Opportunities for online publishers to connect physical, virtual lives

Posted on May 22, 2012 by Janet Coats

I was in a meeting with a group of independent online news publishers last week, when the conversation turned to what we really mean when we say “online.’’

These publishers are all running news sites that do not include a print component; they were born on the web, and the primary focus of their work is the news and information they publish on the sites they have created. But in an age when the proliferation of devices is constantly changing what the digital experience looks like, what does the term “online’’ really mean?

I was fascinated by the conversation for a couple of reasons. It was intriguing to me to hear how these publishers, whose entire enterprises are built around an online model, are thinking about how their work is shaped and defined by the changing digital world. It was clear the changes are prompting them to thing more deeply about what their business truly is.

And the conversation also tapped into my own quiet thinking about what online really means anymore, and what the value of websites is. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as I watch the way my kids live in an always-connected way.

It used to be that “online’’ was somewhere you went. The terminology of the early web days even reflected that. We talked about “going online’’ to look something up, the same way we talked about going to the library.

But we don’t “go’’ online any more; we’re almost always there, and increasingly being there doesn’t mean sitting down at a desk and firing up a computer.  So are we online when we access information through an app on our iPhone? Are we online when we read a magazine on Flipboard? Will we be online when digital moves out of devices we hold in our hands into accessories we wear on our clothes or our bodies?

Walt Mossberg, author of the Wall Street Journal’s Personal Technology column and co-executive editor of AllThingsD, has been saying it best – and repeatedly – for  years: The Internet is pervasive. “When you blow-dry your hair, you don’t say to your spouse, ‘I’m going on the electrical grid to dry my hair.’’

This could be one of these fun little semantic games that those of us in news like to play, where we count the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Except that I think what we call things does matter. It matters in that the way we describe our world influences the way we experience it, and the way we shape our responses to it.

So thinking about “online’’ as a place we go means that we focus on websites instead of the digital flow of information. For legacy publishers, it means investing the future in strategies like building paywalls around content. For entrepreneurial publishers, it means not spending enough time thinking about the implications of tablets and mobile devices to their long-term survival.

And for all of us, it means not focusing with enough intensity on the real opportunity here: The opportunity to help people connect their virtual lives with their physical ones.  My friend Joy Mayer at the University of Missouri has done a lot of serious thinking about this kind of engagement – the connection between the virtual and the physical – and her growing understanding of how journalists need to go where the conversation is happening in all of those spaces.

That’s why I so like hearing Ben Ilfeld of the Sacramento Press talk about how he thinks about the business he is in: the connection business. Ben describes the work of Sacramento Press as serving as a “shuttle between in-person and virtual space.’’

I like that idea of a shuttle, something that carries people and their baggage back and forth, from departure point to destination to the next departure point.  When it comes to putting news and information to action, it’s not as if we’ll ever reach the end point. So we all need to get better at the journey.

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