Robert Niles to Newspapers: Don’t bring a plastic fork to a gunfight

by Jason Preston on April 15, 2008

Robert Niles teaches at USC and is the editor of Online Journalism Review. The OJR is a fantastic resource for anyone who is interested in the nature and trajectory of journalism.

Niles has a history as a web editor, reporter, and editorial writer at several newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

I had a chance to ask him a few questions about personal branding and about existing newspaper comment policies. Here’s what he had to say:

Jason Preston: In your post, you talk about the stunning lack of emphasis on newspaper authors. Do you see the internet (and blogging in particular) changing the way journalism is branded in the next five or ten years? Will people read Ebert, Pogue, and Mossberg, or will they read the Sun-Times, the NYT, and the WSJ?

Robert Niles: Many readers got the Chicago Sun-Times, then Tribune, for Mike Royko. I know a few people who would have dumped the LA Times by now if it weren’t for Steve Lopez. Jim Murray sold a lot of paper for the LAT back in his day, and many liberals bought the NY Times’ now-defunct “Times Select” subscription online just to get Paul Krugman.

Personalities always have driven newspaper sales, and readership. But with so much Internet content being driven by the personality of its author, I think that newspapers ought to broaden the spotlight beyond a few star columnists to highlight the experience and expertise of more of their writers, so that their work can stand out online.

I read Curt Cavin’s blog from the Indy Star everyday, because I am interested in open wheel auto racing. But I don’t read anything else in the Star, online or off. (I live in Los Angeles.) That’s an opportunity for the Star, to extend its commercial business to this new international audience that Curt is attracting. Smart newspapers will find ways to do this, and to cultivate global readerships for their writers.

Preston: Why do you think that this shift might be important to the survival of newspapers (or do you)?

Niles: The relevant competition is no longer with a handful of other local print advertising media. It’s with the whole of the Internet. Newspapers need to quit bringing a plastic fork to a gunfight and start reclaiming market share by competing on the terms that the rest of the media market online has dictated.

Preston: How do you think newspapers could structure their web properties to better reflect the legitimacy of their brands?

Niles: Forget about the “legitimacy” of the brand, for starters. Newspapers need to create a usable platform for their writers to go out and prove themselves on a daily basis. Then to support that by attaching usable, relevant advertising with as low a sales cost as possible.

Preston: You’ve also complained about newspapers failing to, essentially, moderate comment threads. Why are you confident that “admonishing the rude” would be productive rather than destructive to a comment thread?

Niles: Would you rather be part of a fascinating conversation, or a screaming fight? There’s a talent to putting down those who deserve it while lifting up those who are advancing a conversation. Good radio hosts have it, as do good reporters. (As do school teachers, as well.) If a paper can have someone like that leading in their discussion forums, they will have larger traffic and more influential discussions. If they put in someone without that skill, a ham-handed attempt at leadership likely would drive people away. Too many newspapers don’t want to risk that (or pay for that talent), so they let their comments sections rot.

Preston: Have you seen anything in your experience dealing with comments, maybe at OJR, that demonstrates the importance of being active in your own comment threads?

Niles: OJR’s a lousy example, because its audience is people who already have their own publishing forums. People comment on OJR from their own blogs, not in our comment sections. (That’s why we provide the trackback links via Technorati and Google.) But, from personal experience, I saw traffic on my wife’s website increase by two orders of magnitude within two years when she started participating in the forums, as opposed to the first two years, when she left them alone.

Preston: How do you think newspapers should reconcile the different “active life cycles” of pieces that run in the print edition vs pieces that get posted online?

Niles: Forget about the print edition. Stories live online; deal with them there. Leave print as an archive from a single moment in the time of each story.

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1 Monica Guzman 04.28.08 at 3:26 pm

“Stories live online; deal with them there.”

As a reporter, it’s so cool to watch stories get linked, blogged, commented and quoted online. Rather than just assuming your story’s making an impact, you can go online and watch the magic happen.

2 Jason Preston 04.28.08 at 8:07 pm

The “meme” is one of the fantastic side effects of linking and social behavior online.

I think there’s plenty of opportunity to expand the “interactivity” of journalism using the web as well. At some point I’ll probably dedicate a post to it, but the concept of using a “call to action” in online journalism might not be as distasteful as it first sounds.

Then again it might. I haven’t done my proper thinking on it yet 😉

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