclosed number of print subscribers paid $49 for the additional Web content. With its paid-subscription model, the Journal has far less Web traffic than the Times, despite its larger print circulation. But the Journal can charge more to advertisers for its premium audience, according to Grueskin. The Journal projects 2007 growth in online revenue of 20 percent, somewhat below the industry average. Some in the industry think the Journal is mistaken in its strategy of forgoing more Web visitors in exchange for premium subscription income. On the other hand, as Grueskin puts it, “The marginal cost of servicing an additional Web subscriber is basically free.” The Journal, in its recent shift to a smaller page size, has taken a gamble that it will maximize its unique franchise by redoubling its print and Web commitment to business and financial news. In a letter to readers posted on the Journal’s Web site, explaining the Journal’s new, smaller page format (which reduced the news hole by about 10 percent), publisher L. Gordon Crovitz promised, “We’ll deliver more value-added analysis of financial data,” as well as expanded personal material. What Crovitz didn’t emphasize was the sharp cutback in the Journal’s traditionally superb political reporting and analysis of social trends.

The Times, Post, and Journal, already well on their way to becoming print-digital hybrids, will surely navigate this transition. At the other end of the spectrum, small-town and suburban weeklies, community tabloids, and papers targeted to ethnic groups are much better defended against Internet incursions. Readership of print weeklies continues to grow, using a model that is part paid and part “controlled,” meaning free to readers but guaranteed to advertisers, thus aping the free content of the Internet. Free community papers clearly have momentum; subscription and single-copy income is down, but ad income, and overall income, is up. The advertising base of local weeklies was never as reliant on large national advertisers, and their intensely local franchise is retaining both a readership and local advertising bond that the Web is challenging at a far slower rate than it assaults regional dailies.

At greatest risk are newspapers in between—the mid-sized regional metropolitan dailies, like The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For example, when McClatchy bought the hugely profitable Star Tribune from the Cowles family in 1998, the paper was one of the Internet pioneers. The family had invested heavily in But when the dot-com bubble burst, and profit margins fell from over 30 percent to under 20 percent, McClatchy began disinvesting. To make matters worse, the innovative was ordered to convert to the technology of McClatchy Interactive, which was based on the successful site of another McClatchy paper, the Raleigh News & Observer. “We lost at least a year,” says one reporter. And not long after the technical overhaul was complete, the paper was sold again; the Web staff is now scrambling to disengage from an alien technology that it never liked. Sources at the paper say that Web traffic and Web advertising revenue were close to flat in 2006, while they rose sharply at most newspapers.

In January, The Philadelphia Inquirer laid off sixty-eight people from the newsroom—and then turned around and hired five of them back for its Web site. That doesn’t sound like much, but the move increased the Web staff from eight to thirteen. “What happened here was a disaster, but they managed to salvage something good out of it,” says the reporter Daniel Rubin. For instance, Kristen Graham, who was laid off from her job as the paper’s education reporter, now does audio, video, and print reports on idiosyncratic, newsworthy events in the city schools. The Inquirer, through, is able to offer an annual report card on city schools with interactive features.

Rubin, fifty, epitomizes the old-school print reporter who has found the leap to Web journalism intoxicating. A nineteen-year veteran of the Inquirer, he writes a very popular, link-rich, and witty blog called and also covers the business of entertainment for print and Web—everything from auto shows to sports and popular culture. Rubin’s home page says, “It was a wise man who said news is a conversation. Let’s talk.” He says Web journalism is “a shot of adrenaline. It makes me superproductive. The feedback is immediate. I know almost instantly what’s working. It’s like I’m back in my father’s hardware store, deciding what to put in the front window to bring in customers.”

The Inquirer’s editor, Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, sees Web journalism as a lifeline. On the afternoon that we talked, the big breaking local story was the indictment of State Senator Vincent J. Fumo, a longtime South Philadelphia powerbroker. Within a couple of hours the Inquirer had posted many multimedia items—among them a PDF of the full text of the indictment, dueling press releases, Fumo’s floor speech, audio of the U.S. Attorney’s press conference, a special blog from Harrisburg, archives of related stories, photos, comments by other officials, and five features on other facets of the story. It was the perfect vindication of the idea that old media can use the tools of the new to do journalism better than anyone else. Marimow has several print reporters doubling as bloggers. But can a newspaper that made deep cuts in its newsroom maintain its quality even if it adds a few more people to the Web? In February, Rubin was pressed into service as a metro print columnist, and he and his editors will decide whether he can spare the time to keep his blog going. It’s a pity that the Inquirer, now owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings, has to be creative with such dwindling resources.

There are some encouraging exceptions to this picture of the squeezed midsize daily. Several strategists are promoting a blend of the civic journalism movement with a business strategy that builds on the local paper’s brand awareness to create the most comprehensive and interactive Web site in town. In principle, this strategy invigorates the journalism, engages the community in new ways, and increases Web traffic that can bring in ad revenue.

For example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been developing satellite suburban Web sites since July 2006 through its NOW Project. The Journal Sentinel, unlike the elite dailies, is doing it almost entirely with a slightly dazed print staff. Click on the paper’s Web site,, and a drop-down menu steers you to a local site, one of twenty-six suburban towns. The parent company, Journal Communications, used to serve these towns with print weeklies. Now the print weekly is a targeted section of the Journal Sentinel, complemented by a NOW Web site.

If you click on suburban Waukesha, for example, you’ll be directed to WaukeshaNow, with a cornucopia of community news and community voices— City Again At Top of Tax Rankings. Main St. Lanes to Close. Bus Fares Up. Art Project Delayed—plus lots of commentary, debate, and listings. It’s exactly the civic value-added that defenders of print media feared would be driven out by the Internet.

On the other hand, two of the Journal Sentinel’s most popular recent features were a readership survey on whether the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, Brett Favre, should retire, and an invitation to local chefs to send in their favorite recipes for grilling bratwurst. This, in turn, prompted readers to share many hundreds of their own favorite
recipes. “It’s amazing how many ways there are to cook a bratwurst,” says Web editor Mike Davis. Before civic journalism advocates look down their gourmet noses at the bratwurst crowd, it’s worth recalling that sports and local cuisine were always a way that print newspapers bonded with readers. If you want the new interactive Web journalism to promote civic interest in, say, land-use planning, it may be shrewd to wash it down with some beer and bratwurst.

Some of the most creative service journalism on the Web comes from small papers. At the Naples Daily News in Florida, readers can get podcasts, videocasts, and photo galleries; check hurricane damage or local high school sports, or dig into an ingenious database of 80,000 recent local housing transactions—and more. The designer of this hyper-local site, a thirty-five-year-old self-described Internet nerd named Rob Curley, became a Web legend for his award-winning Web work at the Lawrence Journal-World and the Topeka Capital-Journal, in Kansas, and the Hannibal Courier-Post in Missouri. Last October, Donald Graham of The Washington Post hired him away from Florida to be vice president for new product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “We have learned a great deal from the Web operations of small papers,” Graham says.

“They hired me to do the same cool stuff, only with more resources,” says Curley. “The only difference is that they don’t wake me at home at 3 a.m. when the classifieds go down. And don’t tell me that what I do isn’t journalism.”

A slicker, more explicitly business-oriented project called Newspaper Next, launched by the American Press Institute in late 2005 in collaboration with a team of Harvard Business
School professors, is promoting a similar model. Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, who advises the project, counsels newspapers to “engage, enrich, empower, and entertain” members of their larger communities, taking advantage of their branding and the Web’s interactive potential.

Newspaper Next is trying out variants of its model, working with seven newspaper companies. At The Dallas Morning News, the target audience is 700,000 busy mothers who are online every day, but only 15 percent of whom currently read the Morning News or its Web site. The idea is to build the ultimate site for moms, called, and match the traffic with prospective advertisers.

Other major chains have their own variations on this community approach. E. W. Scripps’ version is called YourHub, described as “a network of community-based Web sites featuring stories, photos, blogs, events, and classified ads posted by community residents and supported by local advertisers.” It’s a little ironic that a model of community journalism that was created before there was an Internet is now being seized on by the business side as a road to profitability.

Can it also enrich the journalism? At their best, these experiments promise to revive community connections and revenue opportunities, as well as local journalism, and to lift newspapers out of their revenue and morale funk. But absent serious investment and commitment from publishers to devote adequate staff, such Web sites can deteriorate into a stew of bratwurst recipes, police blotter, high school reunions, and inane comment.

Jay Rosen observes that a dramatic change in the newspaper culture occurred only in late 2004, when newspaper people finally grasped that, as he says, “the tools of content production had been distributed to people formerly known as the audience.” For a decade, Rosen adds, most publishers and editors had misunderstood the Web, seeing it mainly as a new way of delivering print content. By no small coincidence, 2004 marked the beginning of the current financial downturn in newspaper profitability and share prices, and a mood of crisis and even desperation stimulated a new openness and creativity. “Once you let go emotionally, you realize that as journalism, online is infinitely superior to print,” says Tom Rosenstiel of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, “in its ability to offer links to other material, original documents, full texts of interviews, video, and as much statistical backup as the reader can stand.”

If newspapers are now finding their digital footing faster than observers feared, will Wall Street allow this promising transition to maximize its potential? In 2006, supposedly a disastrous year for newspapers, the average profit margins for the newspaper divisions of publicly traded publishing companies was 17.8 percent, according to the Merrill Lynch media analyst Lauren Rich Fine. That’s well above the average for all industries. Yet newspaper stocks lagged the S&P 500 last year by 21 percent, after another disastrously down year in 2005. Is there something fatally wrong with newspapers that their profit margins conceal? Or is there something amiss with the way Wall Street values newspapers?

As recently as 2002, newspapers and their mostly institutional shareholders were enjoying profit margins in excess of 22 percent, margins that beat even the fabulously lucrative pharmaceutical industry. Newspapers had been local monopolies, and they got used to charging monopoly prices for their most reliable moneymaker, the classifieds. Given Craigslist and and, those days are never coming back.

Analyst Fine says some newspapers should just level with investors about the need to plow money back into the Internet: “Just put up a sign, work in progress, come back and see us in two years,” she advises. “You’re going to have to judge us differently.” But, as Fine quickly adds, that’s not the way Wall Street works. Further depressions in stock prices invite hostile takeovers and shareholder demands of the sort that killed Knight Ridder. The media analyst John Morton says, “I worry that some publishers will look on their Internet operations as found money, without appreciating that the print is what supports the journalism that attracts the traffic. I worry that they won’t sufficiently invest in people to do it well.”

Even if newspaper publishers do everything right, however, in the Internet age they will have a smaller share of the total advertising pie than they enjoyed in the print era. Newspapers’ share of the $424 billion spent globally last year on advertising, according to ZenithOptimedia, was still a considerable 29.1 percent—but shrinking. The Internet share was just 5.8 percent—but growing. And most Web dollars will not go to newspapers. The Internet competition to monetize traffic is fierce, with most sites designed as pure revenue plays unencumbered by news or civic mission. For example, Barry Diller’s iac/Interactive Corp. is thriving with Web service businesses, such as,, the invitation service Evite, and local city search sites. As newspapers complement their traditional news content with local consumer services and ingenious interactive features, they face competitors who enjoyed earlier market entry and who have high brand awareness. Angie’s List would have been a terrific service to build newspaper Web traffic, except Angie got there first.

Meanwhile, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are investing massively in ever more sophisticated search technology. Along with other non-newspaper sites like Wikipedia, Amazon, and eBay, such pure Internet entrepreneurs capture the lion’s share of traffic that can bring in ad money. And none of them has expensive newsrooms to feed. The New York Times and its affiliated papers get visits from 13 million distinct individuals a month. But the nation’s top thirty newspaper Web sites together have under 100 million such monthly visits, while Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have well over 100 million each, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. The search engines do share some of this ad revenue with newspapers through a variety of ad partnership models—Google wrote checks of $780 million to its ad “content partners” in the last quarter of 2006—but the other large Web entrepreneurs are pure rivals.

On the other hand, newspaper companies themselves are increasingly investing in the purchase of Web income-generators, such as the Times’s 2005 acquisition of, and Dow Jones’s decision to sell six of its fifteen Ottaway dailies in late 2006 and use the proceeds to purchase, a subscription-only search company. In 2000, the Tribune Company and Knight Ridder bought, later joined by Gannett; it’s now the most popular online recruiting site. Here again, independent newspapers with shallower pockets do not have this capacity. They have to invent their own Internet services, and hope that if they build the traffic, ad revenue will come. And, as attractive as it is for publishers to use Web properties to subsidize lower-return newsrooms, a purely financial calculus by a Wall Street profit-maximizer would say: spin off or shut down the lower-yield newspaper and keep investing in the lucrative Web property. All of which shows that newspapers may well require owners with values that go beyond the marketplace.

Are there other economic models, either of ownership or of revenue, that might provide some relief from Wall Street pressure and Internet competition, and allow newspapers to invest adequately in a hybrid future? Tycoons once ran newspapers not just for the income, but for the influence and prestige. Sometimes, family-owned papers have been willing to ride out business cycles and to invest more in the newsroom and in far-flung correspondents than a pure market calculation of optimized revenue would otherwise dictate.

New forms of ownership might include a new generation of civic-minded local owners, or more nonprofit foundations, modeled on the Poynter Institute’s ownership of the St. Petersburg Times or the British Guardian, which has been owned by a nonprofit trust on behalf of the employees since 1933, when the young paper’s editor, Edward Scott, was killed in a boating accident and the Scott family set up the trust. Far from causing the Guardian to rest on its laurels, the trust has enabled the paper to be one of the great innovators. It has one of the most imaginative and interactive Web sites around, with 13 million monthly users, roughly matching The New York Times and its affiliates. The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, speaking at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, recently observed that the Scott trustees do not demand “the sort of returns many big American media organizations are used to. . . . Trustees understand that serious public service journalism isn’t always compatible with enormous circulations or huge profits.”

In Minneapolis, after the sale of the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners was announced, the new private-equity owners paid a call on the newsroom, swore fealty to the sacred profession of journalism, and insisted that they were in it for the long haul, and not for a quick turnaround and sale. If so, however, they will be playing very much against type. Absent some dramatic sales to community owners, such as a hoped-for breakup of the Tribune chain, the dream of nonprofit foundations or benign billionaires seems remote.

The more likely economic salvation of newspapers will come from Web ingenuity, married to new business strategies and revenue sources. In this respect, the immensely lucrative search engine companies that now provide newspapers with both digital readers and online revenue are something of a mixed blessing. “Some day,” says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence, “the lawyers for The New York Times and for Google are just going to fight it out.”

An eternity ago in the Internet era, in 1997, Microsoft tried to launch its own version of a digital daily, called Sidewalk. Newspapers, sensing the threat, declined to cooperate with it, and Sidewalk bombed. Yahoo has also experimented, not very successfully, with generating original content. If you go to its site, you can find Yahoo’s own war correspondent, Kevin Sites, showing you some of his video scoops, and inviting you to become a Yahoo freelance. Google, by contrast, declares that it is not in the business of competing with journalists, and that it scrupulously respects copyrights. “We are an engineering company, not a content company,” says Google vice president David Eun, adding that Google not only provides new revenues but can teach newspapers how to optimize their Web strategies.

As both a source and a diversion of ad revenues and readers alike, Google is both competitor and partner to publishing companies. One executive I interviewed termed Google a “frenemy.” Another called the process “co-opetition.” Looking down the road, there are other “frenemies.” is a fast-growing Web syndicator of content to newspapers. The idea is that with newspapers squeezed and laying off producers of newsroom content, Mochila can license high-quality content from freelancers and offer it to newspapers, and perhaps eventually to consumers. The content also comes bundled with ads sold by Mochila, and the revenue is split with newspapers. This is also a delicate balancing act. The cheaper content and new revenues are found money. But if newspapers increasingly become purveyors of freelance content, they lose their distinctive franchise. And all those intermediaries are more claimants on the ad revenue pot.

In the U.S., Google’s core search engine business is protected from lawsuits by the doctrine of fair use. In Europe, however, where there is no legal doctrine of fair use, Agence France-Presse sued Google for copyright infringement. And The Associated Press worked out a deal last year with Google: the details are secret, but the deal seems to have Google breaking its usual precedent of not paying for
content. Owners of copyrighted video content have been pushing back against search-engine companies. And Google’s ambitious effort to launch Google Books will test just how far the fair use doctrine stretches (See “Copyright Jungle,” cjr, September/October 2006). Should Google’s plan be constrained—either by litigation, by a precedent-setting royalty deal with book publishers, or by Congress—newspapers could be indirect beneficiaries.

An analogy is the saga of Napster and iTunes. As recently as 2001, it looked as if that genie was irrevocably out of the bottle. “File-sharing” programs like Napster had created a loophole that allowed free distribution of copyrighted music recordings. But the recording industry, sensing the stakes, marshaled its nerve and its lawyers. They successfully sued and shut down Napster as an illicit pirate-enabler. Apple then stepped forward with some of the most ingenious hardware and software of the Internet age—the must-have iPod and iTunes. Soon, delighted teenagers (and adults) were re-trained to pay for their music, this time at 99 cents a song. There is still a huge amount of decentralized file-sharing, but it is now at an economically bearable scale.

But if newspapers hope to collect royalties on arguably pirated content, the genie is much further out of the bottle than it was for record producers. Google is a far bigger player than Napster and it has hooked newspapers with ad partnerships. The public is accustomed to getting nearly all of its Web content free, and there is fierce opposition to a cable-TV model in which users would pay different amounts for different levels of content.

So neither of the deus ex machina solutions to the newspapers’ (somewhat exaggerated) financial plight—different ownership structures, or more favorable revenue sharing with search engines—seems likely. Rather, publishers need to work with what they have, investing in people and technology to get through this transition to the promised land of hybrid print-Web publishing.

Given that America’s newspapers collectively employ far fewer R&D people than Microsoft, Google, Yahoo et al., it is remarkable that newspapers have emerged as formidable Web innovators. And so far nobody has succeeded in replicating the range, depth, and quality of a newspaper in a Web-only daily (or hourly). You can click on Google News for a quick snapshot of breaking stuff, but most of that content originates in newspapers. “The cliché used to be, ‘Call me anything you want as long you spell my name right,’ ” says the Post’s James Brady. “Today, it’s call me whatever you like as long as you link to me.” Far more bloggers are linking to newspapers than vice-versa.

Web-only journalism has been surprisingly slow to challenge newspapers on their home court. When Slate launched the first online magazine in 1996, it appeared to signal a whole trend. But journalism turns out to be expensive. Slate briefly tried a $19.95 paid-subscription model in 1998, but lost far more readers than it gained income, and abandoned the approach. Even though it is now owned by The Washington Post, Slate was in many ways a higher quality journalistic product when Michael Kinsley began it. Today Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and the rest, offer far more comment than news, since talk is cheap and reportage isn’t.

Four years after Slate, in November 2000, Josh Marshall launched his superb Talking Points Memo. As the Internet’s first I. F. Stone, Marshall looked to be the harbinger of independent, branded, Web-only investigative reporting, using his own diligence combined with tips forwarded by his tens of thousands of fans, and breaking a lot of news, sometimes scooping the dailies. Today Marshall presides over a small conglomerate of interconnected sites and colleagues, one of which is the excellent TPM Muckraker, with two regular employees who practice Marshall’s brand of investigation. As a whole, however, the much-expanded TPM now has a far higher ratio of comment and interpretation (some of it first-rate) to enterprise reporting.

In their modern classic, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, recounting a half-century’s decline of civic engagement (a decline that began long before the Internet), reports that newspaper readers are more likely than nonreaders to participate in politics and local public life. Cities and towns with newspapers have a more transparent civic and public life than those without them.

In effect, we deputize editors to be our proxies, delegating to them the task of assigning reporters and deciding what news we need to know on a given day and to certify its pertinence and accuracy. We trust them to do a more reliable job than even our own Web-surfing. (As Chico Marx famously put it in Duck Soup, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”). But as readers, we no longer have to make that either/or choice between newspapers and the wild Web. We can have both the authoritative daily newspaper to aggregate and certify, and the infinite medley of the Web—all of which puts the traditional press under salutary pressure to innovate and to excel.

As Generation Y grows up, and Generation Z finds the idea of getting news on paper even quainter, more people like Ezra (and his children) will become their own editor-aggregators. But if the dailies do their jobs, the next generation will still read newspapers—online.

My reporting suggests that many big dailies have turned the corner, though only barely and just in time, that newspapers have started down a financially and journalistically viable path of becoming hybrids, without losing the professional culture that makes them uniquely valuable.

Assuming that most dailies survive the transition, my guess is that in twenty-five years they will be mostly digital; that even people like me of the pre-Internet generation will be largely won over by ingenious devices like Times Reader, supplemented by news alerts, rss feeds, and God knows what else. But whether newspapers are print or Web matters far less than whether they maintain their historic calling.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect , a columnist for The Boston Globe , and the author of seven books. His past affiliations include BusinessWeek , The Washington Post , and the late journalism review (More) . His first real job was as I.F. Stone’s assistant.


Saying You Can’t Compete With Free Is Saying You Can’t Compete Period

Everyone else learns to differentiate — why can’t those who produce infinite goods do the same?

The answer is that they already do — even if they don’t realize it. Why do movies still cost more than $0? Because there’s additional value bundled with the movie itself. People don’t buy “a movie.” They buy the experience of going to the theater. People like to go out to the movies. They like the experience. Or people buy the convenience of a DVD (which is another feature bundled with the movie). They like to buy DVDs (or rent them) in order to get the more convenient delivery mechanism and the extra features that come with DVDs. In other words, they like the differentiated value they can get from bundled goods and services that helps justify a price that’s more than $0. Just as people are willing to pay more than the marginal cost (in some cases a lot more) to get that car they want, they’re willing to pay more for a bundled good or service with content — if only the makers of that content would realize it.

So the next time someone says “you can’t compete with free” ask them why? Every company that’s in business today competes with those who aim to undercut the price of their product — and the situation is absolutely no different when it’s free. It’s just that people get blinded by the zero and forget that the absolute price is meaningless compared to the marginal cost.


Vast majority of visitors would rather watch than participate

A tiny 0.16 percent of visits to Google’s top video-sharing site, YouTube, are by users seeking to upload video for others to watch, according to a study of online surfing data by Bill Tancer, an analyst with Web audience measurement firm Hitwise.

Similarly, only two-tenths of one percent of visits to Flickr, a popular photo-editing site owned by Yahoo Inc., are to upload new photos, the Hitwise study found.

The vast majority of visitors are the Internet equivalent of the television generation’s couch potatoes — voyeurs who like to watch rather than create, Tancer’s statistics show.

Wikipedia, the anyone-can-edit online encyclopedia, is the one exception cited in the Hitwise study: 4.6 percent of all visits to Wikipedia pages are to edit entries on the site.

But despite relatively low-user involvement, visits to Web 2.0-style sites have spiked 668 percent in two years, Tancer said.


Show Numbers as Numerals When Writing for Online Readers

We’ve known the basic guidelines for writing for the Web since our earliest studies in 1997. A key finding is that most website users don’t read all your words. Instead, they scan the text and pick out headlines, highlighted words, bulleted lists, and links. Scanning is even more prevalent for readers of email newsletters.

(There are a few exceptions to this rule: lower-literacy users can’t scan, while higher-literacy users read the entire page if they’re really interested or in desperate need of the information. But it’s the height of arrogance to assume that all of your customers are extraordinarily interested in everything you write — more likely, they’ll read a few pages and scan the rest.)

One of eyetracking’s greatest benefits is that it lets us follow users’ reading behaviors in great detail, especially when we watch slow-motion gaze replays after test sessions. Our recent eyetracking studies have given us new insights into how users read various website elements, including bulleted lists, the table-of-content-style list of links at the top of many FAQs, and those rare advertisements that actually attract fixations.

Among our discoveries was that numerals often stop the wandering eye and attract fixations, even when they’re embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore.

* Why do users fixate on numerals? Because numbers represent facts, which is something users typically relish. Sometimes people are looking for specific facts, such as a product’s weight or size, so product pages are certainly one place where you should write numbers as numerals. But even when a number doesn’t represent a product attribute, it’s a more compact (and thus attractive) representation of hard information than flowery verbiage.
* How do users’ eyes locate numerals while skipping past words? The shape of a group of digits is sufficiently different from that of a group of letters to stand out to users’ peripheral vision before their foveal vision fixates on them. 2415 looks different than four, even though both consist of 4 characters. (As the previous sentence shows, stating the number of characters as a numeral makes it stand out, even without the bold highlighting.)

Digits enhance the scannability of Web content. It’s that simple.
Departing from Traditional Writing Guidelines
Traditional writing guidelines for print publications dictate that you spell out many numbers. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style says to spell out:

* “whole numbers from one through ninety-nine;”
* any of these numbers “followed by hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, and so on;”
* round numbers;
* very big numbers (millions, billions, etc.); and
* numbers that appear as the first word in a sentence.

I’ve frequently said that the guidelines for online writing differ from those for writing for print. I can now add that the guidelines for presenting numbers are different for websites than for print publications.

When writing for the Web:

* Write numbers with digits, not letters (23, not twenty-three).
* Use numerals even when the number is the first word in a sentence or bullet point.
* Use numerals for big numbers up to one billon:
o 2,000,000 is better than two million.
o Two trillion is better than 2,000,000,000,000 because most people can’t interpret that many zeros.
o As a compromise, you can often use numerals for the significant digits and write out the magnitude as a word. For example, write 24 billion (not twenty-four billion or 24,000,000,000).
* Spell out numbers that don’t represent specific facts.

As an example of the latter, if I say something like “in recent years, we have tested thousands of users and seen their use of breadcrumbs increase,” it’s better to write “thousands” as a word than to write “1,000s” or something like that. “Thousands” is not really data in this context, it’s intended to give an idea of the scope of the research. On the other hand, it’s better to use numerals when stating the exact number (e.g., “we have tested 2,692 users”). Disclosing the exact number also increases the statement’s credibility.
Big Numbers
In addition to spelling out extremely big numbers, you might also need to explain them if you write for a non-scientific audience. You might, for example, say that a trillion is a thousand billions.

Most people don’t understand numbers above a billion, and many people don’t even know what a billion represents. There’s also an internationalization issue here: “billion” represents a thousand millions in American English, but a million millions in many European languages. Thus, the guideline is:

* Explain numbers starting with a trillion for most audiences. Explain numbers starting with a billion if you write for less numerate audiences or international users (you might say, for example, that “a trillion is a thousand billions.”)

Also, in testing e-commerce sites over the last few months, we found that most users couldn’t understand phrases like “1 TB,” which some sites use to state hard-drive capacity. Few users had previously encountered storage media in the terabyte range, so they had no clue what “1 TB” meant. Thus, the guideline is:

* Explain unusual abbreviations and measurement units, particularly those representing very big numbers.

For now, sites that sell computer equipment should spell out and explain TB when they use it. In a few years, people will be accustomed to the unit and won’t need such explanations. Thus, the detailed design guideline to explain TB might remain in force for only a few years. In contrast, the general usability guideline to explain unusual units will probably stay valid forever.
Digits Boost Usability and Credibility
For specific facts, representing numbers using digits rather than letters increases usability for people who are looking for either a particular piece of information or the gist of a page. This often includes e-commerce shoppers and very often includes customers visiting B2B sites, whether they’re shopping or just doing research.

Even when users aren’t scanning for data, having your facts stand out visually by presenting them as numerals is an easy way to enhance credibility by making your page seem more useful.