Lessons from the Web

Back in Jaunary, I had a little fun with Chicago magazine. Annoyed that they were taking too long to post an online version of its “171 Great Chicago Websites” story – even though the print version had already been out for weeks – I had one of our interns write a blog post listing every site they mentioned, along with a link to it. It was a tweak of their nose for not understanding the medium of the Web and as a bonus, it ended up being a nice traffic boost for us.

This week, Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 wrote a post titled “What Magazines Still Don’t Understand About The Web” that details his frustration over a similar situation: Wanting to write a post about a story in The Atlantic, he discovers it isn’t available on their site, even though it’s available in print and – as he later discovers – available via Google. He doesn’t go to the trouble of posting the thing himself but maybe he doesn’t have an intern.

I’m not ignorant to the difficulty of balancing a print product and a site that’s largely built on what appears in it. I have it easier with TOC in that it’s a weekly. Most of our subscribers receive the magazine on Wednesdays, and the new content is always available on Thursday at the latest. If there’s something particularly exciting – food/drink content or something related to a weekend event, we’ll push it live earlier. So we don’t have near the delays associated with a monthly like The Atlantic or Chicago magazine.

Why not make everything available immediately? Partly it’s because of the way our metrics are assembled; Utilizing specific dates when we push new content out helps us to understand how people use our site. And we’ve – and by that I mean me, I guess – become adept at how to serve new content out to people each day of the week using this schedule. There’s something to be said for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There’s also a production/time aspect, too: Just because the articles themselves are ready to go, doesn’t mean the rest of the site is ready to show it off. But if I knew that content was already out there in print form, I’d absolutely move it live on the Web ASAP. Because I know that someone else would, whether that someone is Google or someone like me.

The real challenge, though, is this: Using the Web to provide more context, information and value. For example, this week’s TOC feature story is about tourist spots and how even a jaded city-dweller can find the fun in them. (Yours truly braved the wilds of Excalibur for the first time in ten years, and you can read all about that here.) On the Web, we created a spot-the-tourist photo quiz, and had editors name their favorite recurring events that are fun for tourists and locals. In the Web version of the story, you also have quick access to the listings of the places we mention. For reasons of medium and space, you can’t do that in print.

Creating content like this presents its own set of challenges. Someone has to go out there and take the pictures (in this case, Jake Malooley, the TOC Reporter With No Fear. Dude ate a bug once for a story because TOC asked him to), editors need to spend extra time selecting events, in addition to all their other work, and someone has to link to all the event listings. To really create exciting Web content, you need more people power. And yet every time you turn around, magazines and newspapers are letting go of their employees. As Karp notes, related content about what’s in a magazine is easily available via Google so it’s the job of a magazine to create content that satiates the reader’s desire for more.

So in addition to Karp’s complaints about what magazines don’t understand about the Web, I’d add “that just getting the story up on its site isn’t enough.”

2 comments for “Lessons from the Web

  1. June 12, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    I actually was on the train platform recently when someone said “I read about this play in TOC but I can’t remember what it was called. But I’d love to get tickets.” Her friend whipped out an iPhone, went to the website, and came back with “Was it XXX? Cause if so, we might be able to make it tonight.”That’s service, sir. And that should be the baseline for webcontent. I’m glad that TOC gets it. If TheReader had gotten it, they might be more of a contender in the current market.

  2. June 12, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Cinnamon: You’re so right. That’s why so many sites are trying to be a one stop shop for ticketing, menus, reviews, etc. We’re headed that way ourselves, though I will say it’s a slow process.

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