Knight Ridder’s Regional Web Directories Take Shape

By: Steve Outing

Critics of how the newspaper industry has done business online cite newspaper Web sites as too often applying a newspaper metaphor to cyberspace. Many publishers have taken what they know — news — and created Web sites that emphasize what the newspaper does best: news. Sure, that’s leveraging newspapers’ strength, but it’s not necessarily the best strategy for the online medium.

Indications are beginning to be seen that the newspaper industry is realizing the flaws of concentrating too heavily on news. For instance, Knight Ridder, the second largest U.S. newspaper company, is in the midst of a transition for its newspapers’ Web sites away from a predominantly news orientation and toward a “community information” focus.

Three of Knight Ridder’s Web sites — that of the Kansas City Star, Philadelphia Inquirer-Daily News , and Detroit Free Press — are experimenting with the idea of creating regional Web directories. The Star operates KansasCity.com; the Philadelphia papers have Philly Finder; and the Free Press has AllDetroit.com.

The concept is simple enough to understand; they are “little Yahoo!s” serving as Web guides to their local regions. The Yahoo!s and Excites of the world are getting most of the traffic on the Web, so regional directories are a way for local sites to grab some of that digital largesse back.

Knight Ridder New Media vice president/editorial Ken Doctor says that each of the three sites’ regional directory strategies is a little different, and each is being watched to see how it performs and whether the strategy should be exported to other Knight Ridder newspaper sites. None has been particularly expensive or difficult to pull off, since much of the content is submitted by local Web site operators who submit their own information to the directories. Newsroom-generated content for particular categories in the directory also is incorporated into the directory, giving it greater depth than a Yahoo! can pull off.

Doctor says the regional directory sites, which might be termed “city ports,” are being designed to “leverage the knowledge that we as newspaper people have of our communities” — and hence in theory pull consumers away from Yahoo!, et al, as the place for consumers to go when they want to find something on the Web. For example, a regional directory site might include information and journalistic material from the newspaper’s team of education reporters in the education area of the directory.

At this early stage, some of the directory topic areas of the three sites are rather thin, while others are more fleshed out. Over time that will change, as more local Web sites make sure they are represented in the directories, and as print-side newsroom journalists are brought in to the process and provide their own content to populate the subject areas.

Doctor points out that the regional directory concept is not all that difficult to execute. The staff commitment tends to come mostly up front, as the service is being built, while ongoing maintenance requires much less effort. It’s really more a challenge of organization than of assembling an ongoing labor force.

Knight Ridder is still in the talking stages about revenue models for the directories, but the principal idea is that they drive significant amounts of additional traffic to the newspaper sites, which of course means more advertising revenues. Beyond that, Doctor thinks that the directories will make a good platform for revenues from alternative (beyond the banner) advertising schemes, e-commerce applications, and classified advertising strategies integrated into the directory service.

News as subset

At the Kansas City Star, new media director Dan Peak explains that KansasCity.com is the principal Web brand produced by his department; KCStar.com is a subset of the greater KansasCity.com which is comprised of the news component of the total Web service. When the newspaper promotes its Web presence, it promotes KansasCity.com as the principal address.

The KC Web site since its inception has been an aggregator of community Web links, but in mid July it changed its look to that of a regional directory interface. Peak says because the site had started out as an aggregator, the directory project started out with 500-600 local Web listings already in place to make the launch easier.

The other important piece of the KansasCity.com service is its numerous affiliate Web sites — other local media, schools, libraries, tourist attractions, etc. Content from some of those affiliates also is incorporated into the directory topic areas, so there’s more than just listings for many categories. The affiliate relationships are mostly cross-promotional rather than money changing hands.

Peak also has launched a Web e-mail service — developed by his in-house people — that offers free “user@kansascity.com” e-mail addresses. A few newspaper Web sites have started to adopt the free e-mail strategy to drive more traffic to their sites, though most others have joined forces with Web e-mail vendors rather than develop the technology on their own. Clearly, this is another element where newspapers are mimmicking the strategies of the big Web search engine/directory companies.

Today, KansasCity.com is launching what Peak calls “Super Channels” — directory areas that combine community information, news and discussion in one directory topic area. What topics the Super Channels will cover will evolve over time as it becomes clear what the public demands. An obvious one is a Kansas City Chiefs (football team) Super Channel, containing Chiefs news, discussion areas, team and ticket information, fan clubs, schedules, etc. It’s not just the typical news site team coverage, but the gamut of community information and news surrounding the football team. The Star’s publisher described it this way: “Basically, an air traffic control center for Chiefs coverage.”

New slogan

Knight Ridder has adopted a new slogan for its newspapers, which is printed on Page 1: “Information for life.” Doctor says that’s an appropriate catch prhase for the company’s Web sites, because they are about information, not just news. The fledgling regional directories strategy — and the older strategy of building vertical Web services like JustGo (local entertainment guides), CarHunter, HomeHunter, etc. for Knight Ridder’s newspaper sites — embodies that slogan.

Doctor says that early on, Knight Ridder and other newspaper companies adopted a “Page 1 and Metro front” metaphor for their Web sites. That’s not wholly misplaced as a rational Web strategy, but a better strategy is one that’s more balanced with news as one part of the local information mix. It’s a matter of balance, he says, and with the regional directories the company is tipping the balance to a more appropriate point.

Contacts: Ken Doctor, kdoctor@realcities.com
Dan Peak, dpeak@kcstar.com

TV criticism: Pro and con

My recent column about an online-only TV columnist and the challenges he faces in gaining access from the networks to do his job brought contrasting reader responses. Joel Brown was critical of the column:
“You should have been a little more critical yourself in that piece. Visit any movie-press junket and you’ll see a lot more lap-doggery than at the TV critics press tour. Mr. Ellis’ attempt to make his own case by putting down everyone else is painful to read. I’m sorry he can’t get access to the tour and to tapes — I’ve been a newspaper TV critic, I now work for a TV trade book and I run the latter’s Web site. I’m also a TCA (Television Critics Association) member. Cross-platform issues like his are difficult. But his strategy of painting himself as the savior of TV criticism is transparent and silly. There are plenty of good TV critics out there (admittedly, none with their own TV shows, but Siskel and Ebert are a special case). I hope Mr. Ellis’ opinions of television shows are more accurate than his opinion of TV critics.”

Christine Champagne, senior editor at GIST TV, wrote in with an opposing viewpoint:
“I just read your article on Rick Ellis, and I wanted to thank you for covering the topic of online TV journalists. I … have experienced many of the same difficulties Rick has faced. When I began working for GIST TV two years ago, I literally spent months begging for interviews that I scored easily when I worked in print. Things have gotten much better, but it’s still a challenge. While the networks invite us to the TCA Press Tour and now send us tapes to review and releases, we still have a hard time lining up interviews with big stars. The great thing, though, is that we can write whatever we want. I write the kind of honest reviews I could never write for a print publication. Magazines and newspapers live in fear of being cut off and not getting covers. We hardly get any help anyway, so it doesn’t matter to us. That gives us greater freedom.”

Steve

Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

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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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