Honk If You Want Young Readers

By: Mark Fitzgerald

The Daily Herald, the suburban Chicago paper that promises every day on its masthead to “fear God,” is leaping fearlessly into blogging with a site created by the same folks who brought the newspaper industry Your Mom and MKE.

Beep, at beep.dailyherald.com, is a kind of side project for the Media Management Project Class at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Each spring, a newspaper hires a class of journalism graduate students to act essentially as a newspaper consulting firm. On June 9, the class will unveil its hush-hush youth-oriented strategic initiative for the Paddock family-owned Daily Herald.

In the meantime, three of the students — Max Magee, Amanda Wegrzyn, and Emily York — last week launched Beep for the paper. Their class ends in the middle of next month, but the Daily Herald says it will get someone to keep the experimental blogs going at least through the summer.

“The idea for a Web site for young people to interact with the news came out of the Readership Institute project from last summer,” says Rich Gordon, chairman of Medill’s Newspapers & New Media program. The report, which can be found at the Readership Institute’s Web site in PDF form, proposes that newspapers create Web sites for young adults that enhance what the institute calls the “something to talk about” experience for young adults.

Beep, Gordon says, is “an effort to engage 18-34-year-old suburbanites by building a Web community that revolves around the newspaper.”

In practical terms, that means that seven 20-something Daily Herald reporters and copy editors blog about topics unrelated to their ordinary beats. So, 26-year-old Sean Stangland, a copy editor, has been chronicling his steps towards grownup-hood by moving out of his mother’s basement in Wheeling, Ill. And in “MorningAfter Blog,” 24-year-old copy editor Sara Zailskas rhapsodizes about hormonal effect wedding receptions have on single women like herself.

“In a lot of newspapers, you have a lot of smart, young, talented writers who, to be honest, don’t always have an outlet for their creativity, let’s put it that way,” Medill’s Gordon says. “Whatever works or doesn’t work in this experiment, it has revealed some pretty interesting voices on the Daily Herald staff.”

Introducing Beep in a letter to readers last week, Assistant Managing Editor Jim Slusher wrote that it “is not the future of newspapers … er, information companies. It’s really an experiment in enlightened frivolity, wherein we aim to see whether our own young staff — a group who by virtue of their employment here demonstrates at least a minimum of interest in the work newspapers do — can build relationships with their peers in ways the newspaper itself, dependent as it is on readers of all genders, generations and genealogies, cannot.”

There was no shortage of volunteers when Daily Herald Managing Editor M. Eileen Brown put out a call for younger staffers who wanted to blog. “Every 20-something at the paper responded in 24 hours,” she says. “I had them do some samples, and let the Northwestern students pick who they wanted.”

The bloggers are “enjoying it immensely,” Brown says. They do the blogs during their normal working hours, and began with a small warning. “We told them, you know, this can’t be your life, and so far, so good,” she says.

Beep’s content management system is Drupal, the same tool, Medill’s Gordon notes, that Morris Communications uses for its BlufftonToday.com site.

In its first week, Beep has been averaging 300 to 800 unique visitors daily, and so far about 200 have registered, Brown says. The site functions as a kind of portal for a growing list of blogs written by residents of Chicago’s northwestern ‘burbs, but Beep has only slowly begun to cross-tease some news links with the Daily Herald.

“There has not been a direct, let’s-get-them-all-into-the-paper-now sort of thing,” Brown says.

Most users come to Beep from the Daily Herald’s site, www.dailyherald.com, where a button announces its motto: “Honk your horn.”

Catchy — but unlikely to outlast the one Daily Herald founder Hosea Paddock adopted in 1872: “Our aim: To fear God, tell the truth, and make money.”

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