Lessons from the US on how to survive online

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s managing editor, print, Bert Roughton, was in the UK last week to find out what British newspapers are doing to adapt to the online age.

The 500,000-circulation daily, which employs 435 journalists, has one of the most advanced web operations of a US newspaper. He shared with Press Gazette some of what he has learned from his trip.

‘British papers are still struggling with where the boundary is between print and online,’he says. ‘We’ve struggled as well but it feels like you are little bit earlier-on than we are. I feel that much of what we’ve learned about the way people use the web and the way they consume news and information on the web has yet to be learned over here and a lot of pain will have to go into the process of learning.”

Things to play with

‘It’s a pretty big undertaking – it’s taken years for us and we have been aggressive with the website for five years,’he says. ‘What we’ve learned is that the news content for a website is really important but it’s not everything. You’ve also got to have a lot of toys and games; you’ve got to have a lot of things for people to do.

Roughton believes in a changing the ‘content mix’on a fairly constant basis. ‘We call it ‘juggling the Jell-O’,’he says. ‘We have people who just move stuff about on the site all day long. If people come to a website and it seems static they won’t come back, they need to see movement.’

He cautions, however, against making reporters update the site too often. ‘We used to have reporters update their web stories every 15 minutes. But what we’ve found is what readers want is a fresh headline. If a reporter doesn’t have enough to change the headine, don’t bother.”

Drawbacks

‘The internet is infinite and it will suck up all your creativity – you have to throw a measure of stuff at the web, not everything you’ve got. Otherwise you become like 24-hour all-news radio and you can’t then you can’t create any serious journalism.”

He added: ‘The most important thing we’ve found is that printed media and digital media are two different platforms and you have to treat them differently.”

While UK newspapers are expanding rapidly into video, Roughton says that his paper’s experience this approach was not a positive one.

‘We found we’re not that good at it,’he says. ‘TV does it better – it doesn’t get you a whole lot more readers in the long run.”

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