This is the new news: How our news sites have changed – and what the future holds

man reading newspaper

Back when newspapers were born, mobiles were hung above cradles to put babies to sleep and tablets were what you took for a headache. The only way for mere mortals to be published was by writing a letter to the editor.

It’s 2012 and, well, things have changed. To catch up, and keep up, our two main sources of online news have undergone some significant revamping. Does ‘new’ equal ‘improved’, and what could be coming next?

 

Heralding in the digital age

The New Zealand Herald sought to reinvent itself last week with a switch to a ‘tabloid’ size and a new look website.

Most people have drawn their own, mostly favourable, conclusions on the new site. As for the new compact hard copy, I’ve been told it’s far easier to read on the bus and train to work, which – having wasted much of my life sitting in one or the other – makes it worth the price already.

The Herald has updated its iPhone and iPad apps too. App users can now receive ‘Breaking News Alerts’ and scan QR codes from the newspaper edition to access more content. Android users, your time will come.

A particularly interesting new feature is the Social Reader. This app allows the reader to peruse (love that word) the Herald without leaving Facebook. Says the official press release, “Facebook users will be able to view nzherald content based on personal interests or content popular with friends. Readers will be able to prioritise, share and rate news in relation to how they feel – happy, sad, inspired, angry etc.”

Add “lost” to that list because it was a hard app to track down. There is no link to it on the site and it was only via the fifth result on Google that I got there. Which is a shame, because the app is pretty good.

 

New Zealand Herald social reader for Facebook

But I don’t want to open for Lady Gaga!

 

Many overseas papers have similar apps through which you can comment on and share content with your Facebook friends, and check up on what they’ve been reading.

Just be sure you use the right version, because my Facebook search for the app revealed an older version that would be best destroyed with fire.

 

Points lost for not calling it ‘Get Stuffed’

 

Stuff Nation logo nz media

Not to be outdone by the Herald, Stuff has created a whole nation.

Stuff Nation is an ambitious new project that intends to “bring our readers much closer together, to form a more tangible community… and to give you opportunities to contribute your views and news in a much more meaningful way.” Now the public can write and submit their own news pieces, register as expert sources in their fields, and interact more with journalists and other readers.

Right now there’s a whole list of assignments calling out for contributors. For photography and property news fans these include photographing celebrities, photographing people who look like celebrities, sharing DIY home tips and pics, and snapping pictures of giant vegetables.

It’s not all shallow and light; some Stuff Nation settlers have produced some well written, thoughtful human-interest pieces. If Stuff included links from each assignment to contributions to said assignment, it would be far easier to find them.

Stuff has also inserted some quality control into their comments section. To comment now you must first sign up and provide some details about yourself. There are ways around that of course – giving a false name for instance – but it will hopefully give some trolls cause to think twice before lowering the tone of every discourse. If not, readers can vote comments up or down so you can skim over the less popular ones. Perhaps Stuff could follow the Daily Mail’s example and let readers sort comments by most or least popular.

At times Stuff Nation seems to be less a crowdsourced news site and more an avenue for bloggers to vent at bigger audiences. If the latter direction wins out it will be a real shame. It will be interesting to watch how this brave new nation grows and evolves.

 

Coming up at ten:

 

Pay wall

Even with all the new changes and initiatives, these websites will probably look completely unrecognisable in a few years.

Social media apps like the Herald’s will likely be embraced more in New Zealand, even with some people boldly predicting the demise of Facebook in the next decade. Stuff still need to further optimise their content for mobile and tablets, especially with the latter projected to outsell laptops by 2016.

Once these are optimised, they need to be monetised. It’s not just fewer sales and subscriptions that hurt papers; Nathan Field also blames the shift to specialist websites by “the big classified categories of cars, real estate and employment.” Whoops.

In an attempt to reverse their fortunes, news sites worldwide are erecting paywalls – and the Herald concedes it’s a matter of time before they follow suit.

When done properly it can increase revenue and subscriptions. Financial publications including the Wall Street Journal and our own National Business Review have pay models that serve them well. In the ‘mainstream’ category, the New York Times gives viewers ten articles a month for free and then charges $US15-35 to see the rest. This peep show works for them: since March 2011 the ‘Grey Lady’ has gained 509,000 online subscribers.

Whether the Herald can also be successful, and whether Stuff follows suit, remains to be seen. For all the hard work and innovation put in by both organisations this year, the toughest challenge of all – monetising themselves without losing their audience – is yet to be fully confronted.

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