News site from scratch: What are the most important things to include?

I didn’t ask this question, although I think about it quite frequently. Mohamed Nanabhay, the Head of New Media with Al Jazeera, posed the question on Twitter:

Twitterverse : If you were building a news website from ground up what would be the most important things to include?

It’s a good question, a pressing question. I think that there will be a site with related services that radically disrupts the news industry. Last month, I wrote a post that asked the question of what had prevented newspapers from being successful in the digital age. Steve Yelvington, who has great depth of experience in journalism, digital or otherwise, left a left a great comment and concluded:

This ain’t just another channel. The new players, coming into the game without any frame of reference other than what’s right in front of them, are much more able to recognize that than those of us from legacy media.

What would you do with a blank tablet? What would you do without the legacy business? What do you think would be most important in launching not just a news website but a digital news service with no baggage?

Mohamed started thinking about three guiding principles for visitors: Relevance, discoveribility and depth, and Robin Hamman, of Headshift, suggested wrapping all of this in a social media layer. Lars Plougmann, also with Headshift, suggested “syndication, participation, embeddable content, bridges to the flow on the web, mobile access”.

Mandy De Waal, editor of MoneyWebLife, had several interesting ideas.

  1. Story tracking tool – which stories most popular, searched for etc ala Google, live chat with newsroom at certain times.
  2. Satire… satire… satire! A section showing people how to easily become vloggers, Thought Leader type guest columns, polls.
  3. Live feed of the newsroom in action – (but not close enough to see what they are writing about 😉
  4. Ticker tape of hyper links showing breaking story – this could be a new form or type of content aggregations.

I re-tweeted Mohamed’s question and got some great responses. John Thompson, of says: “Automatic semantic tagging, related links, user-customisable RSS, SEO friendly URLs, Apture-style auto linking, good comments system”.

Paul Bradshaw, Senior Lecturer in Online Journalism and Magazines at Birmingham City University and the man behind the Online Journalism Blog, also had a number of good ideas:

  1. RSS at every juncture – automating all activity so it’s publishable: bookmarking, twittering, blogging, email, browsing.
  2. pingback in all external linking. I’d also move away from one big powerhouse towards a network of little niches.
  3. and I’d set it up so journalists got alerts or digests when people comment on their stories, with time set aside for response

On the last point, I think that commenting systems should have RSS. With Movable Type, I occasionally use CoComment to follow the conversations that I participate in.


And I think Craig McGinty has an excellent bit of advice: “Be as creative in making it pay as editorially.”

We all realise that the business model for newspapers is broken – especially in the United States – and it’s time to consider revenue models and multiple revenue streams. This would be especially critical for an all digital news service. The cost basis of a digital news service could be much lower than a newspaper or broadcast outlet, but the reality is that the revenue is also lower for digital right now.

Businesses need to look at new revenue streams. PaidContent (recently acquired by the folks who pay my wage) has built a successful business not simply by focusing on the digital content vertical but also by building a successful events business. I don’t think the business conferences are the only events-based businesses that content companies could sponsor. And events aren’t the only new revenue stream that a digital business should develop.

Cost basis

Legacy media companies haven’t taken advantage of the disruptive economics of digital technologies. I see a lot of newspaper companies getting into video, but instead of using low-cost digital technologies, they are chasing television and buying high-cost broadcast technology.

Smart companies are leveraging open-source technologies, but many companies suffer from ‘not made here’ syndrome, delivering projects over-budget and behind schedule.

The digital project would also start with a much leaner staff. Jeff Jarvis had this suggestion on the Guardian’s media blog:

But on my blog, I took a hypothetical newsroom staff of 100 as a round number, then cut by 30% – not draconian by today’s precedents – and asked what the priorities should be when the cutbacks come. In my hypothetical newsroom, reporting is the highest priority. The more original journalism that is done, the higher the value of the paper and its web service, the better the opportunity to stand out in links and search. Breaking news is worthwhile, but I come down heavily on the side of beat reporting: journalists who are devoted to watchdogging an area.

The Social Layer

I agree with Robin. The successful site would have a social media layer. The site has to have attention data (most viewed, commented, linked, Dugg, etc), recommendation, rating and several levels of participation.

However, I think the social-ness of the strategy can’t stop with the technology. I think the news site of the future will also have a staff focused on building community around the content. People make technology social. Journalists connected to their communities provide more relevant content to those communities and build deeper relationships with them. Social journalists, comfortable creating social media and facilitating social interaction around that content, will be the core of disruptive digital business coming to a community near you.

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