Media Analysis: Net revival requires fresh approach

Five years after the dotcom crash, the internet economy is buoyant and back in the news. But how are the national dailies treating its second coming and how can tech PROs best take advantage? Ian Hall finds out.

The internet economy is bouncing back. For proof just witness gambling firm PartyGaming's valuation when it floated in June - it was higher than British Airways.

As well as the buzz of activity in online gaming, Google, Yahoo!, eBay and Amazon are four major global brands with sound business models to have emerged intact from the dotcom crash.

From 1999 to 2001 nationals' business pages were awash with dotcom stories.

The internet was a cash cow for publishing houses as national papers devoted supplements to the sector's growth.

But the backlash spelled bad news for the pagination devoted to the internet economy - and the legions of PROs pitching stories in to them.

Now, though, tech IPOs are sexy again, and spending on online advertising outstripped the equivalent for radio for the first time last year.

Consumers' increasing confidence in doing business online - from booking holidays to downloading music - plus the growth in broadband web access, has made the net mainstream. How are the nationals handling what has been described as tech's second coming?

Revamped sections

The Financial Times is moving with the changes in the market by revamping its FT IT Review section. The fortnightly supplement is to be relaunched next month as FT Digital Business.

The section will continue to be edited by Ben Hunt, who says the existing format has 'come to the end of its natural life'. The new-look section will be overhauled visually, with 'better pictures', shorter articles and 'more box-outs - more devices to hook the reader'.

Hunt says: ' We felt "IT" was a word that didn't really work anymore.

Companies no longer talk about selling technology, they talk about what their technology can do for business.'

The decline in dedicated tech sections in other nationals, however, is a reflection of how tech and internet stories have, as one journalist points out, 'gone main pages'.

Once a supplement, The Daily Telegraph's Connected section is today less than a page. The Times's dedicated section, Interface, ended a couple of years ago, with tech stories now penned by science writers, mainstream news writers or the business desk.

The Guardian offers weekly science and tech pages in its Thursday Life/Online pullout and a monthly section for SMEs called Business Solutions.

The Independent's tech coverage is contained within its Life & Culture section. The paper's tech editor Charles Arthur went freelance last December, although he continues to pen a weekly column called The Geek.

There is a sense that dedicated tech correspondents on the nationals - once ubiquitous - are going in the direction of 1980s labour correspondents.

Arthur reflects: 'A few years ago everyone had a tech reporter. Now many have been shuttled off to business desks.'

Tech PROs must thus move beyond thinking 'this is a tech story' to assessing whether their news hook is primarily, say, science, City or even marketing related, before targeting national newsdesks accordingly.

Supplement revival

But Lewis PR associate director Mark Street, formerly news editor at IT Week, says: 'With potential ad revenue now splashing around again, the nationals are certain to be considering reviving the supplements they dumped so unceremoniously following the crash.'

As to what stories will make it in, Street advises: 'Tech magazines still love talking about the actual technology. But for something like FT IT Review your story simply has to be about serious business issues.'

The FT's Hunt cites case studies, news analysis suggestions and interviews with CEOs or chief scientists as useful from PROs.

Bobbie Johnson, deputy editor of The Guardian's Online section, whose expertise is in consumer tech, says: 'PROs will call us plugging a household name with a new product that has a new website to promote it - this is not a story for us. PROs need to demonstrate theirs is a product that consumers can really appreciate.'

So are we set to see a resurgence in nationals' tech sections? Some are optimistic, but as Arthur points out: 'A lot of ad revenue has gone online, which takes away from the print versions. And the volume of editorial coverage is always led by the volume of ads.'

It is this cross-platform conundrum that provides the greatest challenge for Britain's tech PROs.

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