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August 4, 2009

Six Questions with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Allison Fabella

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Allison Fabella
Allison Fabella

As Search Engine Strategies San Jose draws closer, I’m pleased to welcome conference speakers to the Bruce Clay, Inc. blog. The “six questions” series is a fun tradition of interviewing panelists to get the early, inside scoop from the foremost experts in their field on some of the issues that will be explored during the conference.

First up is Allison Fabella, SEO Manager at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the largest metro newspapers in the U.S. Allison is speaking during Stop the Presses! How SEO Can Help Save the Publishing Industry on day one of the show and News Search SEO on day three. Welcome to the blog, Allison!

1. The newspaper industry is one that’s so-far struggled to adapt to the Web. Do you think that in general the publishing industry has bought into the value of SEO? In what stage of evangelism are most major publications? Is the opinion that Google is a vampire a commonly held belief or does it come from a vocal minority?

Generally speaking, the publishing industry has come a long way in embracing SEO, thanks to pioneers like Marshall Simmonds at The New York Times. That said, there’s still more work that needs to be done. Although many news publications now employ in-house SEOs or outsource SEO services, they are frequently understaffed or under-budgeted. As a result, they don’t always experience the total benefit of optimizing to the full extent or get results as quickly as they could. In that regard, more evangelizing needs to be done within most media outlets.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to label Google a “digital vampire.” They do plenty of “good” as well. However, publishers are understandably frustrated. They carry the full burden and expense of producing content – a very costly undertaking – while outfits such as Google profit from that effort free and clear. Until publishers can find better solutions around monetizing their content, though, I would expect to hear those frustrated voices grow louder.

2. There’s an ongoing debate about Google as the enemy of publishers. Many publishers want the traffic benefit of being listed and to also retain control over the content as copyright holders. The AP has gotten a lot of scrutiny as a leader of this movement. Is copyright protection a worthwhile concern in the Web environment today?

Copyright protection in the Web environment is a concern that spans far beyond the news business. Over the years, there have been myriad unsuccessful attempts by the music, movie and television industries to protect their content via copyright laws. Many are coming to realize that the Internet is simply too porous to effectively insulate their product. Instead, some companies are now exploring ways to share their product with the public, but still “own” it through branding and advertising. Hulu.com’s business model comes to mind. They offer free content, monetize it with limited commercials, and a build a strong advertising campaign to “own” the brand. Can something like that be successfully duplicated in the publishing industry? That’s difficult to predict, but it might be worth exploring.

3. The Wall Street Journal is one of the few major publications that has been able to charge for Web content. What publications, if any, is this also a viable option for? Are there certain characteristics (like local-specific or niche-specific) that might be better suited for the paid access approach?


The idea of charging for a product that was formerly free is not without precedent. The television industry accomplished this in the mid-’70s with cable TV. How? They successfully sold the concept that pay TV will yield a more unique and superior television viewing experience than free TV. And that’s the question many publishers are asking themselves today. Do they have a product superior to free publications, or can they offer their readers something that is unique and has added value? If so, will people pay for it?

Larger news publications, like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, not only have great content but also have a tremendous amount of brand equity, which might be considered premium (or “freemium”)-worthy. That’s not necessarily the case for local or regional papers. Feeling the squeeze to stay out of the red and reduce costs, they often rely on wire stories as filler, consequently diluting their brand. That’s not to say that regionals and locals don’t offer anything of any value. To the contrary, no one knows a community better than the local newspaper, and there might be value in that depth of knowledge – especially in locations of historical significance where the paper may possess robust archives. Note that I say “might” in both of these situations. Nobody knows at this point what type of pay model might be sustainable and under what circumstances.

4. I read an interesting article about how the New York Times home page is created each day. I was surprised to read that Web stats had no bearing on what was put on the home page of the site. What is your recommendation on using analytics as a guide for pushing content?

Web analytics can be a great aid in discovering trends or catching topical interest on the rise. However, I don’t think it would be particularly effective in helping to determine home page content. Home page news moves too fast. Personally, I use Web stats to unearth SEO opportunities for the mid- to long-term. When I find something of interest, I forward the data to the editorial chiefs and leave it in their capable hands to determine whether there’s a place for it. Oftentimes that ends up being a hand-rolled topics page – a long-term traffic driver. I also encourage the editorial staff to keep a close eye on Google Trends, Twist (for Twitter) and Facebook Lexicon, to determine if there is buzz growing around a particular subject.

5. What recommendations do you have for publishers looking at the social media realm? Would you say rules are a little different there for publications than for other kinds of companies or individuals?

At their core, the job of news publications is to inform their community about news, events, issues, etc. – be it locally or globally. Although the means through which we distribute that information may have changed with the advent of the Internet, the spirit still remains. Therefore, news publications should embrace social media as a valuable tool for disseminating information to their community.

As for rules specific to newspapers, there are a few best practices, which carry over from the traditional media, such as refraining from endorsing political issues on Twitter or “friending” political candidates on Facebook. If you are a news “personality,” segregate your public and personal Twitter or Facebook accounts and keep your private stuff private. Beyond that, most rules around social media are merely cultural adaptations that news organizations need to get comfortable with – being more agile, learning to try new things, and not shying away from new technologies. That includes mobile and video as well.

6. Are there any sessions at SES that you plan not to miss? Where can people track you down while in San Jose?

That’s a tough question. There are so many great SES sessions from which to choose. I always enjoy the “SEO Tools of the Trade” sessions and would be sure to get some great tips on the latest cool tools. Unfortunately, that session is happening at the same time as mine, so I’ll have to catch up on the recaps afterward.

Also, “The Advanced SEO Roundtable: What is it Really?” session looks terrific. It’s got a top-notch lineup and Bruce Clay, Matt Bailey, Mike Grehan, Todd Malicoat and Todd Friesen are sure to deliver a lively debate.

Of course, I wouldn’t miss the In-House SEO session with Jessica Bowman, Melanie Mitchell, and Laura Lippay.

Where can I be found? I’ll probably be wandering around looking for replacements for The Google Dance (I hear WebmasterRadio.FM is throwing a great bash). It might be easiest to just e-mail me at afabella [at] ajc [dot] com. Also, in addition to the “Stop the Presses” session at 3 p.m. Tuesday, you can catch me on the panel of the “News Search SEO” session at 12:45 p.m. Thursday.

Thanks, Allison! The news industry’s adaptation to the online environment represents a common challenge to the traditional business mindsets, so thanks for coming on the blog and sharing these ideas and recommendations.

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One response to “Six Questions with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Allison Fabella”

  1. Joe Woods writes:

    Congrats on the interview Allison!



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