Case Study: When the Web Is Better at News Than Paper

By: Steve Outing

Looking for a reason to create a Web site for your newspaper, or justify the expenditure of an existing site? Here’s a nice case study of how a small newspaper’s Web site saved the day on a breaking news story, beating the broadcast competition.

This story comes from Andy Perdue, who runs the Web site for the Tri-City Herald, a McClatchy-owned daily in eastern Washington state. (He’s also the paper’s news editor.) The Tri-City site has been operational since May 30; it was created quickly — launch was 45 days after the decision was made that the paper needed a Web service — and with minimal resources.

The site came in handy, says Perdue, with a major local story. The Department of Energy was set to announce on August 6 the winner of its $4.88 billion contract to operate the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which is located just outside Tri-Cities. Hanford produced plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons; the new contract is to clean up the mess created over the last 40 years of operation of the plant.

On August 5, the paper’s Hanford reporter still hadn’t been able to find out who among three bidders was going to win the huge contract, so on the lead story of the August 6 morning paper the Herald printed a box saying that it would announce the winner on its Web site as soon as it found out. “We did this because we knew we would get killed by broadcast, so we had nothing to lose,” Perdue says. On the site, Perdue and his staff assembled dozens of background stories about the plant from the archives, as well as links to other Hanford-related Web sites.

The formal announcement, which was a well-guarded secret, was to have been made at 10 a.m. on August 6, but at 7:15 a.m. Perdue received a phone call from the Herald’s publisher, Jack Briggs (who happens to be the husband of Hanford reporter Wanda Briggs). Fluor Daniel was the winner of the contract, they had learned, and Perdue needed to get the news on the Web site fast.

Perdue got the story onto the site by 7:55 a.m. (most of it pre-written, with only the name of the winner and a few details to be filled in), two hours before the press conference.

“Almost immediately, the newsroom phones started ringing and I started getting e-mail from readers who were watching the Web site for news,” says Perdue. “Before the 10 a.m. news conference, a Tri-City radio station was quoting our Web site as saying who the winner was, and a Seattle radio station was announcing the winner, though not giving us credit. By 10 a.m., everyone at DOE knew who had won, as did most of the 13,000 folks who work at Hanford. Everyone at the press conference knew it before it was announced, and DOE was more than a little upset at us for breaking the news and bursting its balloon.”

The Hanford story gave the Web site its best day, with 16,000 hits and 1,400 user sessions. In the weeks prior, the site had been seeing about 350 user sessions a day.

“The stories we put on the Web that day didn’t ‘scoop’ our paper product because we knew we were going to get scooped by broadcast anyway,” says Perdue. “Instead, it enhanced it and teased to the next day’s newspaper, which had several pages of coverage on the story.

“This experience showed us how we can use our Web site for similar breaking news, and during the upcoming primary and general elections, we plan to man a ‘virtual copy desk’ that will update results faster than TV and radio. … The experience was a lot of fun and opened our eyes to why we got into the news business and how the Web can enhance it.”

Contact: Andy Perdue, bigdogap@owt.com

Competition watch from the UK

UK new media consultant Colin Brannigan, who occasionally reports to me on developments in his corner of the world, sent in this update:

“Media analysts like Steve and me have been warning that newspapers should expect competition from quarters they might never expect. That’s certainly true in the UK where more than 80 local councils have Web sites of which the best, by far, is Hampshire County Council.

“I first visited Hantsweb, the site of Hampshire County Council, in June. It had 120,000 pages of information which are updated and added to every day. You can’t believe it? Within no time, the number of pages had increased to 150,000 and in August to a quarter of a million. They also have 18,000 e-mail addresses of Hampshire organizations. Other organizations are invited to add their own entries, building a comprehensive e-mail directory for the county.

“Hantsweb is one of the largest and most innovative Web sites in the UK and a match for Yellow Pages (to which it has hypertext links). Certainly, it’s superior to any newspaper site, national or local in the UK, in content packaging and the breadth and variety of information that is available via the site.

“I believe newspapers have reason to fear huge, innovative Web sites like Hampshire’s. While there’s no paid advertising or sponsorship (yet), there are what Hampshire calls commercial links and what newspapers would call advertising links. You can even buy a U.S. personal luxury submarine or choose from 10 Boeing 737s available for sale or lease in the U.S. all via Hampshire’s site!

“It’s in the section called ‘Other links’ and the commercial sites in Hants, the UK and globally, where Hantsweb gets very interesting. You can see the headlines from the Press Association in London on the hour, Westminster Web, First editions (midnight-1 a.m.). Or the link to Lifestyle.UK with sections for house and home, learning, health and fitness, holidays and travel,transport … and shopping with links for the UK, Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the World via Lifestyle UK to which Hantsweb is linked.”

Contact: Colin Brannigan, brannigan@dial.pipex.com

Movin’ On

Howard Owens, founder and publisher of East County Online, a local-news Web service in the East San Diego, California, area, has taken a new position as online editor for Affinity Group of Ventura, California. He’s working on Affinity’s Roads to Adventure travel/adventure site. Owens also is looking for a qualified person or company to assume responsibility for ECO. Reach him at howens@tl.com.

Don’t call her “girl.” Rosalind Resnick, editor and publisher of the Interactive Publishing Alert newsletter, is leaving her cyber-celebrity post as “NetGirl” on America Online in order to develop her own original-content sites on the World Wide Web. The NetGirl forum was launched one year ago and is one of the most popular on AOL, with Resnick offering advice on cyber-love problems. Resnick also is president of NetCreations, an Internet software and marketing company.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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