The rise of digital news networks

Belo, Canada.com, Tribune, Knight Ridder reap the fruits of convergence

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

Quietly, with barely a glimmer of attention, the largest newspaper chains on the continent have spent the past few months rolling out Web publishing systems that herald important changes for both online staffs and news consumers.

The new systems tie each media company’s Web sites closer together, lowering production costs, smoothing the way for network advertising buys, and enabling editorial staffs to share content much more easily than before.

On the whole, this is good news. From the bean counters’ point of view, eliminating duplicate spending and increasing ad revenues brings news sites one step closer to profitability, viability and vitality.

From the perspective of online news crews — especially small, understaffed teams — leveraging editorial contributions from sister publications can make for a richer offering.

And from the vantage point of users, digital news networks can mean deeper and better news coverage — or a sterile, homogenized product lacking soul, personality or purpose.

When it comes to this flavor of convergence — let’s call it chain convergence — execution is everything.

Belo Interactive

The Winter Games provided a good example of what digital news networks can offer the news consumer.

Reporters, photographers and videographers from Belo newspapers and television stations descended on Salt Lake City in February and created a powerful editorial package that became integrated into their own sites with a seamless look and feel.

On the night Sarah Hughes won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, I glided over to New Orleans’ WWLTV.com and came away impressed with its coverage: a timely news story, produced by a Belo Interactive staffer, and photos.

Several hundred miles and one time zone away, the Providence Journal — another Belo property — made no mention of Hughes’ feat on its front page. A small interior text link mentioned her win and transported the reader, somewhat jarringly, to the story on DallasNews.com.

The difference? WWLTV had come under the wing of Belo Interactive’s new central publishing system a few weeks earlier, while Providence — the last site to adopt the system — didn’t come aboard until a few weeks later, on March 28.

It’s a pretty rare feat for TV news sites to beat an online newspaper at breaking news. But the 17 broadcast sites in the Belo Interactive family have an advantage: They’re no longer flying solo.

“If you look at the smaller TV sites, they probably could have done very little on their own to cover the Olympics,” says Jay Small, who oversees news and operations for eight Belo sites in the eastern United States. “But as part of a larger network, they were able to look a whole lot bigger than they really are.”

TV news sites are typically run on a shoestring. But Belo’s sites can dip into editorial content ranging from breaking news and lifestyle pieces to op-ed commentary and sports coverage, all courtesy of sister Web sites running the same publishing software.

The home-grown content management system (named VelocIT by those playful tech guys) evolved from necessity, Small says. It grew from an effort to replace a failing content system at DallasNews.com two years ago.

“Once we saw how successful that was, it made sense strategically to start looking at accomplishing economies of scale and providing sites with the right set of tools to capitalize on what they were already doing locally,” he says.

So Belo Interactive initiated a project, dubbed Gold Standard, to provide a common but easily customized Web template framework on top of the network content platform.

The first two sites to adopt the Gold Standard design were KING5.com in Seattle and the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise. Also coming under the tent over the past few months were AZFamily.com in Phoenix; KMSB.com in Tucson, Ariz.; NBC6.com in Charlotte, N.C.; WFAA.com in Dallas; WHAS11.com in Louisville, Ky.; NWCN.com in Seattle; and KGW.com in Portland, Oregon.

While the sharing of news and features across Belo Interactive properties isn’t new, it’s now relatively painless.

“Before the new system was in place, sharing content was more time-consuming and labor-intensive,” Small says. “We did a lot of it through e-mail and wound up doing a lot of post-production work. So this really simplifies our lives. No more chewing gum and bailing wire.”

How do the sites swap content? Let us count the ways.

Political news, state news and photos from the Dallas Morning News routinely appear on other Belo sites in Texas: WFAA, Texas Cable News, Austin’s KVUE and the Denton Record-Chronicle. In the opposite direction, most of the weather-related features on dallasnews.com come straight from the meteorologists at WFAA.

The Belo Interactive staff in Dallas creates a movies channel that is packaged and distributed with a common look and feel for other Belo sites. So a visitor to WVEC in Hampton Roads, Va., can read a movie review written by a Dallas Morning News film critic. That’s marginally better than publishing a movie review from a news service like Knight Ridder, in my view.

But the real power of the digital news network comes through when sharing breaking news, sports or enterprise reporting. Personal technology news, for example, is provided by reporters at the Dallas Morning News, Providence Journal and New Orleans’ WWLTV.com.

Stories about the Dallas Cowboys — big news in Texas — are shared across the network. Regional sites have become authoritative news sources for coverage of local pro teams. Projo.com provides extensive coverage of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots. KMOV in St. Louis provides in-depth coverage of football’s St. Louis Rams.

“You’ll see a lot of video sharing among the Texas news sites, as well as the TV station in New Orleans because of its proximity to Texas,” Small says. “You’ll see a lot of content sharing in the Northwest group between Seattle, Portland and Spokane.”

News about the Texas governor’s race has national appeal, as do various locally created news and feature packages. The online team at WHAS11, the top-rated news station in Louisville, Ky., is putting together an extensive package covering the Kentucky Derby on May 4, looking at not only this year’s entrants but tracing the event’s rich history. It will appear next week.

Now, about the impact of convergence on the Belo sites’ design. To a larger extent than Canada.com or Knight Ridder’s Real Cities (though less than Tribune Interactive), the Belo sites allow for meaningful flexibility and site enhancements at the local level.

“A user will see similarities in the core navigation and the presentation of headline blocks and a mostly standardized look to the tile and banner ads,” Small says. “But within the framework, individual sites are able to customize the elements to permit a distinctive look and design.”

In my book, that’s convergence done right.

The fact that Belo’s media properties lean more heavily to television stations than newspapers suggests that the flavor of its news sites will be shaped by the broadcast news culture and users’ expectations of that medium.

“Many of our TV stations have the ability to get aerial footage of a crime scene or disaster or large fire, and they’ll quickly make their way to all the sites because of the integrated network,” Small says. “It’s often compelling stuff.”

Small sees great possibilities for sharing broadband news in the years ahead. “If you’re right up against deadline in a print newsroom and breaking news hits, your reaction is to get a few grafs of text into that edition and follow up later. In a TV-Internet environment, we’re definitely thinking of not just getting a few grafs of text news on the site but following on as quickly as we can with any rich media content that we can reasonably produce in an accurate and credible way.

“As the technology improves and the time needed to encode video for the Web comes down, that will get easier to do,” Small says. “What you’re looking at today is only Version 1.0 of our overall vision.”

CanWest Interactive

Readers south of Toronto may not have heard of Canada.com. That’s because this behemoth is not only a newcomer to the online news business but a new kind of animal.

A creature of convergence.

A year ago, 125 different Web sites — mostly small, local newspaper sites — were leading a nomadic existence. Then CanWest Global Communications swooped in. Last summer it bought 136 newspapers from Conrad Black for $2.2 billion (US), the biggest media deal in Canadian history. It now owns 14 big-city dailies, one national newspaper, 126 other dailies and weeklies, a television network and several radio stations.

And behold, out of the media chaos arose a single Internet strategy and a singular Web site, Canada.com.

“We decided that the various newspapers would give up their stand-alone Web sites and become a part of an aggregated international property while retaining their local content,” says Bruce MacCormack, president of CanWest Interactive.

Visit the site and you’re immediately prompted to choose from among 29 local editions. CanWest is betting the ranch on local news as a key differentiator.

“Our strategy rests on the belief that the Internet should be a local medium for us,” MacCormack says. “Yahoo and Microsoft have strong portals here, and a me-too product wouldn’t get us where we wanted to go. But I could build a better Halifax site than Microsoft and a better Calgary site than Yahoo.”

Not counting the portals, Canada.com is now the No. 1 news and information site in Canada, MacCormack says, with 2.4 million visitors and more than 100 million page views per month.

Transforming more than 100 newspaper Web sites into a single “hybrid” nationwide entity has meant bumps and bruises for the local entities, but a stronger overall product, with lower production costs and a more attractive set of local audiences for advertisers, MacCormack says.

CanWest decided early on to take the painful step of converting to a common publishing platform, which took effect last September. That has paid dividends not only for the company but for news consumers.

“We have the advantage of publishing in multiple time zones,” MacCormack says. “A news event that occurs early in the day can be handled by our editors in Halifax (Nova Scotia). Developing news can be updated late in the evening by our folks in Victoria (British Columbia) after our editors back east have gone home.”

The combined publishing platform will also let editors share local news and feature packages much more easily, and it allows member sites to share national content. “There’s a lot of stuff that is best done once: stock prices, sports, weather,” MacCormack says. “You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. You want to add on the things that give you a local differentiated character.”

The new platform also gives readers “the most comprehensive entertainment database in Canada,” MacCormack says. For instance, the site provides listings of noteworthy events, such as which bands are playing in which clubs in all major cities.

Two months ago at the E&P Interactive Newspapers Conference in San Jose, MacCormack had an interesting face-off with Tom Regan, an editor at the Christian Science Monitor, who said he finds the new format of the Halifax Daily News less appealing under the homogeneous Canada.com umbrella.

“The uniqueness of each newspaper’s individual format was killing us financially,” MacCormack shot back. “The sites all look the same? Yes, that’s the goal. But the important thing is the local content that differs from site to site.”

“While there’s a high degree of commonality between the different cities, none of them are identical,” MacCormack adds in our phone interview. “It’s always a fine-tuning exercise, but we think we’re doing OK.”

That tension between local control and national assimilation drew considerable attention a few months ago when CanWest decreed that no local editorials would be permitted to contradict national editorials issued from corporate headquarters in Winnipeg. The decision prompted a handful of resignations, a byline strike by reporters at the Montreal Gazette, a protest site, and outrage from journalists worried the policy would spill over to local columnists and news stories, diluting the diversity of views in their communities.

“That’s a newspaper issue, not an Internet group issue,” MacCormack says. “We don’t set editorial policy.”

True. But the echoes of that flare-up should serve as a reminder of the dangers of standardization gone amok and the folly of silencing local voices.

Convergence, in short, is a two-edged sword. And its benefits may come in ways not currently envisioned. Take the convergence of newspaper and broadcast assets on Web news sites, often trotted out as a forward-looking practice by media companies.

“On Canada.com, we’re deemphasizing video,” MacCormack says flatly. “The equations just don’t work. We’ve got a ton of text-based content, but it’s a financial challenge to deliver video. We won’t focus on that until broadband rolls out widely.”

MacCormack says that true convergence at media companies is not so much about what’s happening at the top of the iceberg, where you’ll see the occasional newspaper reporter appearing on a sister station’s TV news show. Convergence is more about what’s happening below the surface: the operations infrastructure, the circulation data-capturing, the ability to deliver multiple audiences to advertisers.

Looking down the road, MacCormack sees considerable benefits of convergence for CanWest’s TV, newspaper and Internet operations. “Digital set-top boxes with feedback channels are going into Canadian households at a rate that’s well ahead of other western countries. We see some really exciting possibilities for both editorial and advertising when we’re able to look at our customers as individual subscribers with known viewing habits,” he says.

“Sending out ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ with a digital signal, that doesn’t change the universe,” he says. “When you’ve got the attributes of identity and two-way dialogue — when your people can talk back to you — that’s when it starts to change the world.

“At its worst, it’ll be about selling zirconium rings. At its best, it’s going to change democracy. And it’ll probably fall somewhere in between.”

Tribune Interactive

“Scale does matter,” says David Hiller, president of Tribune Interactive, “and it seems to matter even more online.”

That’s one reason Tribune plunked down $8 billion for Times Mirror Co. in March 2000.

“One of the reasons for buying Times Mirror was to build national scale in print and online,” Hiller says. “Previously, we had three or four great Web sites, but to do the things we wanted to accomplish, it made sense to build scale in the medium.”

By adding the Web sites of the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Baltimore Sun and Hartford Courant, Tribune Interactive immediately became one of the elite players in the online news industry. Throw 23 TV stations into the mix, and you’ve got a convergence behemoth.

So has Tribune Interactive become the Dark Master, sending word to its minions that they must conform to the throne of bland corporate uniformity? Hardly. Each site in the Tribune retains a distinctive flavor and personality.

“That’s deeply engrained in our DNA,” Hiller says. “I’m not sure we’d know how to do a homogenized product. What we do is local media, and the essence of that is a unique voice that reflects the distinctive voice and history and experience of the community.”

Tribune’s interactive unit began work on a unified content management system in mid-2000 to replace the 11 different publishing systems at 11 of its properties. In November it rolled out Oxygen, a Web-based system powered by an industrial-strength database that gives online staffs access to stories, graphics, photos and audio and video files.

Hiller says that sharing news across the network has proved valuable for both enterprise packages and breaking national news.

“We were able to put together very good coverage of the Olympics, accessible all along the network, without having 12 or 15 people duplicating the same work,” he says. The Olympics package contained coverage from reporters and photographers from the Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday and other publications.

In 1997 Tribune created Shared News Service, with a small team of producers in Chicago charged with the mission of sharing news throughout the company’s Web sites. “For us, content sharing is old hat,” says Scott Anderson, director of shared programming for Tribune Interactive. “Oxygen has just made it a lot easier.”

The last of the Tribune sites not currently on Oxygen — its broadcast news sites and Chicagosports.com — are due to switch over by the end of this month.

Anderson says the unified publishing system is invaluable both for special packages, such as the Oscars, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and last year’s Florida ballot project, as well as on a day-to-day basis. Anderson’s team coordinates daily nation-world and business budgets throughout the network each afternoon, budgets that contain dozens of stories from Tribune publications.

Different sites will take the lead in coordinating content for the network, so the LA Times traditionally heads up coverage of the Oscars while the Orlando Sentinel handles space shuttle launches.

Other sites take the lead when news breaks in their back yards. Newsday filed several stories with exclusive angles after former NBA star Jayson Williams was charged with manslaughter Feb. 25. On the same day, the Baltimore Sun covered the sinking of a tugboat that collided with a freighter in foggy conditions on the Elk River. It also happened to be the first day the Sun was working with WMAR, its new broadcast partner, and video from the scene was made available to all the Tribune news sites.

Video is becoming an increasingly important part of the content mix, and a number of Tribune sites produce and share Web video. Just last week Tribune Interactive took another step in that direction by partnering with video news site The FeedRoom to launch Chicago Tribune FeedRoom, which relies heavily on video from Tribune’s WGN-TV News in Chicago.

The Tribune Co. has long been at the forefront of the news media’s convergence movement, with multimedia newsrooms in Chicago, Orlando and video capabilities now being added to the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times.

Says Hiller: “We’re trying more and more to organize ourselves internally to produce for multiple media. But beyond the cameras in the newsroom is the mindset we’re fostering about how to plan and execute on the coverage and deploy it throughout all our media in a way that makes the most sense from the users’ point of view.”

Knight Ridder Digital

On Feb. 7, Knight Ridder Digital pulled the switch on a new digital publishing platform and redesign for its network of 30-plus city portals and regional hubs. The switchover resulted in dead links for vast amounts of archived material, drawing withering criticism on [link] Poynter’s online-news list, in weblogs and in this publication.

It was, in short, a case of content management done wrong.

The Real Cities sites are still getting slammed for their cookie-cutter design. It’s as if the corporate designers said, “Miami? I know! Let’s throw a palm tree into the masthead.”

The move to a unified publishing system, dubbed Market Leader, is reducing costs and helping sites share content more effortlessly. In the years ahead, the new system will make it easier to share content across a wide variety of publishing platforms, such as mobile devices.

Bob Ryan, vice president of operations, says many kinds of packages can be programmed at the national level with content feeds from local online staffs. For the Oscars, an entertainment channel manager at corporate headquarters in San Jose worked with a producer in Philadelphia to coordinate coverage among all the local sites.

Feature stories from the Miami Herald and El Herald Nuevo on up-and-coming Latino entertainers can be shared throughout the network, Ryan says. The Charlotte Observer’s online staff takes the lead on NASCAR racing and built a site, thatsracing.com, that is promoted throughout the network.

“The real value proposition that distinguishes us from national verticals like ESPN is that we have deep local content and columnists who are franchise players and name brands in their local media markets,” Ryan says.

Dan Finnigan, president of Knight Ridder Digital, told the E&P Interactive Newspapers Conference in February: “Now that we have the infrastructure in place, we’ll start making a lot of little bets on the content in the business channel vs. the living channel vs. the outdoor subchannel of our living channel. And we’ll find out what works and figure out the value of convergence.”

And what is Finnigan’s reaction to criticism of the design of the relaunched Real Cities sites? “I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of allowing for flexibility on how the sites look,” he said. Can’t argue with that.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT