Community Publishing: Coming Soon … Really

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By: Steve Outing

“Portal” is the Internet buzz word of the moment. Lots of big companies want to be the primary portal to the Internet for consumers — being the place in cyberspace where users go first whenever they need to find information, get their e-mail, sell something, etc. Yahoo! is the premier example today. Some newspaper companies aspire to a portal strategy at a national level, too. (See my previous column for a discussion of this.)

But even if a publisher can’t expect to ever become a national portal, there’s still the matter of becoming the primary Internet portal for local users. The savvy newspaper publisher might well aspire to create an online service that local consumers would use to: find a babysitter; check the meeting schedule for their church; find out where a child’s soccer game is being held next week; find out what times a movie starts; look up a restaurant menu; find a volunteer opportunity; etc.

Some analysts believe that in every city, there will be one dominant online community portal. This will be the Web site where all community organizations publish their calendars and information. It will be the dominant or only one because those organizations won’t go to the trouble of publishing their information on more than one site. And no publisher will be able to expend the effort or devote the financial resources to collect and publish all this information on its own — it must rely on the community organizations themselves to publish in order for the business model to work.

If the local newspaper doesn’t adopt this strategy, someone else will. It might be a telephone company, a competing media organization (TV station or cable operator), even a government agency. As the concept of “community publishing” starts to slowly pick up steam, more and more companies are recognizing that becoming the primary portal for a community is going to be a powerful thing — and perhaps someday translate into serious money. The big question: Who will get there first?

Hands-off publishing

The concept of “community publishing” is not new, yet it’s off to a slow start. You have to look pretty hard around the newspaper industry to find publishers who have embraced community publishing in any serious way.

In northern New Jersey, the Bergen Record is sold on the idea, and is one of the first newspaper companies in the U.S. to put some serious effort into building out the community publishing concept. The effort is in large part the work of Glenn Ritt, the Record’s vice president of news and information, in partnership with Koz, a vendor that provides a Web-based community publishing system.

In effect, what the Record is doing is lending the community the tools and the journalistic infrastructure to publish, and allowing community groups to be part of a larger local portal service, explains Ritt. The newspaper’s journalists stay out of the process, for it’s the community that decides what gets published and that takes responsibility for the content.

The Record has an existing Web site program, which is broken out into seven major sites serving various niche audiences and in aggregate gets about 2 million pages views per month. Community publishing is linked to those sites; for example, a teen site is linked to a school program in which schools and school districts publish on the Koz system, with students serving as the journalists.

But the community publishing components of the Record’s Web activities also stand on their own. Ritt has a June 1 target date for having a central community site launched, which will have 18 different “channels.” Web users will find the groups that interest them or to which they belong, using the channel metaphor.

The newspaper is working with a variety of community organizations, who get to set up their own sites within the larger North Jersey community Web site. (Everything is linked to a common database, so it’s easy to find calendar items about common topics from various local organizations, for example.) About 150 sites are currently under development. A site can have various subgroups; for example, the county health department can have numerous components of its organization publishing as subgroups within the larger health department site.

While having those various departments publish their news, information and calendar events online is of course a nice service to the public, it also offers great benefits to the newspaper itself, Ritt points out. A reporter who covers the health department may not keep track of its various divisions, so the self-publishing by those subgroups is useful in keeping the professional journalists apprised of news from government entities that have never been covered before.

Ritt is working closely with local schools, of course. Besides the predictable efforts to allow students to publish information about their schools, school superintendents have a community publishing site in which they publish curricula for their schools and participate in threaded discussion forums. Such discussions can be either public, private or a combination, so the Record’s community publishing infrastructure can serve groups like this as an intranet.

Ritt’s priorities in launching the service include getting the major non-profit groups in Bergen County as part of the community publishing program, plus schools and the county health department. United Way has had a functioning site — http://bergen.koz.com/sites/unitedway — for about one month, at which you can get an idea of the functionality of the system. (Note: That won’t be the permanent URL.)

Revenue model

Many community organizations have their own Web sites already, but Ritt sells them on the idea that being part of a larger community publishing site complements their existing sites. Being part of a larger community database, and being exposed to a larger audience driven by the newspaper brand name, benefits the organizations — and indeed drives traffic to their stand-alone Web sites.

For a community group, participation can be free if it agrees to accept sponsorships. If not, then it pays monthly fees for it Web site. If a group is willing to accept advertisements on its sites, it also has the opportunity to bring in advertisers of its own and share in the revenue. The groups also can have control over advertising to an extent, in order to keep out ads they might find to be distasteful.

An example of advertising within the community site might be a kids’ soccer league that’s already sponsored by a local sporting goods store, in which the league gets a finder’s fee for bringing the store along as an online advertiser within the league’s online site. Ritt says administrators at one school district in Bergen County asked their board for permission to accept advertising in order to participate at the lowest possible cost.

Advertisers can buy into specific community publishing sites, or purchase categories — e.g., sports or churches — as long as the groups accept sponsorships in their online areas. Ritt says for the most part, community groups are accepting the sponsorship model.

Getting community organizations to sign up for the community publishing program is not a particularly easy sell, according to Ritt. He thinks that what is important in attracting participation is having long-standing relationships with the community organizations. If that’s accurate, then newspapers have an edge over other entities that might try to build competing community publishing portal sites. Ritt’s strategy also has been to approach the people at the very top of a community organization, on the theory that a group will not have sufficient commitment to its Web self-publishing site unless the top executive buys in to the concept. For local schools, Ritt approached the superintendents, for instance.

Fear of losing control

Why isn’t community publishing further along? Ritt thinks that it’s going to take a few programs like his to prove the concept, then the industry is likely to follow. But community publishing also strikes fear into some publishers, who are concerned about non-journalists publishing under their brand name. It’s a paradigm shift that’s not easy for some to make. “First and foremost, it’s recognizing that you are a communications company providing an infrastructure” to your community, Ritt says.

For the Bergen Record community publishing program, content is owned by the individual community organization; it is legally responsible for its words. “We don’t want to be the ‘publisher’; we want to be the ‘host,'” says Ritt. While he expects that there will be some controversy that pops up down the road from one of his community organizations or schools, Ritt says that in the case of schools, “they are more concerned about (the content they produce) than we (at the newspaper) could possibly be.”

While Ritt’s self-publishing program sounds ambitious, he’s yet to devote serious money to the project. To date, there are no full time staffers except himself; he relies rather on a team of outside consultants to do much of the recruiting, training, and site design, while full-time staffers concentrate on the newspaper’s own Web sites.

Contact: Glenn Ritt, ritt@bergen.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing 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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