If Newspapers Were Lattes

Newspaper executives could learn a thing or two from Starbucks about serving the needs of customers.

When the woman in front of me at Starbucks last week asked for "a triple vente latte with the milk at 130," the barista looked confused.

"I'd like the temperature of the milk to be 130 degrees," the customer breezily explained, as if it were the most normal request in the world.

And it is. In the early days of Starbucks, the exotic custom order was a running joke, a symbol of epicureanism run amok. Now we accept it, because we're all part of it. We are a nation of fetishists, people who obsess about the smallest details in the cars we buy (how are the cupholders?); the food we eat (Iron Chef America and all those other cable food shows); and, lately, the houses we live in.

In an echo of the real estate boom, the U.S. is now in the grip of interior-design mania. The shelter magazines are full of pricey appliances by Bosch, Miele, Subzero, and Viking, because they do what a vente latte at 130 does—they make the discriminating consumer very happy.

The companies that thrive in this economy are those that work hard to please the fetishists, by getting all the details right. Starbucks not only designs your coffee the way you want it, it gets it exactly right almost every time.

The epitome of fetishist culture is Apple Computer. Americans love their iPods not just because they play music nicely—that's the least of it. It's the exquisite perfectionism of the design that drives people wild and makes them line up to pay hundreds of dollars for a totally discretionary gadget.

If those companies can get the little things right, why can't American news outlets do the same?

Lately, journalists are flummoxed and depressed by their diminishing popularity in the marketplace. The public has made it clear that it doesn't want to pay for online news. Many Americans apparently wouldn't mind if the old-line news outlets—daily papers, network newscasts—went right down the tubes.

And the reason is right in front of us. Too many of these outlets don't get the details right—or, rather, they get too many of them wrong.

I'm not talking about factual accuracy, which remains the core mission of all news outlets. But in a world of fetishists, the core mission is not enough. Just as coffee isn't just a hot drink anymore, the news isn't just a bunch of facts strung together on deadline. Both are experiences.

The problem is that old-line news outlets are badly designed and don't offer a high-quality experience. Many are rife with annoying flaws, the kinds of details that make fetishist consumers crazy and drive them away.

It's not even a question of offline media versus online. Almost all newspapers now have Web sites, and most are deeply mediocre. True, the Web is still a young medium, but that's really no excuse for the agonizing pace of these sites' evolution. After all, the core business has been around for centuries. All the newspaper industry had to do was creatively remake itself for the Web. It has been trying to do so for about a decade, and the results are pretty underwhelming. Meanwhile, the first iPod was sold just four years ago, and it's conquered the world.

The best of the newspaper Web sites, among which I would include The Washington Post and The New York Times, do their jobs pretty well. But they rarely knock anyone's socks off, or make you feel like spending a few hundred bucks to get access.

Even the most sophisticated newspaper sites have maddening little tics. A few weeks ago, I was trying to pull up a few Chicago Tribune stories that I found through Google News. Every time I clicked on a link, I was taken to a sign-on page. Although my sign-ons were successful, in the process the site would lose track of the original story I'd gone there to find. Infuriating!

Have you ever used a newspaper's online classified ads? I have, and the experience is almost always inferior to reading the same ads on the page—search engines that are the opposite of intuitive, balky display features, an overall sense you're flailing around in some tech backwater of the paper, which couldn't care less. No wonder sane people go running to Craigslist.

In the past several years, I've lived in two states where it snows in winter—Maryland and Massachusetts—and I've yet to find a newspaper site that offers reliable, up-to-the-minute school-closing information. It's not journalism, and it won't bring down a president, but this is the kind of service that wins readers over. Last winter was very snowy in Massachusetts, and I couldn't get the Boston Globe's Web site to tell me anything useful about school closings. I wound up relying on the surprisingly helpful Web sites of local television stations.

Don't traditional news outlets really want to make us happy, the way Apple and Starbucks do? Don't they realize that our happiness and enthusiasm for their product keeps them in business? It's so easy, a child can understand it.

Why can't a newspaper be as thoughtfully designed, and as delightful to use, as iTunes, the software that iPod owners use to buy and organize songs? The product is totally different—journalism isn't music—but they're both media experiences, and there's no good reason why one has to be brilliant and the other clunky.

Or that one should thrive while the other withers away.