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Sign of the Times: For Newspapers to Survive, They Must Put Users First

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Recently, in an attempt to recoup the damage the Internet has wreaked on the publishing industry, The New York Times announced that it will move to a subscription model on its Web site. Whether this gambit will work any better than the last time they tried it is anybody's guess. But nobody's arguing that we're at a make-or-break moment in publishing.

If publications continue to rely on selling advertising to support their costs, then I have one question for them: How does that serve the audience's needs?

While publications have moved to a level of sophistication in targeting, know how to serve you more relevant advertising, and can follow you through your experience at their site, the user experience is still so dismal that most readers have simply learned to train their eyes on content and skip the ads altogether.

In news that's even more alarming for established publication brands, during focus groups, I've heard comments like, "I like to learn about something in the news and read it a few different places. I don't have to get my information from one source." If it's true that readers perceive traditional brands with less trust or care, and they're looking at content as a simple commodity, then publishers will have to give their audiences something new to keep them coming back: An experience that puts user needs front and center. This doesn't mean getting rid of the ads. It means making all content--including ads--more relevant to readers, unlike the example below.

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Reader location, device design considerations, and publication personalities should be the next areas of opportunities for online publishers looking to survive.

There are three ways publications can take advantage of new devices, like the iPad, to offer users an experience they can't get anywhere else.

Prioritize geographically-relevant content
Let's put advertising aside for a moment and think about editorial content. As a public trust, newspapers in particular, have an obligation to inform the public, particularly during natural disasters or other newsbreaking events. Let's say I'm at the scene of the recent earthquake in Haiti. Given a choice, I would be more inclined to look for information from a source I trust than random sources. If that trusted source could change its entire layout to give me only the information I need to survive or get to the nearest safety zone, it would earn my enduring loyalty.

Imagine if The New York Times could detect my current location and show me, in real-time, all links and access to resources that could help me and my family at the scene. Even better, imagine they could also receive real time reports from me at the scene. I could, potentially, become a news source for the Times. Another user might pull up The New York Times in Baltimore and receive a call for donations and robust packaging of content (including my report from the scene!). A GPS-equipped device could give publishers the ability to target, improve, and make relevant their information with my experience and current location.

Reinforce traditional page turning
How many pages are left? Which section am I in? Fifteen years ago, publications failed miserably at their attempts to copy print experiences on desktop monitors. Today, they are mimicking desktop display design on a device that can support a much more natural way of reading. Think about the prospect of being able to flip through a set of articles with full-page ads as interstitials. Taken further, all pages could be rich with interactive features that allow users to manipulate data with their fingers. My hope is the lack of a keyboard will encourage a whole new set of device interactions and ultimately designers will devise new ways to support the changes.

Remember that personalities rule
I like to refer to this as "Riding the Bull." Now that individuals are publishing straight to the net and drawing huge audiences, established brands have to figure out how to include the more successful of these personalities within their own sites. From a design perspective, this may mean including personalities within brands and driving readership through personality cues versus traditional content display. An example might be reading nytimes.com and seeing a video of a favorite food blogger appear on the front even though the foodie is not affiliated with the Times in any official capacity. Twitter and a personal blogs may be the critic's primary communities. Yet by displaying the critic's content on a page, phone, or desktop, the Times can provide a broader perspective and valuable community participation.

Social networking will only encourage this as audiences coalesce around like interests and networks of networks. It will be the responsibility of the publication to "Ride the Bull," likely becoming curators of personalities vs. content professionals.

AppleWhen will these opportunities materialize? Probably not as quickly as you might expect. Most newspapers are still focusing on subscription models or new ad display models because it's what they know and they need money now. Convincing them to consider the new opportunities to design an experience on multiple mobile devices that would give their audiences something to pay for (experience) is tricky and a bit of a chicken before the egg.

Mobile devices (I throw iPad into this mix) still require a few things to get to where they can deliver the experience I've described, namely, time and resources. Mobile growth is looking very promising, but the numbers still pale in comparison to what a publication can get by sticking to a regular online ad driven experience. Some publications are jumping in, creating mobile versions of their publication, and are finding promising results. That said it's still a reach. Ask for more staff at a paper right now if you want a good laugh. Ask for more staff to create a stronger publishing experience on mobile devices and prepare for a stoning. Mobile designs are in their infancy and are pretty much template shells to receive content from systems that publish to the Web and mobile alike. The design of a mobile publication requires continual refinement, an understanding of how content is stored and shared, and the people to make adjustments as results begin to present themselves.

Just as we couldn't stick a print publication online exactly as it displayed, it will take time for people to understand mobile design and the optimal way to display information on varying devices. This might seem simple but can get very complex very quickly. Newspapers could play a huge role in shortening this learning curve, and giving true value to their readers.

Read Giovanni Calabro's blog Design Pragmatist
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Giovanni Calabro has over 13 years of experience leading interactive research and design efforts for a wide range of business sectors. At Siteworx, Giovanni leads the design team responsible for user experience strategy, brand analysis, search engine optimization (SEO), search and analytics integration and social media strategy. With clients as diverse as MTV Networks, USATODAY.com, NPR, and JPMorgan Chase, Giovanni provides expert strategy and advice in the areas of stakeholder and staff alignment and new publishing models for emerging platforms such as social media and mobile channels.

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