Inside WashingtonPost.com — Some Innovations

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By: Steve Outing

The new World Wide Web site of the Washington Post, WashingtonPost.com, is another of those newspaper sites that was constructed out of the ashes of an online venture built on the platform of a proprietary online service — in this case the AT&T Interchange Online Network. And while the Post’s Digital Ink division probably lost a pile of money due to its relationship with Interchange, it now benefits from its time with the online service; the Digital Ink staff learned a lot about how to build a compelling online site.

I am not going to attempt to “review” the site, but rather point out some of the innovations that you’ll find on WashingtonPost.com. With a site this big and feature-laden, there’s lots that other Web publishers can look at for ideas. Here’s a sampling of the more innovative characteristics and features found on the site:

* WashingtonPost.com is one of the few newspaper sites that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Editor and vice president Jason Seiken says that the home page is updated on average 20 times per day.

* The site includes a goodly amount of content not found in the printed newspaper. In the international section, an area called “Search the World” consists of country reports that include links to recent Post and AP stories about the nation, reference materials, links to the country’s newspapers, and other top Web links for that country. A “50 States” feature within the national section is similar to Search the World, pulling together news, information, weather, sports and links for each U.S. state. nd a “Sports Across America” feature is a similar concept. (Obviously, WashingtonPost.com is not designed to appeal only to a local audience).

* The “Interactive Post 200” puts the popular print feature, profiling the top 200 companies in the Washington, D.C., area, and adds an interactive spin. How much better, too, to have this online continually — and updated throughout the year — than to print it once a year in the newspaper. An interesting feature is the ability to download the entire Post 200 dataset to your hard drive for use in a database or spreadsheet.

* The Post leaves no doubt about what is advertising and what is editorial. Banner ads each feature a bar with the word “Advertisement” embedded.

* The “Today in Congress” feature within the national section offers a look at the day’s agenda on Capitol Hill. Bills to be debated and witnesses scheduled to testify are listed, and the text of bills can be read online.

* In “Chapter One,” the first chapters of more than 150 books are available, linked to Post book reviews. If you like the first chapter enough to want to buy the entire book, you’ll presumably click on the Crown Books banner ad which reads, “Click here to order books.”

* The “Web Exploration Society,” in the Interact section, is designed to teach users about and help them navigate the Web. An area called “Outfitter” is where newbies can go to learn about and download sound and animation applications. And the site will host “Web Safaris,” some hosted by Web celebrities, pointing out favorite Web sites.

* While there’s something for a national and international audience on this site, there’s also a lot of original material for Washington, D.C., area residents, including original reporting by WashingtonPost.com staff. The Washington World section includes pages for each local county, which cover upcoming community events, local crime reports, and government information. There’s also a movie database with links to filmographies and show times; coming soon is a local restaurant database with menus and a videos database with 3,400 reviews, according to Seiken.

* More than a dozen Washington Post print reporters are currently hosting discussion areas, and the editor and managing editor of the paper also are participating, says Seiken. Celebrity guests will be a regular feature. A UFO expert and Rep. Richard Gephardt were recent celebrity online guests.

There’s a lot to see on WashingtonPost.com. I occasionally hear complaints about sites like this being too big, with the suggestion that the costs of building such a “mega-site” cannot be met by advertising revenues. We’ll see in time, but I see WashingtonPost.com as a useful site that is likely to find a lot of Washington, D.C., area repeat visitors. I’m betting that a lot of corporate and government PC screens will be tuned in to the site regularly, which should create an attractive advertising vehicle.

Seiken says the traffic to the site has been gratifying, averaging more than 1 million hits per day and exceeding 8 million in the last week. (The site currently is not tracking individual users, since it does not require registration.) WashingtonPost.com will remain free to all users for the immediate future, with the exception of premium services like newspaper archive searches. No decision has been made yet as to a future subscription strategy.

Contact: Jason Seiken, Jason@washpost.com

Preliminary results of revenue survey

Several weeks ago I reported on a survey being conducted by Donica Mensing about revenue strategies of online newspaper services. While the research is far from complete, Mensing has done some preliminary analysis based on the first 54 surveys she received from newspaper new media executives. Here are some of her preliminary findings. (I will report on the final survey results sometime in the coming weeks.)

Mensing emphasizes that these are preliminary results, and points out that some results may be skewed by a few respondents declining to answer some questions for confidentiality reasons.

* Only 11% of newspapers estimated their online readership at more than 5,000 people per day. Almost 1/3 of the respondents said they had no idea how many people were visiting their sites each day.

* 63% of papers surveyed have their classifieds online. 58% have online display (banner) ads. And 44% offer Internet access to local consumers.

* Two-thirds of newspapers reported expecting a loss this year on their online operations. Only 8% anticipate a profitable year. Projecting out two years, only 11% expect to be losing money and 60% expect to turn a profit.

* 13% of respondents expect to spend more than $2 million on running their online services in 1996. 38% will spend between $100,000 and $2 million; 13% between $50,000 and $100,000; 25% less than $50,000; and 7% will spend nothing. (The latter category includes those papers who use print reporters to staff the online site as part of their regular duties.)

* For 1995, half of the newspapers earned no online revenues, while 15% earned more than $750,000.

* The largest revenue source for newspaper online services is display (banner) advertising, followed by Internet access. Respondents expect classifieds to soon overtake access revenues. Most papers reported relying on only one or two revenue sources, Mensing says, and some papers rely entirely on advertising.

Mensing continues to seek additional newspaper new media executives to fill out her survey. Please send her an email note requesting a questionnaire. This is an important research project and the results will benefit us all.

Contact: Donica Mensing dmensing@unr.edu

Addendum: San Diego SPJ online awards

In Wednesday’s column I noted the winners of the new media awards competition of the San Diego, California, chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). I inadvertently may have slighted the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Web site, Sign-On San Diego, by failing to mention that it won four second-place awards in the contest. Which isn’t bad, considering the site had been operational for only five weeks when the judging took place.

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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

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