Friday, June 6, 2008

On the Web, content is not enough

MediaBistro's FishBowl NY blog recently teased former MTV head honcho Michael Wolf about a YouTube video entitled "Help Me Find a Job." But in doing so, they missed some of the more interesting things he had to say.


"Traditional media companies don't understand that, on the Web, content is not enough, that it's about tools and applications, and it's about functionality that you can give the user, versus just content."

I recently interviewed the editor of, dubbed this year's best online magazine by the American Society of Magazine Editors. He told me that the areas of the site that get the most traffic were the discussion forums (not surprising) and the Training Log. The what? The Training Log. A simple application where users can track each run taken, distance, time, even the specific pair of shoes they wore. Runners are data nuts, he told me. They loved the tool because it offered them an easy way to track their performance.

So the main traffic driver was not some six-piece investigative report on doping practices by elite runners. Or a comparison of the best running gear. Or even a heart-warming profile of a runner who had overcome some great adversity.* It was a tool, a fairly simple one to build at that, that was useful to readers on a daily or weekly basis.

In Silicon Valley, we call this "build once, sell to many." You build a software product and then sell it to millons of people. That's how you make money. In the case of the Training Log, you're actually "selling" to the same reader over and over, since it's something they return to continually. (And, of course, "selling" here means "enticing to return." The actual selling is to advertisers--the selling of all those ad impressions generated by return visits.)

Individual stories are more like custom projects. You build once and sell once, since few readers will return to a story they've already read.

I'm not saying, of course, that newspapers shouldn't run stories. That, after all, is the purpose of the news business. But to make money, newspeople need to think beyond only doing stories. It's a new way of thinking, maybe one that's hard for some newspeople to wrap their minds around. It was never something on journalism's radar screen before, because it wasn't something the old technology--ie: paper--could do. But the new technology--the digital world--can. So now, savvy newspeople will be the ones who think in terms of tools in addition to stories. Who create useful tools readers will come back to again and again. Traffic, after all, drives revenue. And revenue is the key to survival.

* I'm making these up.

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