OP-ED: Only the web offers the chance to tell the whole story

"They were not so much published as carried screaming into the streets."

"They were not so much published as carried screaming into the streets."

H.G. Wells spoke brilliantly to the power and urgency of news when he wrote that line a century ago. Despite its age, it actually serves as a wonderful description of the role of internet news in our lives today. News is now an around-the-clock offering that screams across our computers, PDAs, and cell phones. Yet in the last year, the importance of digital media has been obscured by the formidable shadow cast by AOL's problems and the general internet misery. The result is ambivalence - even negativity - toward online news that is leading to missed opportunities for communicators. For most digital media companies, the negative reports are simply a black lining on an otherwise silver cloud. The Online Publishers Association, which represents CBSMarketwatch.com, ESPN.com, and Washingtonpost.com, recently reported an average year-to-date revenue growth of 35% for its members. And the audiences for these sites have grown exponentially. Audience size, of course, is only one of the important qualities of online news. Research has shown that these sites reach influential, wealthy, and well-educated audiences. While it is easy to dismiss the web as the playground of music-downloading Gen-Yers, quality content sites are rich with decision makers and thought leaders. And importantly, daytime is prime time on the web. When news breaks, where does the at-work audience turn? For most, there is only one choice - online news dominates during the day. Online news sites also have the ability to go deeper into a story. Look at nearly any major story on Washingtonpost.com, and you will see it surrounded by a variety of additional material and related resources. Depth on the web is virtually limitless. And news sites offer interactivity. People come to these sites not just to read the news, but to experience it. There is no other medium that allows the combination of things like video on demand, customized information, live chats, and user surveys. But even communicators who understand the powerful reach and influence of digital media often approach it simply as the newspaper online, magazine online, or TV station online. Some sites do simply shovel existing content into cyberspace. But there are opportunities presented by most quality news sites that go far beyond anything found in traditional media. While many online news outlets do not actively encourage pitches, there are exceptions to the rule. Leading sites such as WSJ.com and Washingtonpost.com have reporters dedicated to writing exclusively for the web. For instance, Washingtonpost.com recently hired Terry Neal, a former Washington Post political correspondent, to write an online-only column and in-depth reports, and there are reporters writing exclusively for the site's technology section. Even while the first course of action might still be to pitch to the traditional newsroom, it is essential that communicators also research and understand who is writing for the web. It is also critical to understand that the web has dramatically changed the news cycle. Major news sites update their content throughout the day, and much of the writing comes from the traditional newsroom. So just because a story ran in the morning paper doesn't mean the chance to get a message out has passed. In fact, the web offers many opportunities that go well beyond standard news coverage. Live discussions allow newsmakers to deliver messages directly to the public, or serve as an expert when major news happens. These virtual talk shows are more accessible than their TV counterparts, offering an arena for speaking directly with the public in a smart, real-time way. And when it comes to crisis communications, online news is unmatched in its ability to deliver timely, powerful messages. A full-page ad or exclusive interview with a trusted reporter can serve you well, but the web can take crisis communications to the next level. Not only can online ads tell your story with as much depth as necessary, they can be up and running in hours, and even be targeted to critical audience segments. Whether in crisis or not, communicators can use online advertising in ways that no other medium allows, taking readers directly to recent news stories, press releases, videos, and much more. The medium presents truly unique branding and direct-response opportunities. At a time when news screams into our lives in every way imaginable, communicators cannot afford to miss the opportunities of the web. The online news business has not only survived the dot-com downfall, but it is growing with extraordinary potency.
  • Don Marshall is communications director for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.

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