’10 That Do It Right’ — No. 6: ‘Bluffton Today’

By: Jennifer Saba

You can’t turn the corner these days without some newspaper executive singing about hyperlocal content and its companion, community journalism. Throw in a refrain about a “platform agnostic” newsroom and it becomes the industry’s latest anthem.

Lots of papers are talking about this, and some have initiated sweeping changes. But one small paper tucked at the bottom of South Carolina nailed the concept way back in April 2005, and is now seeing the benefits.

Bluffton Today embraced two audacious strategies: It launched the free paper distributed seven days a week to the entire market — not just select, desirable demos– and a Web site that truly depended on the community, one feeding off the other.

The idea, explains Publisher Tim Anderson, was to take content posted on the Web site’s blogs and put some but not all of it into the print product. “We also use the blogs internally, and we encourage our newsroom staff to post an idea or ask a question and see if we could get feedback,” he says.

But Bluffton Today doesn’t merely consist of community contributions. Anderson says the percentage of user-generated content, including the more traditional letters to the editor, amounts to less than a fifth of each day’s offerings.

Steve Yelvington, vice president of strategy and content at parent company Morris Digital Works, says BlufftonToday.com “has enabled the newspaper to have a resource for reporting.” He explains that while it does print some blog content in the print edition, the staff treats the posts as potential story ideas and reports some out.

During the past two years, Bluffton Today and its Web site have continued to make strides. The paper distributes 18,000 copies, mostly to homes, and only 2% of the market has called to cancel. (When Morris Communications first embarked on the concept, executives were expecting 40% to ask for stops.) During Bluffton Today’s first audit in October 2005, Certified Audit of Circulations (CAC) found 57% of the market read the paper regularly. By February 2007, that number jumped to 72%.

Its Web numbers are equally solid. While traffic has plateaued in general — in May, it attracted 78,227 unique visitors — people are spending more time on the site, posting comments on blogs and uploading photos. On average, each unique user visits for about 11 minutes a day, up from six minutes when it first started. And 65% of those visitors return more than once a day, says Online Manager Lisa Smith.

Registration is not required to read BlufftonToday.com, unless someone wants to start a blog or post pictures. About 8,600 people have registered, and Smith says about 300 people are blogging.

Morris is just as pleased — and Yelvington confirms the company plans to roll the concept out to other markets.

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