Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Techno: phobic or philic

The past few weeks have been pretty slow, news-wise anyway. So, I'm reaching deep down into my bag of tricks to pull out a couple of posts that would be pushed aside during the normal rush of covering the day-to-day affairs of the county of Howard. Today's topic: Newspapers and the internet.

Despite being named by USA Today as the second most "tech-savvy" county in the country, Howard County suffers from information underload. And for this, I fault the local papers that have failed to take advantage of widely available information technology. Sure, many bloggers have made a cottage industry out of denouncing the media for failing to keep pace with the times, and I don't really have much to add to the discussion.

However, one salient point I'd like to make is that newspapers today and in the future should shift their focus from being a source of information to a portal to information. Instead of being an end for internet browsers, they should become an entry, linking to various pertinent outside information (studies, source information, blogs) that would enhance a readers understanding of a particular story while at the same time making the paper an invaluable tool for information collection and dissemination. With the ease at which information can be found and linked to--after all, if I can learn to hyperlink, anyone can--it makes no sense to me that they still view stories as a end and not a means to greater understanding.

So, how do Howard's rags stack up with the needs of the "information age?" From best to worst:

The Washington Post: In the main section of the post, stories that are cited by blogs usually have a box pop up to show readers what others are saying about the story. For instance, see this story which I blogged about here. Not too shabby, eh? The Post also does a pretty good job of creating discussion forums and having on-line chats, but the stories still lack links to other pertinent sources of information. Meanwhile the Post's Howard Section has a pretty good list of links to sites of interest for county residents (schools, government, traffic, etc), though there are often stories in this section that only tangentially apply to the county. For instance. However, I imagine they have to fill the space and if there are no local stories, a state story isn't a bad second choice.

The Baltimore Sun: Although the Sun generally does a better job of covering Howard issues, their site lags behind the Post in connecting the information dots. To be sure, there is a "Howard Survival Guide" with static information about the county and some stories have embedded links to internal pages (such as one describing Ellicott City). But, on the whole, the paper still sees itself as an end not a means.

The Business Monthly: I recently added a link to this local publication because I think it's reporting is very good and the range of stories it covers is the best of the bunch. It's website is pretty difficult to navigate, but since it only comes out monthly (really?), I'll cut it some slack.

Patuxent Publishing and The View: These papers are standard local papers, and they're good at what they do, which is publishing stories of local interest on dead trees. Both of their websites, however, stink. While The View has marginally better production values, they both could really use complete overhauls. I understand that websites cost money and these papers don't have much of it, although Patuxent is owned by the Sun, which is owned by the Tribune Co. However, a new website and better system for conveying information--their job--should be looked at as an investment that will pay off in the long run.

So, what's the point of this? The point is that I think with minor changes our newspapers could do a much better job of informing residents about issues affecting the county. Why do Patuxent and The View feel compelled to limit themselves to weekly updates? Why not put bi-weekly or (god forbid) daily updates on their sites and turn themselves into invaluable information resources and generate lots more traffic (and ad revenue)? How about putting up a blog or two, or sponsor a forum where residents can make their own blogs or participate in discussions? At the very least, Patuxent could update its site template, which has remained unchanged for as long as I've been reading it on-line--more than five years, at least.

If we're really such a tech-savvy county, why not cater to our needs? I almost never read the print edition of the papers, and I have a feeling I'm not the only one. Failing to understand and respond to this trend will ultimately harm to the print media, but unlike other bloggers, I'm not going to starting writing a eulogy for newspapers...yet.


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