Public service webcasting -- we wish

It's been a difficult few years for online media. Gone are the days when websites could expect to turn a buck by running ads on their pages. Advertising revenue has declined at the same time as readers have become even less inclined to pay for online subscriptions.

It’s been a difficult few years for online media. Gone are the days when websites could expect to turn a buck by running ads on their pages. Advertising revenue has declined at the same time as readers have become even less inclined to pay for online subscriptions.

Many online publications were launched in the expectation that a profitable business model would eventually emerge. Today managers know that brand of dot-com optimism is enough to get you fired.

One of the notable victims of this reality-check is TVNZ’s website, nzoom.com. Nzoom was an ambitious attempt to build a portal for New Zealanders that would mix TVNZ news content with additional editorial content and online services. It was pretty good too.

In May TVNZ announced nzoom will be relaunched in October, using the tvnz.co.nz domain. With 60 staff, nzoom would have been an expensive operation to run; cost cutting at the broadcaster, some duplication between nzoom and TVNZ programming, and a murky financial outlook for portals probably meant changes were inevitable.

To deal with the new financial realities, most online publications have chosen one of three paths. Some reduce the scope of their operations to keep costs to a minimum — most newspapers’ websites publish a selection of stories from the print edition and not much else.

Others require a subscription to read some or all stories. It helps if your content has a clear value, such as the Wall Street Journal, but in general few people will pay for website access if they can get similar material elsewhere for free.

A third group takes a different tack, using the website to add value to their core offering. These companies may not expect their websites to make money, but they do expect their readers or viewers to get something more from the website than can be offered on television or in print. They attempt to complement rather than duplicate.

A good example is nationalgeographic.com. The august Geographic uses its website to provide material that just won’t fit into the magazine, to allow for interactivity such as animated presentations and discussion forums, and to present that is timely, such as the current activities of its field staff.

The BBC has taken things a step further. Last month the Beeb announced it would make its archives free on the web for anyone to download. The news was greeted with delight by librarians, researchers, net activists, historians and couch potatoes everywhere.

Nobody expects that to happen here, given TVNZ’s reliance on advertising revenue. However, a TVNZ online service guided by editorial staff and driven by viewer demands could complement the broadcast programmes in new and novel ways. Imagine forums for Fair Go viewers to be involved with the pursuit of our conmen, or pages where One News reports can be placed in context with their sources and history.

In the emerging online world readers and viewers will want a voice in our media, and they’ll get it on savvier websites.

Next month we’ll find out just what TVNZ plans to do with its reborn website. Changes have already begun, including staff reductions and the sale of the webmail service to ICONZ. Gossip says a bare-bones operation will kick off, followed by some new developments in April next year. Other whispers suggest news supremo Bill Ralston is taking an active interest.

TVNZ has a real opportunity to use its website to build its brand and improve its service to its viewers. It will be interesting to see how the opportunity is seized.

Cooney is an Auckland reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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