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In their own words

Christopher M. Schroeder: The Future of News Sites is 'Content Orbiting'
The CEO and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive predicts that progressive news sites will one day offer "instantly relevant, truly multimedia" content packages.

I Want Media, 08/14/02


Christopher M. Schroeder is the CEO and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the interactive media subsidiary of the Washington Post Company. Based in Arlington, Va., WPNI's flagship products include the acclaimed Web sites of the Washington Post newspaper and Newsweek magazine. The Post's Web site is garnering particular attention lately: Yahoo! Internet Life named it the Best Newspaper Site of 2002 and the Newspaper Association of America honored it last month with multiple Digital Edge Awards.

Schroeder spoke with I Want Media about a variety of Internet news issues, such as why the "portalizing" of local newspaper sites is a mistake, why advertising is the preferred revenue focus online, and why deep linking is "a great thing."


I Want Media: You announced last week that you're going to require visitors to WashingtonPost.com to complete a mini-survey. Why?

Christopher M. Schroeder: It's important for us to get a better sense of who our users are. We believe more and more that the Internet will be a targeting medium. This gives great value to advertisers because they'll be able to target the demographics that matter to them. And it gives great value to users of the service as well, because they'll see content that is relevant to them.

IWM: Your registration asks four questions: gender, year of birth, zip code and country. What's to prevent me from indicating that I'm female, born in 1912 and from Belize -- none of which describes me?

Schroeder: In any kind of surveying, particularly online, there's always risk of that. Our hope is that since we're not asking for personal information, people's proclivities will be to give us reliable information. That was among the reasons why we set up the registration in the manner that we did.

IWM: In order to access Washington Post articles online, this survey will be mandatory as of Wednesday, Aug. 14. Do you think you could lose traffic to your site?

Schroeder: You always have some kind of drop-off when you do things like this. But I believe that our short, user-friendly survey will make this a less of an issue upfront. Case studies from our brethren show that sometimes there will be a drop-off early on, but the value of the content is so powerful that over time people become more comfortable and come back.

IWM: Will this information help the site to charge more for advertising?

Schroeder: We've had a lot of conversations with advertisers who think this is something that will be very valuable for them. And, as we structure deals, I have a feeling that it will have good ramifications in terms of advertisers willing to pay at a higher cost.

While we are the definitive page for the greater Washington market, at the same time 80 percent of our traffic is coming from outside of the area. So, going forward, imagine a situation where a local retailer is advertising on our site and they know for a fact that they'll be reaching people in zip codes that matter to them, and not to people in, say, San Francisco, where they can never actually transact.

And from the user perspective, imagine being in San Francisco and being served an ad for something that you can't transact on. In the end, this will be a clear value proposition for both users and advertisers.

IWM: So you believe in advertising as a sustainable business model for content Web sites?

Schroeder: I'll take it a step further and say I believe it is the model for great quality content. I cheer on and constantly look to explore ways to have alternate revenue streams. But it's my firm belief that over time the major driver will be advertising attuned to this medium on the medium's terms.

IWM: Do you plan to charge for access to the site down the road?

Schroeder: We live in a world that changes all the time, and one never says never. But truly there are no fundamental plans right now. I sit back and watch the [online pay site] Wall Street Journal carefully and with great admiration. And I watch others as well who are thinking about it. But it's frankly not on my radar screen.

IWM: What's your opinion of charging for online content? Four rather small newspapers in Florida announced recently that they're going to start charging for access.

Schroeder: I believe that building, grabbing and sustaining an audience should be the focus of any Web site, and that's where the market will go. Smaller newspapers sometimes look at their online site almost as a circulation tool. Their view is: you pay for our newspaper, so you pay for our online edition.

But the focus should be on the Internet on the Internet's terms. What unique audiences are you reaching that perhaps you haven't reached before? We should look for ways to make those audiences larger as opposed to creating something that is merely ancillary to existing operations.

I truly think that next year the Internet story people will be talking about is the efficacy of online advertising. There are times of day when you can reach people with your ad information on a regular basis, i.e., at the desktop, which you couldn't do before. People are on-task when they're looking at their screens. They're not getting up and making a sandwich when the ads come on. That's where the focus should be.

IWM: The CEO of Factiva, the Dow Jones and Reuters news service, said recently that in order to pay journalists for their work, all online news content will be for-pay only by 2004. Would you agree?

Schroeder: I completely disagree. That doesn't mean that there won't be more pay sites. Many sites are looking at innovative pay structures. But I will not be a trailblazer here, by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not pooh-poohing it. In fact, I'm rooting for it. But I think the focus needs to be on the wonderful audience that sites like ours are attracting, and matching buyers and sellers in that kind of forum.

IWM: What about the Web site for Newsweek? Why aren't you running this user survey on the magazine's Web site?

Schroeder: Newsweek is a different proposition for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, I negotiated a deal a couple of years ago to host Newsweek.com on MSNBC.com, to try a different approach to see what we could do in cross-media partnerships. It's conceivable we will explore that at some point. It's possible that MSNBC.com will explore using other forms of registration in its own right. But right now that's secondary.

IWM: What are online news professionals not doing right, in your opinion? What mistakes are being made?

Schroeder: The whole idea of "portalizing" a local site under a different brand name is a mistake. It was all the rage for some newspapers about three or four years ago. A lot of newspapers underestimated the simple power of their wonderful existing brands. That's a major industry mistake that some are still examining.

Another fundamental mistake is the continued focus on click-throughs as the major ethicacy of Internet ads. We shot ourselves in the foot by saying that that was the right thing to do. Click-throughs measure something, but they don't measure brand recognition. They don't measure when people type in the URL later, or when people go into a store and make a transaction because they saw the ad.

IWM: Several publishers are fighting the practice of external Web sites "deep linking" to articles on their sites. What is your opinion of deep linking?

Schroeder: I love it. I think it's fabulous. Maybe I'm being a little naive, but I think the more people who become aware of the Washington Post's quality journalism the better. The more people who come to our site and taste us -- and by tasting us they find that they want to come back -- is a good thing. If our journalism were misrepresented anywhere, I'd go against it right away. But having links so people will come to our site and learn more I think is a great thing.

IWM: The Washington Post's Web site, in its present version, has been around now for nearly eight years. What do you expect the site will be like in eight years from now?

Schroeder: I lose enough sleep each night just thinking about next year! Seriously, I believe that in six to eight years from now it will be well-established as an extremely powerful advertising medium, with applications and technology I can't even foresee.

I believe that progressively great new sites will become truly multimedia. When most people think of multimedia, they regard the video, audio, photos and text as separate entities. I envision sites that will have what we call content orbiting. This is where you're viewing a story and other media will be served to you that are instantly relevant, regardless of whether the other media is editorial content or other data. What's relevant is the issue you're exploring.

If you're reading an interesting article and you want to see a video of the press conference related to the story, it literally will be served to you at the same time. Many news sites are moving slowly in this direction. This will be particularly relevant when bandwidth becomes a nonissue.

IWM: So I presume a traditional print newspaper would need to develop video or audio resources.

Schroeder: Lots of places provide video now. Certainly, we rely on the A.P. and others to get feeds. We also have our own small video crew, which produces two-to-four-minute segments tied specifically to the context of the experience we have on the site. The video aspect of the storytelling can be very helpful and revealing.

For example, we have a wonderful feature called "Phoenix Rising," which is a multimedia presentation about the rebuilding of the Pentagon following Sept. 11. We have interactive maps that show each stage of the Pentagon being rebuilt, and, by using Flash, you can go into these graphics as deep as you're interested in going. We also have diorama photographs, where you can literally see 360 degrees on each floor of the Pentagon by controlling the viewpoint with your mouse. And we have a brief video interview with construction workers talking about the pressures and emotions of what it's like to be working there. Each one of these media formats tells a significantly different part of the story and beautifully complements the text article, which is on the site and also appeared in the newspaper.

People don't just come into the site, read the story and leave. They're engaged, they stay, they explore. That's one of the powerful things we've learned about our online photo galleries and video. People who enter these interactive features finish them. So we have opportunities to offer relevant information from advertisers that people visiting our site will see and become engaged in. But we're still in the early days with this, for sure.



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