Please allow me to start off by saying that I WANT the Dispatch to succeed. I love my city and all that comes with it. I WANT the Dispatch to be a great paper. I WANT people to look at their website and think "wow, I should move there." I criticize because I can't help but read the online edition and think of all these things whilst reading. It might be hard to read those sentiments in this post, but it's true. What would I have to gain from the paper flailing? Nothing. I really, truly, want the paper to listen, implement mine and other suggestions, and get better.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter might already be aware of Dispatch Editor Ben Marrison's not-too-subtle jab at Columbus Underground and the fallout which ensued (it begins about halfway through this page). I became curious about the Dispatch's ability to answer their tweets - or even see their @s - and Mr Marrison did, in the end, prove that he knew how to answer his tweets. Nearly 24 hours after my inquiry, he responded with::
So, bravo. The Dispatch knows how to respond to their tweets. Technically. They just choose not to. Or something. I used to follow their news feed (on Twitter) but when I tweeted them once and no one responded, I dropped them from my list.
I would like to compare this exchange with a few other people I've tweeted in the past few days: I tweeted amazing chef Rick Bayless to see if he could hook me up with his publicist, and he tweeted me back with his publicist's email address in under 3 minutes. Just like he answers all of his tweets. Rick Bayless, who has 34,389 followers on Twitter, answered a lowly waitress/foodblogger in under 3 minutes.
I met writer/journalist Rebecca Skloot (4,413 followers on Twitter) last night at work (she came in for dinner), and I tweeted about something she said on All Sides with Ann Fisher this morning. As soon as she got out of the interview, she retweeted what I wrote (that there is hope for bad kids like me).
The previous two stories are perfect examples of the right way to interact with others on Twitter.
Newspapers are floundering. Advertising dollars are down, journalists are getting laid off, papers are becoming thinner and thinner, and a few weeks ago, the Dispatch announced they are contemplating a change: they would like to begin charging for content. (The self-congratulatory tone of the column provides some great reading.)
Oh Dispatch. Welcome to the digital age. No one wants to pay for content.
This has sparked a lot of controversy and discussion, especially over at Columbus Underground, which has been working very hard this year to become its own news source in Columbus.
The Dispatch has been in trouble for awhile now, and yet - and yet - they keep missing the mark. Drastically. The Dispatch continues to alienate readers - especially younger readers, who know how to get their news from other sources instantly. The truth is, Dispatch, your readers are voting with their dollars. They are not voting for you. Something has got to change, I feel that is self-evident. I have spent a lot of time picking on you, so I thought I would offer up some solutions here. For free.
Now, as a blogger, and even worse, a widely-read blogger, I can be seen as a thorn in the side of real, paid writers. Tthere is nothing a real journalist hates more than a blogger. Real journalists see bloggers as ranting idiots - uneducated, unqualified - there is often the image of the fat naked blogger crushing can after can of Red Bull while they blog and tweet from their parents' basement with their cheesy poof-stained fingertips. Who knows if these "writers" have any taste? Who knows if bloggers can be trusted?
What I have always found interesting about this idea is this: people aren't going to continue to read crap. If I had been putting out crap for the past five years, I wouldn't have the readership I have. People choose to come to my website, to read me in their feed readers. And, while people also choose to read the paper, one can peruse the paper and read content they may or may not love. But online, the mouse rules. It's the click that matters. The choice is there. There is very little extraneous content on a blog, or even on individual pages of the Dispatch website. You can skim over the headlines but what really matters is a reader clicking on the story. (Even people who read writers whose opinion they hate continue because the writer is good. I listen to Glenn Beck. I hate the man, but his rantings and ragings are engaging. I really enjoy listening to his conspiracy theories and yelling at the radio like a crazy person.)
Consider, for example, this lovely snippet from a food writer (writing for one of the Dispatch's holdings) on the goods and bads of the decade:
I will just present that without comment. I found it appropriate because it so directly attacks everything I do. I don't mean to imply here that the writer is attacking me personally, but he is attacking the institution I represent.
And, while I am not 100% on board with sites like Yelp, again: those who love Yelp vet the reviewers there as well. The readers learn whose reviews they can trust.
Certainly there are plenty of people who don't agree with my reviews, and I welcome and expect that. But the truth is, if I weren't a reliable reviewer or recipe writer, I probably wouldn't still be writing RW. I might still be writing it, but if no one were reading it, I would probably have given up years and years ago.
And, if we bloggers are so worthless, then why are the papers trying so hard to copy us - down to the crappy low-light pictures of food?
Competition is good for everyone, but when you whine and moan about the competition that is putting you out of business instead of trying to figure out what they are doing right, you look like a petulant child, thinking you deserve respect or that something is owed to you because of your past relevance.
And so, Ben Marrison, Wolfe family, and the rest of you, here is some advice, which you can take or leave.
- You cannot compare online and print. They are completely different. You cannot expect what has worked for a print paper to work for your website.
- Your website is terrible. I will go into the reasons in following points.
- It takes as long as 20 seconds for your home page to load sometimes. This is your problem, not mine. Believe me. I spend all day online here in my underpants in my parent's basement, and your site is the slowest by far. Frequently your site is taking forever to load because of the advertising you have on your site. You also have a lot of pop-up and pop-under ads on your site. These went out of favor years and years ago. The fact that you still have them proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are behind the curve.
- Speaking of advertising, you frequently have the same ad in the header space and on the sidebar. Why wouldn't you put different ads in each space? Seriously. That's just poor advertising space management, and you are shorting yourself by not having different advertisers.
- Instead of paying good bloggers, you merely tapped your reporters with a magic wand and made them bloggers. As you are constantly reminding the world, bloggers and journalists are different. Just because someone is a great journalist does not mean they will be a good blogger.
- You do not understand the fundamentals of what people love about reading blogs. They love the casual voice, the freedom to say whatever the blogger wants (for bad or good), and the frequency of posting.
- You don't require enough of your writers when they are blogging. As I stated above, readers look to bloggers to post frequently. You might not like it, but it's a staple of blogging. I try to post four times per week, for example. Sometimes I go a little longer, especially during the winter months, and sometimes I post cop-out posts such as lists and pictures of my cats. My readers look forward to new posts and get testy when I don't write enough. And no, not just my mother. Some of your bloggers are going a month without posting. In the blogging world, they would never survive
- Your blog pages are clunky and unintuitive. There is a kind of "code" or "style," if that's easier for you to relate to, for blogging. You don't have any of those styles in place, and it makes it frustrating for readers to navigate the pages - especially if the readers are blog savvy. I could actually go through your blog sections point by point and tell you specifically how to make them better and more user-friendly. But for that, you'd have to fork over a consulting fee.
- Your comment sections are a horrifying embarrassment. It is inconceivable that you do not require any sort of authentication for people to post. The anonymity encourages the sort of racist and hateful speech that was around in the earliest days of the Internet. You require letters to the editor to be from a valid person, why not do the same for comments? Having to attach a name and working email address to your comments usually makes people think twice about posting some of absolute tripe which is posted currently.
- You don't interact with your readers. This is one of your biggest weaknesses. No one moderates the comments sections, so they become runaway trains full of ridiculous comments, most bordering on outright threats.
- You do not respond to your tweets. This shows you do not know how to use Twitter. Editor Ben Marrison has about 250 followers. He follows 15 people. Most of whom are employed by other news institutions. When I challenged him directly to answer if he knew how to read his @s, he finally responded. From what I could gather by reading through his tweets since he joined twitter several months ago, it was his second reply ever.
- You do not force your writers who are on Twitter to engage with the readers either. You don't seem to require them to tweet at all.
- In this age, readers want to engage.
- When you refuse to engage with your readers, you are missing out on a huge opportunity to see what news they want to read about. If you listen, your readers will tell you what they want, what they are willing to pay for.
- If you do choose to go to a pay system, figure out a way to charge people in micropayments. Five cents an article, twenty cents a day, that sort of thing. iTunes and other sources like it, along with phone applications, have proven that people are willing to pay for some content, as long as it is easy.
So, there you have it, Dispatch. Free advice. Take it or leave it. But know this: you cannot dictate to your readers what they want, because they will find other ways to get their news.
epilogue: after writing this and just before officially publishing, I went to the aforementioned writer's blog to get his email address, so that I could warn him that although I used him as an example in this article, it isn't personal. There was no link to an email address on the blog. Do I even have to say it? FAIL.