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The biggest mistake online news sites make: creating their own content

One of the big things that most newspapers (i.e. all of them) don’t get about the web is that it’s not all about creating (and owning) content. Pointing to good content is just as important.
Data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism‘s latest State of the News Media report shows that all of the top ten online news sites use newspaper content (from wire services or via the web) – but only three of them are newspaper (or newspaper chain) sites. Yahoo, MSNBC, AOL, Google etc. all produce no or very little original content, and use and rely on newspaper newsrooms and the web for their raw material.
In fact the PEJ numbers understate this simple truth because they don’t seem to be treating a whole class of news aggregators — notably Digg  and even Reddit— as news sites. Going by monthly unique visitors, Digg (which has between 5 and 25 million unique visitors depending on who you believe) would easily make the top ten. And they, of course, create no news at all, merely have their readers post links to it.
In an information economy, in a society where the world’s information is migrating online where it will soon be always and instantly available, one of the most important jobs to be done is not information creation— but retrieval. Find me the stuff I need/want fast. Creating useful information — which news clearly is — is also an important job, but it shouldn’t be our only one. Newspapers can’t expect to compete on search as such, but they can — and must — use their searching, filtering and editing skills to find and point to the best, most useful and interesting, news on the web.
Why is that so hard to understand?
Scour the web for the freshest, most authoritative, relevant news and information (news sites, blogs, institutional sites – whatever!) toss it into a river of news on your front page, a river that also includes your very own excellent local content. Mix in the very best readers picks of news on the web, and a dose of their freshest, best comments, pulled from anywhere on your site, and you have a news product that people will come back to again and again each day.
There are some news sites that are moving, slowly and cautiously, in this direction — but not newspaper sites. As always, innovation is coming from outsiders, not from newspapers themselves, culture-bound creatures that they are.
Here’s one example, Crosscut, a Seattle based guide to local news and information. Here’s how they describe themselves:

Based in Seattle, Crosscut is a guide to local and
Northwest news, a place to report and discuss local news, and a
platform for new tools to convey local news. The journalism of regular
citizens appears alongside that of professionals. News coverage with
detachment, traditionally practiced by mainstream media outlets,
coexists with advocacy journalism and opinion.

  • Crosscut finds and highlights the best local journalism and the
    best local commentary, whether it’s the work of the biggest
    metropolitan daily newspaper or a part-time blogger. There is a
    multitude of worthy sources of information on the Internet, but few
    people have time to navigate them all.
  • Crosscut publishes its own journalism and commentary. These are stories
    and angles others have missed or ignored. Our news coverage aims to
    complement that of other providers, to extend exploration of events and
    issues, to possibly encourage resolution

I think it’s unfortunate that they’ve swallowed the "Local, Local, Local" mantra of scared news sites everywhere that are foolishly refusing to compete against the "big" boys — the top ten online news sites.
I say leverage the great content being produced online by the New York Times, the Globe and Mail and other players on the international scene — point to the best of it as soon as it’s available.
Do that work for your readers, do the job of finding good stuff fast, and they’ll never leave you.

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