Leading figures from the world's online journalism community gathered in Barcelona this week for the ninth annual NetMedia conference on digital journalism.

Around 200 journalists, students and publishing professionals from across Europe and the US met at The Universitat Pompeu Fabra for the one-day conference. This year's speakers were invited to discuss the theme of "making online digital media pay its way".

Sponsors and speakers were promoting both their products and services and sharing their observations and opinions on working within the online publishing industry.

Managing the transition to online publishing

Representatives from El Pais, The FT, Ireland.com, De Standaard and La Vanguardia opened the event by sharing their experiences of developing sites to partner their print newspapers. Mary Mangan, former chief operating officer of The Irish Times site Ireland.com, explained that to successfully deliver paid content publishers need to research and respond to the needs of readers.

"One of the biggest challenges of changing to paid content is that companies must become customer service organisations," she said.

"We have used both online and offline research methods including focus groups and online surveys."

Tracy Corrigan, editor of ft.com, explained that regional variations must also be taken in to account. "There isnít a single business model because different readers have different needs."

Tackling the dynamics of online advertising

There was much debate on the role of advertising within a successful web publication model.

Digital media veteran Vin Crosbie delivered a lively presentation on understanding the economics of the web, sparking some debate with his controversial statements on the problems of generating revenue online.

The web is inherently bad for reading, he stated, due to the screen orientation, resolution and the immobility of most computers. Reproduction of graphics is also a limitation, he said, as image quality is far lower than in print and this deters traditional advertisers.

Comparing the economics of web advertising with that of broadcast and print, Mr Crosbie also suggested that web advertising causes a problem for publishers. A print publication has a finite pagination, so as circulation increases the advertising space becomes more valuable and the publisher is able to increase advertising rates. A similar situation exists for broadcasters. But on the web, traffic increases do not increase the value of advertising space. In fact, because online space is sold on a per-view rate basis, the publisher actually has to sell more space, putting pressure on them to decrease their advertising rates.

Other speakers included Richard Foan, managing director of UK-based auditors ABC Electronic, who gave detailed examples of how web traffic should be correctly monitored. Danny Meadows-Klue, managing director of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, emphasised the importance of developing customer profiles to properly understand the online readership and apply intelligent advertising.

Neil Budde, founder of the Wall Street Journal Online, identified several key factors of creating a successful web subscription model, including maintaining unique content and publishing a wide range of stories to appeal to as wide a readership as possible.

The open world of the web

The San Jose Mercury - often referred to as one of the best examples of newsroom convergence - was represented by Dan Gillmor who spoke of the "new democratic world" of web publishing.

"Traditional journalism is like a lecture," he told delegates. "We say this, and you buy it or you don't. New journalism is more like a conversation or seminar with journalists as the tour guide, mediating between the reader and the story."

Referring to Korean news site Oh My News, Mr Gillmor praised the web as an effective platform for an informed public. Nearly 90 per cent of the Oh My News content is produced by civilians who are paid a small amount for their work.

Balancing paid and free content

Discussing the balance between paid content and free content, Mr Crosbie said "free content is the river on which paid subscriptions arrive". He also referred to NY Times chief executive Martin Nisenholtz, who has spoken on the importance of keeping much of the NYTimes site free to provide a platform for the launch of new paid-for services.

Three criteria to determine paid content, according to Mr Crosbie, are services that allow the reader to save or make money and help their career, content that is the premier publication in that field, and content that is unique, such as online news in a smaller country with only one national news site.

Using technology to tailor content

Echoing the words of FT editor Tracy Corrigan, Mr Crosbie concluded by emphasising the need to exploit the flexibility of web delivery.

"If you only use the web to satisfy the generic (like mass media), you will not profit the most," he told delegates.

"You will not profit unless you tailor your content. Our new medium can do both generic services and can serve individual needs. It is revolutionary."

Next year's NetMedia conference is rumoured to be returning to Barcelona, with Budapest a possible future venue.

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