Freedom’s Florida Papers Try E-editions

By: Wayne Robins

Northwestern Florida used to be a sleepy little region of the Sunshine State, known for its military retirees and a string of beachfront motels that earned it the nickname “Redneck Riviera.” The name was bestowed by New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, and also applied to the adjacent Gulf Coast of his native Alabama.

At least the nickname had a little more charm than “The Panhandle,” which is how it looks on a map. But with every other part of Florida paved over, it is now this region’s turn to roll over and be developed.

The influx of condominiums has attracted hordes of people to live in them. This may be bad news for the Gulf shrimp and other sea creatures destined for endangerment by such encroachment. But it means new opportunities for Freedom Interactive Newspapers of Florida (a division of Freedom Communications Inc. of Irvine, Calif.), which will begin paid subscriptions of online electronic editions of its four clustered newspapers on Aug. 1. They’re online and free until then.

The company’s portal site reflects the evolution of the region. Bye-bye, Redneck Riviera! So long, Panhandle! Welcome to the Emerald Coast: http://www.emeraldcoast.com.

“Panhandle had a certain stigma attached,” admitted Sue Lutz, CEO and president of Freedom Interactive Newspapers of Florida. Lutz herself is relatively new to the “Emerald Coast,” having moved down from Advance Internet Inc.’s MassLive.com in western Massachusetts.

The Emerald Coast portal features news and information from the Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach and The News Herald in Panama City, both dailies; The Destin Log, a semiweekly; and The Walton Sun in Santa Rosa Beach, a weekly.

Freedom’s Florida unit is using Denver-based Olive Software Inc.’s ActivePaper Daily application for its electronic editions. If you start with the portal, you can get to the home page of any of the four newspapers by clicking either on its name in the left column or on a teaser in the middle of the page.

Assuming you choose the Panama City paper’s (http://www.newsherald.com), you’ll find, near the top, under “Today’s Headlines,” the words “Online Delivery” — not in emerald green type, by the way, but a pleasant pale blue. The options below it are “Learn More,” “User Guide,” and “Online Paper.”

Electronic editions seem to be establishing traction, if not huge interaction. Just recently, NewsStand Inc. of Austin, Texas, added the Marin Independent Journal in Novato, Calif., to its roster, which also includes electronic editions of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune.

Lutz said that archiving capabilities and the ability to extract display ads online were factors behind Freedom’s choice of ActivePaper Daily. There’s also the matter of cross-platform friendliness: While NewsStand products can be used only on personal computers running Microsoft Windows, ActivePaper Daily works with Windows or Apple platforms.

Compatability issues aside, the debate over electronic editions mostly has focused on whether there’s enough consumer demand for an online replica of a newspaper.

After Aug. 1, each of the four Freedom Florida papers will have a chance to find out. They will offer different subscription plans, with monthly rates averaging $3 to $4 for print subscribers and $8 to $9 for nonsubscribers. “The biggest aspect in pricing is to give home-delivery subscribers a substantial break,” Lutz said. “People should benefit from their print subscriptions.”

Behind the adoption of these electronic editions are the opportunities for newspapers to add revenue from online subscriptions and the resulting automatic “upsell” rates to advertisers.

While the newspapers’ free Web sites will have less editorial content, the electronic editions will allow the online staff to develop more Web-exclusive tools for readers, from a Webcam in Panama City to a dining guide with more than 900 restaurants.

Lutz said Web content improvements include being able to devote more attention to the literally hundreds of self-contained communities in the Panhandle — I mean — on the Emerald Coast. Said Lutz, “We can do things we didn’t have time to do before because we were manually moving content from print to online sites.”

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