Trends to Do (Online) Business By

By: Steve Outing

Typically in this column, I report on new trends in the online news business; introductions of new products, services and business models; interview interesting people in the business; and otherwise keep tabs on this fast-moving enterprise we call Internet news publishing. It occurs to me that I’ve reported on a lot of trends taking shape this year, and I think it’s worthwhile to step back for this one column and try to identify where this industry is heading.

Today, I will try to identify what I believe, based on my reporting, are the most important areas that online news publishers should be focusing on. What follows is a list of areas that news publishers should be targeting if they want to turn the Internet into a long-term revenue center for their organizations.

#1: Community publishing

I’ve come to believe that “community publishing” will over time become one of the most significant aspects of any publisher’s Internet operation. The term, simply put, means employing tools that permit community groups and individuals to self-publish on the Web, under the aegis of the publisher’s brand name. It means building a cyber infrastructure that facilitates community communication, and eventually benefitting by being the company that built the “plumbing” that in future years gets used by companies, organizations and individuals to communicate their messages to the public and amongst each other.

Community publishing has been slow to take hold — mostly because many publishers still resist the notion that they should be in the business of letting people other than themselves “publish” news. It means letting go of the notion of being the community gatekeeper, and allowing the public to participate in distributing news and information as well. But some news companies — as reported in this column — are taking community publishing seriously. Vendors like Koz and Zip2 have been offering community publishing solutions for some time, but only this year are we seeing some serious implementation of the concept from news companies like Guy Gannett Communications (Maine), the Bergen Record (New Jersey), and the Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia).

While profits won’t appear overnight, community publishing has great long-term potential. A news site that becomes its community’s digital infrastructure will benefit from the online transactions that it facilitates; it will attract advertiser revenues from companies wishing to contact hard-to-reach affinity groups; and it will benefit from increased overall site traffic because people tend to be repeat visitors when it comes to communicating with their specific affinity groups (whether it’s a kids’ soccer league, local Sierra Club chapter members, golfers who belong to a particular country club, etc.).

While community publishing is on most news site’s “to do” list, too few have taken the idea to reality. That’s probably because there’s not the prospect of short-term profits. Yet the concept is too important to ignore. Failure to leverage a publisher’s brand name to capture this new market for community self-publishing is to cede it to eager competitors. Accept that this is a long-term opportunity that will require some investment, and grab it before others do.

#2: Regional directories

This is another area where news companies need to expand their notions of what business they’re in. It makes abundant sense for a news organization to provide a Web directory covering its region — hence stealing away Web traffic that otherwise would go to Internet giants like Yahoo! and Excite. If a consumer is looking for the Web site of the local chapter of Greenpeace, she’ll find it with a Yahoo! search, probably; but it will be easier (and more logical) for the consumer to search a regional/local Web directory service that probably has more local depth than Yahoo!

Yahoo!, et al are getting most of the traffic and Web ad revenues today. News companies need to put up a fight, and a small but increasing number of them are figuring this out. As reported in this column, newspaper sites like the Kansas City Star, Virginian-Pilot, Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, and Detroit Free Press have implemented regional Web directories — often at reasonable costs.

And as I reported earlier this week, regional directories can be given great depth when the community publishing model is incorporated into the directory service. It would take a big staff to populate and maintain even a regional Web site directory without the help of the community; the simple trick is to have the local Web community itself build and maintain the completeness of the directory service.

#3: Online city guides

Is there anybody left in the industry who does not believe that online city guides — including those from deep-pocketed competitors like Microsoft — are a significant threat to newspapers? Many major metro dailies, and the alternative city press, long ago figured this out and implemented online city guide services of their own. Where danger still lies is in those medium and smaller markets where city guide companies (like Sidewalk, CitySearch, Digital City and others) have not arrived. Not feeling the threat yet, some print publishers have failed to act — leaving themselves not only open to the eventual arrival of the national city guide companies, but also to entrepreneurs who smell an opportunity bred by inaction by local newspaper companies. (For an example of that, see my recent column about CheyenneWeb.)

#4: Multiple Web sites

Increasingly, news organizations are coming to realize that when it comes to the Web, news is only one of many business opportunities. Increasingly, news companies are creating multiple Web sites — all linked and cross-promoting each other — because these companies are creating multiple businesses on the Web. Over time, the newspaper with only one Web site and one URL will be rare.

Guy Gannett Communications provides a classic example of this trend. Its Web businesses include: Maine Today; Press Herald Online; WGME Online; KJ/Sentinel Online; Maine Business Online; Destination:Maine; and Go.Online. Some of those are news-oriented sites, others are a tourist service, business directory, etc.

The lesson the news industry is slowly learning is that there are many potential business opportunities on the Internet. Some have little to do with the traditional business activities of news organizations, yet things like directory services, tourist and entertainment guides nicely complement existing news operations. They are natural extensions of a news enterprise.

#5: Original news, not repurposed

Since the early days of news sites, the debate has raged about how much original content is necessary. Is repurposing enough? The industry now has enough experience to say, in general, that the answer is a resounding “No.”

In a recent interview with Michael Alston, manager of the new media division of the Virginian-Pilot (a Landmark Communications newspaper), he pointed out to me that about half of his Web sites’ traffic goes to interactive content — online discussion forums, searches of databases, etc. While news from the core product clearly gets read online, news is only one part of why people come online. Alston’s site has made a commitment to producing original content for the Web. When a visitor comes to Pilot Online, the assumption is that he’s probably already read the newspaper, so on the Web he can find something new or something supplementary. The print crime story is complemented by the online searchable database that can show crime statistics for a Web visitor’s specific streeet.

I feel like a broken record (to use a very old metaphor) when I say this, but original content remains a key factor in attracting Internet users. Surprisingly, many newspaper sites, especially, still cling to the cost savings of repurposing print to the Web. That might be a survival strategy, but it’s not going to build an online profit center.

#6: Deliver it

Original content is great and will attract users, but there remains the core problem of the Web: Users have to come to you. The obvious yet too-seldom-used answer, as recent columns have suggested, is to provide customized e-mail services. Deliver your content as you would deliver your print publication. The difference is that instead of delivering the entire publication, e-mail services can provide users with only the information they desire. E-mail delivery of online-original content is a great service that ensures repeat customers for your information product.

Publishers’ reticence to take personalized e-mail delivery seriously is one of the oddities of the Internet news publishing industry. It’s cheap, it’s effective; with some exceptions, it’s not being taken seriously.

#7: Classifieds solutions

For the most part, the newspaper industry has agreed to take seriously the threat to its classifieds business posed by Internet competitors. Newspaper joint projects like Classified Ventures are signing up more partners, and the industry is really starting to come together. In a recent column, I reported on an effort by a Washington state newspaper association to create a state-wide classifieds Web service in which any publisher can take part. All represent signs that newspapers are thinking cooperatively when it comes to saving the classifieds franchise and building new online classifieds business lines.

The key change of thinking that publishers need to make is to find multiple distribution points for their classified advertising. We’re long past the days when a paper’s classifieds are to be found only in the print edition. Today’s newspaper classifieds need to be distributed through multiple digital channels. The modern consumer can be expected to have a choice between using traditional classifieds or going electronic. So make sure that your ads are where the consumers are — and increasingly that’s online.

#8: Print-broadcast partnerships

Increasingly, we’re seeing print and broadcast media cooperate on online projects. This is an obvious trend that will accelerate, now that broadband Internet access services are starting to spread. If you’re not already thinking about incorporating more broadcast-like elements into your news Web site, now is the time to start preparing for the day when many of your Web customers have the bandwidth to consume more than text and photos.

What do you think?

These are some of the things I believe news Web publishers should be thinking about, based on the most current industry trends. I sincerely doubt that everyone will agree with my list, so I invite comments. Send me e-mail at steve@planetarynews.com.

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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