Regional Directory + Community Publishing = The Answer?

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By: Steve Outing

In this thrice-weekly column, I often report on emerging trends in the online news business. Recently, within the newspaper industry specifically, we’ve seen a couple of significant trends taking shape: 1) More newspaper Web sites are creating regional directory services, offering “mini Yahoo!” directory and search services focusing only on their local regions. 2) More sites are warming to the concept of “community publishing” — creating sites that permit local organizations and individuals to self-publish on the newspaper sites.

Trend No. 3 is to meld those first two trends into a single site. And one of the first newspaper sites to demonstrate the concept debuted last week.

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, last week relaunched its HamptonRoads.com Web site as a local gateway to the Internet. The site is basically a local “portal” site, which co-exists with the newspaper’s Pilot Online news-oriented site and several affiliated vertical Web sites.

According to Michael Alston, general manager of the Pilot’s Interactive Media Division, HamptonRoads.com is more than just an online city guide to the Hampton Roads region. (Hampton Roads is the area surrounding Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News — the 27th largest metro area in the U.S., with 1.5 million residents.) It incorporates typical city guide features, such as searchable movie, restaurant and community calendar listings — but it takes the concept further by allowing the community itself to publish information to the site and contribute content.

News ain’t enough!

Alston says the idea behind enhancing HamptonRoads.com is that Pilot executives realized that most of their regional audience already receive the newspaper, so coming to the Web for local news isn’t that compelling. Yes, Pilot Online emphasizes content that is original to the Web in order to give area residents a reason to visit the Web. But the news focus of the newspaper’s online operations isn’t enough; more needs to be done to attract additional people online and more community content needs to come online in far deeper form to encourage more frequent use of the Web.

Consider the analogy of the cellular phone versus the typical phone, says Alston. People who have cell phones also have regular phones in their homes. There’s some overlap in their utility, but each is useful for different applications. Similarly, a newspaper company should consider offering different kinds of Web services to serve different needs. The Pilot thus offers a strong community information site alongside but separate from a news and information site — with strong cross-linkages and cross-promotion between the sites.

While it’s getting to be common wisdom that newspaper sites need to offer regional directory services on the Web (in part to stave off competition from national directory/search services like Yahoo! and Excite as well as from online city guide companies), the way to populate these community services without going broke from staff costs is to adopt the community publishing model. The Pilot, which works with Zip2 and uses that vendor’s online Yellow Pages and entertainment guide service, is using Zip2’s community publishing software (which was originally developed by Pantheon, a Zip2 acquisition) as well as some technology from InfiNet (which is partly owned by the Pilot’s parent, Landmark Communications).

The community publishing system permits community groups to create their own areas on the Web using templates that don’t require knowledge of HTML or Web site creation. They can create their own online discussion areas, and calendar listings submitted by the groups are included in a larger searchable calendar database. (Hence, a Web user looking for an event can look at an individual group’s Web area, or do a larger search of the community calendar and the individual group’s listings will come up as a search result.)

What’s most exciting, of course, is the idea of reaching far deeper into the local community than could possibly be done by a newspaper with its limited staffing. While that includes information about very specific, local groups and activities, the Pilot also is looking to facilitate very local communication between individuals with common interests.

Think about people who are interested in hang gliding, for example, says Alston. Many gliding enthusiasts will participate in national (or international) Internet discussion forums about hang gliding. That’s great, but it would be even better if they could also participate in an online forum of the 75 people in their local area who go out hang gliding every Saturday, who post local information about gliding activities and events. That’s the kind of service that the Pilot is trying to build, he says.

“I think that people are trying to figure out how to make the vast Internet useful for them,” Alston says. That hang gliding example is exactly the kind of thing that accompishes that goal. He sees it as building out the frontier that is now cyberspace. “We’re putting up some interstates, gas stations and electric power, to make the homesteading of this frontier a little bit easier for the early pioneers.”

Revenue will come

How exactly this makes money is still under development, but building the local infrastructure is the key thing and fine tuning the business model will come over time once the base is built. The Pilot expects to assist consumers when they are ready to purchase things online; provide sponsorship opportunities to companies that want to reach local affinity groups; and overall benefit from increased Web traffic that is expected to come from offering more community information than just news.

The Pilot is fairly well positioned, since the online city guide industry hasn’t caught up to the Hampton Roads market yet. There’s no CitySearch or Microsoft Sidewalk yet, although there is a Digital City unit in Newport News, Cox Interactive has announced that it plans to enter the Hampton Roads market with an online community site, and there are some minor independent players operating in the local city guide space.

The Pilot’s new media division has 33 people, with 30 of those dedicated to online ventures and the other three to an audiotex service. Alston says the decision was made last year to make a significant investment in additional staff to support the new community online concept, and five additional online staffers are to be added this year. Even though much of the new local content is being contributed by the community itself, there’s still a need for staff to facilitate and educate community groups about the new services available to them.

Alston says that the idea behind HamptonRoads.com has “little to do with the online newspaper business.” It really represents a new line of business that’s separate from the newspaper’s core — news. Yet a community information focus makes a natural complement to a newspaper company’s news franchise, expanding what a newspaper can offer in the way of community information. It also can lead the newspaper’s journalists to better understand what community members are interested in, as they watch local online sub-communities being built. Alston expects the newspaper to be taught by the community through this process what community members find important.

Contact: Michael Alston, alston@infi.net

Recent related columns

Some of my recent columns have dealt with the concepts of regional directories by news sites and community publishing. For your convenience, here are links to some of these columns:
Knight Ridder’s Regional Web Directories (8/3/98)
Court Community Sites, Don’t Ignore Them (7/6/98)
Community Publishing: Coming Soon (5/6/98)
A Newspaper-Bred Yahoo!: Is It Possible? (5/4/98)

Steve

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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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