In Island Media Monopoly, Web Provides Alternative

By: Steve Outing

There remain places in the world that could use some competition
in the local media market. The Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St.
Croix, and St. John) is such a place.

In this Caribbean paradise, the local media scene is dominated by
Innovative Communications, which owns the only daily newspaper,
the telephone company, two local cable-TV firms, and banks. Of
Jeffrey Prosser, who owns all that, The Wall Street
Journal in a critical profile last year of the businessman
said, “No man is an island, but Jeffrey Prosser comes close.”

Prosser bought the newspaper, the Virgin Islands Daily
News, from Gannett Co. Inc. a few years ago. It’s a virtual
media monopoly, and according to critics, the paper is selective
about what it covers. Its long-time executive editor quit in a
dispute about covering unfavorable news that involved Prosser
cronies – including former Virgin Islands governor Roy
Schneider, who won election partly based on substantial
financial support from Prosser, according to the Journal
investigation.

Prosser’s critics in the Virgin Islands are many, but he’s
undoubtedly powerful and wealthy. But Prosser’s power may be part
of the reason that Shaun Pennington, an independent
Internet news publisher, was named the Person of the Year by the
Rotary Club II of St. Thomas recently.

The one-woman competition

Pennington is proprietor of the Source news Web sites, St. Thomas Source, St. Croix Source, and St. John Source. She is
the sole full-time employee of the 2-year-old Internet publishing
enterprise, which presents news coverage – online only, with
no print version – as the only daily alternative to news
produced by Prosser’s island media empire. (There are also two
weekly papers, the The Avis serving St. Croix and The Tradewinds in St.
John.)

Despite being dwarfed by Prosser’s properties, Pennington is
making a splash in the local media scene. She relies on a network
of Islands free-lancers, some of whom she pays, others who write
regularly for her on a volunteer basis. Her ambitious goal is to
present a digital competitor to the Daily News that tells
the stories that the newspaper won’t or can’t touch because of
Prosser’s business connections.

The Source sites have a number of “scoops” under their belts,
including a story about AT&T suing Prosser’s phone company
over alleged non-payments – which the Daily News did
not report on. Pennington herself broke a story about one of her
own advertisers, which had built an illegal breakwater. Articles
are posted as they’re written, so in effect the Source sites are
“daily” e-publications.

“We want to be a hard-hitting news operation,” Pennington says,
“and we have the resources to do that.” By resources, she means
her free-lancers, many of whom have lived on the Islands for much
of their lives. An old friend of Pennington’s, a retired
journalist, covers the legislature. A news director at an Island
radio station writes for the Source sites on the side.

The genesis for the Source Web sites was Penny Feuerzeig,
the Daily News editor who quit over Prosser’s influence of
the paper’s editorial coverage. She convinced Pennington, who was
looking for something new to do, that there was a need and
opportunity for an alternative news operation covering the Virgin
Islands. Feuerzeig serves as a close adviser to Pennington and
even helps copyedit the sites’ content – as a volunteer.

Pennington also counts among her close advisors Frank
Jordan, a retired NBC News bureau chief and communications
dean who splits his time between San Francisco and the Virgin
Islands, and Irene Silverman, an editor of a Long Island,
New York, newspaper who spends several months a year on the
Islands. Both donate their advice and assistance as a “labor of
love.”

Pennington does everything, from writing and editing, to selling
ads, to concocting business strategy to keep the operation
growing – and works long hours, often seven days a week.
While the sites allow her to eke out a salary and pay free-
lancers, they are not yet profitable. She has borrowed money to
stay in the Internet publishing game, and manages to keep
expenses low.

The sites are run using template technology from OnePaper.com, which hosts them
on its Florida servers. Pennington uses Web forms to post
stories, so she doesn’t have to spend time being a Web guru on
top of all her other duties.

Islands Internet access

The Source sites are currently generating between 350,000 and
400,000 pageviews per month. The islands have a population of
about 110,000 (plus the large and ongoing tourist influx), and
are well wired. It’s estimated that more than one-quarter of the
island’s residents have dial-up Internet accounts, and there’s
also a broadband wireless Internet service available to the three
islands.

Pennington thinks that the time is right for an Internet news and
information service to make it. Not only is Island Internet usage
significant now, but there’s a large diaspora population –
Virgin Islanders who grow up but leave due to lack of job
opportunity in their home state – hungry for news from
home.

The Islands of course attract many tourists, but outside
investors are also an important audience. Pennington says her
Internet news service is useful to that crowd, as well as U.S.
government officials in Washington, D.C., who send money to the
Islands but don’t have good access to Islands news without the
Internet.

Business model evolving

Despite being a site serving a tourist hot spot, the Source
sites’ revenues – which all come from advertising sales
– are mostly from local businesses. Clients include an
insurance company, local airline, real estate companies, a
bookstore, and local phone/communications companies. The biggest
island resorts do advertise on the sites, Pennington says, but
the smaller resorts have been a tough sell – primarily
because tourism Web sites tend to charge less for ads.

A promising revenue stream for the sites has been government
legal notices, which are published not only in Islands newspapers
but also on Pennington’s Web sites. Pennington hasn’t moved into
e-commerce for local merchants yet, primarily due to lack of
resources.

The Source sites foremost are news oriented, but there’s also a
tourism component – where there’s considerable opportunity.
Pennington doesn’t yet describe her enterprise as a “portal” site
for the Virgin Islands, but that’s the direction she’d like to
take. She would like to eventually establish relationships where
her sites help tourists book travel and lodging deals and take a
cut of the transactions, for example. Such a strategy is common
among Web sites that serve tourist destinations.

Keep it going

“It’s important for me to keep this going,” Pennington says.
Despite not yet turning the corner on profitability and still
struggling without paid full-time staff, she says she’s
determined to press on, to hire some help, to make the sites
succeed – and provide an alternative to the near-monopoly
journalism represented by Prosser’s media properties.

Clearly, Pennington’s is a small-time operation that could get
squashed should Prosser’s media enterprises decide to take
publishing to the Internet seriously. To date, they haven’t done
so. The Daily News’ Web site, which would pose the most
serious threat to the Source sites, today is an amateurish
service with grainy graphics and articles pulled from the print
edition. Pennington is hoping the newspaper doesn’t take the
Internet more seriously until she’s had a chance to get a firm
foothold as the top dog in Internet news serving the Virgin
Islands.

One thing is certain in the Islands: There is a strong and clear
need for an alternative media voice. The Internet provides the
vehicle.

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are
links to the last few columns:
o The Word of Mouth Web Concept, Times 2, Wednesday, March 21
o A Rational Alternative to Web Banner Ads, Wednesday, March 14
o Can News Content Save e-Books?, Wednesday, February 28
o Archive of columns


Get Stop The Presses! by e-mail

If you would like to get e-mail delivery of the Stop The Presses!
column, there are two options:

1) Text e-mail. I send out a text e-mail message containing a
brief description of the current column, along with a URL link to the
actual column on the E&P Web site. To receive these regular
reminders, sign up here.

2) HTML e-mail. If you prefer to receive the entire column, you
can have it delivered to you as an HTML e-mail message whenever a new
column is published. Sign up here.

Steve


Got a tip? Let me know about it If you have a newsworthy item
about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a
note.



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


Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

RSS
Follow by Email
Facebook
Facebook
Twitter
Visit Us
LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *