Monday, April 18, 2011

Most newspapers are still struggling with the basics of web publishing: Chronicle series lack interactive features

This year marks the 105th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. 105 is not a nice round number, but for the citizens of San Francisco, the earthquake of that year will never be ancient, irrelevant history.
Having lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, known now as the World Series quake, I can say that the specter of '06 always lingers. Back in '89 I was working for a Bay Area daily and the quake was a quick reminder that newspapers were pretty irrelevant compared to broadcast mediums. The reporters and editors left our building when the power went out and headed to a local bar which still had power in order to watch the television coverage of the quake. Things would have been quite different had the paper a web site to maintain.

To commemorate the '06 quake, the San Francisco Chronicle published a two part series of excerpts from the manuscript of Dr. Leonie von Zesch, who was 23 at the time of the great quake. Her manuscript was found in some boxes that were stored after her death in 1944.

The online version of the two articles that appeared on Sunday and this morning in the print edition of the newspaper simply replicate the print versions. Five photos can be found online, but other than those photos no additional work was put into the digital versions of the stories.

For me, this partially explains the Chronicle's continued backwardness with all things digital. Here they had an incredible opportunity to use the power of digital publishing to create an interesting package. At the very least, the use of an interactive map would have shown the home of Von Zesch and the locations mentioned in the two excerpts.

Until the Chronicle starts taking its online editorial content seriously it is not hard to see that moving towards a legitimate mobile or tablet publishing strategy would be a waste of time (one would guess that creating a flipbook would be all we could expect from the paper at this time).

The Chronicle's situation is, sadly, not unique. While editors spent lots of time trying to piece together packages for their print editions, very little effort is spent on the online opportunities.

Obviously, the one newspaper property that usually is the exception is the New York Times. Their digital team time after time produces interesting and highly informative interactive features. While it might be near impossible for other papers to replicate these efforts, those features that are part of the Sunday newspaper package are different – more time is available to the editors, and the online team (if one exists) should be able to add to the reader experience.

This is all so nineties, yet here we are are on 2011 still with newspapers struggling with the basics. It is not just a reengineered newsroom that is necessary, but a whole new management attitude towards digital publishing that is required.