Web is wonderful, but don’t write off newspapers

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Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, announced on Tuesday that he was setting up an ‘exploratory committee’ to see if he might stand as a US presidential candidate. It was the way that he announced it – through a website – that intrigued me. It shows that the web can be wonderful, but only if it works hand in hand with the steam-driven world. So don’t go writing off newspapers and television just yet.

Mr Obama’s site (www.barackobama.com) is a neat affair, with a couple of Flash-driven videos. One of them has his announcement; the other is a biopic. It is all very slick.

But I know the site exists only because I read it about in the papers. All the reports noted he had made the announcement on his website. If they had not, what would have happened? No-one (well few people) would have thought to look for it. It would have remained just one among millions of websites that can be found if you are looking for it, but you would be as unlikely to stumble across as you would to prick your finger on that needle in a haystack.

This may seem blindingly obvious, but it is a good example of an important point that is perhaps being forgotten. The web is a secondary medium. Mr Obama’s site may be a pleasing way of getting his message across – but only if people find it via a primary medium.

What do I mean by primary medium? Simply, one that people will turn to themselves, or be exposed to without effort – a high visibility medium, you might call it. Newspaper articles or advertisements, television reports or commercials, radio ditto, hoardings by the side of the road. Indeed the billboard on a busy road probably wins the visibility prize: it is difficult not to see.

A few websites have high visibility: Google News, BBC, CNN and the like are used by increasing numbers as a primary news source. But they are the exception. The vast majority of websites are low visibility, and I include those with massive traffic such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as every blog. Mr Obama’s video is on YouTube, the video sharing network, but it is not high visibility. You will find it only by seeking it out, or by being told about it by a friend. You will not trip over it as you might while watching television, reading a paper or driving along.

For the foreseeable future websites will be secondary media – reliant on old media and a handful of news sites to point them out. Which makes me wonder about another FT headline this week: ‘Poor interest in Tribune bodes ill for newspapers’. It is about the lack of bidders for the second biggest US paper group. The big problem for newspapers is that advertising is shifting to the web, but what will happen to the web if newspapers start closing down? It will lose important signposts, and will itself become less valuable. The relationship is not symbiotic, it is parasitic. And the parasite could be killing the host.

I’ve found a word for this: necrotroph. According to Wikipedia, necrotrophs are parasites ‘that use another organism’s tissue for their own nutritional benefit until the host dies.’ What websites should be are biotrophs which ‘cannot survive in a dead host and therefore keep their hosts alive’. How might this happen? Well, maybe we one day will see media companies keeping newspapers and television stations going simply to act as high visibility signposts to the online world. I’ve had dafter ideas.

Let me give another example to show how broad this issue is: my recycling box. My local authority in London, Southwark, has a website (www.southwark.gov.uk) that provides an impressive range of services. It is not unusual in this – the British government demanded that services be made available electronically and, amazingly, it has happened. When on three occasions my recycling box has not been collected I have filled in a form on the site. Truly remarkably, I have had not only a personal reply but my box has been emptied within a day or two.

I could, if I needed, also use the site to report graffiti, a missing lifebelt, a problem in a cemetery and much more. It is all quite impressive.

But why did I get such a prompt reply? Because, I suspect, I am one of the few people who know about these excellent services. Unless you spend time digging around the innermost parts of websites, as I do, it is unlikely you would find them. What they need is what Mr Obama (who is probably more high profile than my recycled bottles) got: signposting in the high visibility media.

Actually there was a campaign last year to raise awareness of Directgov, the portal that leads to all these useful public sites. I know that because I found a press release that says there were advertisements on milk bottle labels, the backs of buses and in the national press. Good, but not enough. A four week advertising campaign is not going to change the way people behave. It’s a start, but I think we need to be told over and over and over again that there is this very useful thing called the web, and we will be very pleased with what it can offer us.

So here we have two rather different stories, both with the same message. You need old media to point to new media, or the web itself cannot flourish. So to all those who predict the death of newspapers and other traditional media I say: think biotrophs not necrotrophs.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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