By Joe Marren
Even the smallest community newspapers can use the Web to compete not only against metro dailies, but against television as well. Hereís a look at how four newspaper sites Ė buffalo.bizjournals.com, Fredericksburg.com, deseretnews.com and usatoday.com -- take advantage of the Web, and some lessons that can be learned from their experiences.
Rick Maloney is the news hunter/gatherer for the stories/briefs that go on the Business Firstís Web site, www.buffalo.bizjournals.com. It is his responsibility to either write news briefs or coordinate with Business First editor Jeff Wright and the reporters to get longer stories online. There are no pictures or graphics since all copy first goes to the ACBJ desk in Charlotte, N.C., and then is posted online from corporate HQ.
His goal is to have several briefs, developed from press releases, or longer stories on the Web by 10 a.m. each day. He or the reporters update these as needed until shortly before 3 p.m., when e-mails go out to several thousand online subscribers telling them what was on the Web that day. Occasionally, when a story has a bigger or wider impact, the publisher will e-mail subscribers telling them to check the site for that specific story.
Whether with a breaking story or with something more run-of-the-mill, Wright and Maloney say if they have a sense that the news is important, they will make every effort to break it on the Web site rather than wait until the weekly cycle of the paper. And, if a story that was in the paper breaks before the paper goes to print, they have no qualms about pulling it out of the paper to get it Ė or a version of it Ė online.
Thatís because not only do they feel that The Buffalo News is a competitor, but that the three area television stations in the city are constantly updating the news stories posted on their Web sites. In fact, Business First is a partner with WKBW-TV, the ABC affiliate. Business First has an on-air reporter at the TV station who can report original news or news adapted from the paper or its Web site.
But that again brings up the issue of whether the paperís Web presence is competing against the newspaper itself. In essence, is it giving something away?
Wright and Maloney think that the Web site provides immediacy not known at a weekly paper. Whatís more, the stories that go online may use a different format than what would be in the paper: they could be longer or have links, for example.
ďThereís a certain level of risk,Ē Wright admitted. ďBut I think the greater risk is putting out a product that is not useful. Our readers are sophisticated, we canít fool them. Iíd rather be straight-forward and I think we can gain subscribers by being aggressive.Ē
To prove that to readers, the paper prints a listing of selected Web stories every week with a time stamp on it to show readers when they could have seen the story online.
ďItís a marketing tool,Ē Wright said. ďWhat weíre saying is ĎHereís the news and this is when it was available.í That proves to subscribers that we have the capability.Ē
The underlying problem, though, is how to make money with the product. Wright concedes that Business First may not make money off the Web site, but, he said, it does ďget people into the supermarket.Ē
Editor Chris Muldrow said The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Starís site is in a unique position, positioned near Washington, D.C., and the Postís reach, but far enough away so as not to have to worry about competition from TV stations. (The exception is radio station WTOP, a 24-hours news outlet that can cover local stories quickly.)
ďOne of our primary goals for coverage on the site is to offer as much timely news as we can and offer frequent updates,Ē Muldrow said. ďWeíre not too concerned about print newspaper competitors, for instance, because we know they canít really beat us on timeliness and we canít offer the same kind of reading experience they offer. We donít even worry too much about referring our readers to a competing Web site if they have better coverage of an issue than we do (even if it is the Post). We figure that our readers value us providing that kind of link as much as they value our original coverage.Ē
To do that, the site relies on three news producers who do video coverage, write stories and build Web applications. The site also depends on the paperís editors to write summaries of the stories for the site. That way, the editors are getting used to posting breaking news on the site during the course of a day.
But this also brings up a content question: Are the online editors willing, able or prepared to put things on the Web site that may not make it in the paper, such as grisly pictures or objectionable song lyrics?
Muldrow says they havenít relaxed any standards for what they will post on the Web, though he thinks he and the other online journalists are a little more liberal on some decisions than some of the voices in the print newsroom.
ďWe certainly have the same discussions about whatís right for our readers. We also have the luxury of being able to put warnings on our links if we fear someone might object to the language in a piece. I can remember a great video we did of a Marine sniper who had been in the bush for about two days in this competition who says, ĎI feel like shit.í It fit the piece so well we left it in. I didnít think it was objectionable at all, but we did have a Ďmight contain objectionable languageí warning on the link to the video.Ē
If more liberal in that regard, Web sites such as fredericksburg.com are, in a sense, a throwback to traditional print values. Online writing relies on the standard inverted pyramid, trusting in the power of a good lead to convey the essence of a story.
ďOur Web readers have told us and showed us that they crave frequent updates and they donít mind that we didnít wait until we had a 20-inch story before we published,Ē Muldrow said. ďThey also have showed us that they will pick through what we have to offer in search of the news thatís relevant to them. We have to remember that weíre a niche media, with at least one of our niches being local information. If we serve that niche well, weíll defeat competitors who donít understand the local community.Ē
That also means that advertising and the financial angle could play a bigger role than it currently does since advertising hinges on the local business owners.
ďIf we news folks are bringing in local readers in droves, our local ad reps are going to be able to offer advertisers a targeted audience,Ē Muldrow said. ďJust as in the editorial side of things, a smaller community paper can compete because it has feet on the street whereas a bigger paper might not be able to cover a specific community as closely.Ē
The Web site of the Deseret News is also a bit unique since the paper and The Salt Lake Tribune are run under a joint operating agreement. Although there is competition to get the news out first and get it right, the advertising part of the equation is different than many other places.
Therefore, competition for the Web site is not only with the competing newspaper and its site, but also the largest TV news operation in town, KSL-TV.
ďWe had stats on Web site usage and in Salt Lake it was KSL-TV, Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News as the top three local news Web sources. No one else came close in hits,Ē says Joel Campbell, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and formerly the assistant editor for new media at the Deseret News.
That means the philosophy in packaging the news online was based on what were the big stories in the daily newspaper.
ďIn our case it was BYU sports, news about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Utah Jazz,Ē Campbell told me in an e-mail. ďOn those three counts we knew we had a national and international audience. Any story on those topics would generally go off the charts. After those three areas, generally sports and local news was high reader interest.Ē
To get that news, Campbell and the other Web editors shoveled most of the content from the newspaper to create what he said was a huge lunchtime audience.
ďWe updated the content all morning as stories were processed for the afternoon paper,Ē he wrote. ďWe would get our final version done about noon. We would also post breaking stories from our newsroom and from the wires. Our philosophy was to put any major breaking story on the site as it broke. The Trib rarely updated after its first posting in the early a.m.Ē
For original content, Deseret News reporters were trained to send the first takes of a breaking or major story of the day. However, Campbell said this was not as well developed as they had hoped, though he said they usually got most major stuff online.
Content was also scrutinized on matters of taste.
ďWe would often put more full texts of speeches, reports, etc.,Ē Campbell wrote. ďFor example, we put the full text of the Clinton-Lewinsky investigative report online, or the State of the State or State of the Union (addresses). Our paper's policy for taste also guided our decisions.Ē
While Iím focusing on community newspapers, I wanted to include some comments from an editor at the paperís Web site to show that weíre all equal in regards to concerns and content.
Jody Brannon, executive producer for news at www.USAToday.com, said Web writers and editors constantly have to think of the best ways to tell a story, using the online tools and techniques at their disposal, such as:
ē related links
ē slideshow/ photos
ē bulletin boards/community chats
ē ďat a glanceĒ or other types of tables
ē tools: calculator, maps, etc.
ē (recycled) graphics
ďFactoring in to the philosophy should be reality: How long does it take to produce, how much merit/page views will the story get for the effort, etc.? These all color ambitions. But if it is important and essential to the story, we should do it,Ē she told me in an e-mail exchange.
Brannon contends that anyone conducting a poll of the paperís staffers would find their opinions of cooperating with the online edition are varied.
ďMost are to-the-grindstones beat folks, driven to provide text to their users (and their bosses),Ē she wrote. ďSome with a more open mind and a more expansive sense of duty or possibility Ė and talent Ė may provide audio analysis, participate in an online chat, or even laden themselves down with gear to make the stories more interactive (digital cams, recorders, etc).
ďFew coordinate extensively with the online staff beforehand, although increasingly, based on a new philosophy called 3-G (Third Generation storytelling), they are required to embrace more multifaceted storytelling techniques, but often just the harsh realities of deadlines and breaking news makes this difficult. Still, it's the noble goal.Ē
So, if the paperís editors do the time-honored gripe about a small news hole, the Web people can graciously offer their unlimited space. Yet Brannon says the paperís editors are possessive of content. On Thursdays, however, sometimes the editors provide the Web folks with content that isn't in the paper, due to USA TODAY's five-day cycle.
ďStories can be published easily on our site Fridays Ė or Saturdays,Ē Brannon said. ďAnd often, especially on big or limelight stories, the big-time beat reporters want their stories out there and hate to not have their work out there, like their competitors. Examples recently are Iraqi skirmishes and Friday findings in the Columbia investigation.Ē
Thereís a story, perhaps apocryphal, concerning Benjamin Franklinís response to skeptics about his 18th century experiments with electricity.
ďWhat good is it?Ē someone supposedly asked him.
ďWhat good is a baby?Ē Franklin reportedly replied.
As with the Web, the possibilities are all in the future.
Aggressive Web sites can own the franchise on local news and the readers will thank them for it. There are still debates about how to make it profitable Ė and therefore employable Ė but all of us in the news business or on its peripheries should be excited by the possibilities. Our Web sites today will probably seem quaintly out-of-sync even five or 10 years from now, but good journalists who are committed to time-honored traditions and ethics will make the difference.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College and a former associate editor of Business First.
Discussion2 comments about 'Web helps compete in community publishing'
Here is a community news site worth checking out. It has a community site for just about every little town across the US where the community can post their own news stories.
Posted by Laurie at January 20, 2004 10:58 PM
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Posted by SoNHearT at September 24, 2010 6:11 PM
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