Why Local Publishers Should Seek Wider Online Audience

By: Steve Outing

In a short column item last week, I criticized two Wyoming papers for the sparse coverage on their Web sites of the Matthew Shepard murder. As a national audience looked to Wyoming news sites for deeper insight into what was the biggest story to come out of Wyoming in years — a gay student beaten and left to die tied to a rural fencepost and the ensuing national uproar — these papers failed to take into account that a national audience would look to them online. They offered up scant coverage online, and thus in my opinion missed an opportunity to build their brand names before a large national (and even international) audience.

Following that item, I received a letter from Rick Brown, a reporter for the News Tribune in Jefferson City, Missouri, a newspaper similar in size to the Wyoming newspapers I chided — and one that is only now pondering what content to place on the Web. He wanted to know more about why I thought that the papers should capitalize on the national attention the Shepard story could have brought them. Among his questions:
“Why should those newspapers undercut their own product, which is the print version, by giving away large chunks of local content? “We’ve admittedly got a consumer demand in the situation you describe, but can we justify providing local news to a national audience without deriving revenue from it?” Allow me with today’s column to elaborate on why a predominantly local publisher should with its online presence take advantage of a national or even international audience. Most of my suggestions will be general enough to apply to most news organizations, and not just to the particular case of the Wyoming newspapers, the Casper Star-Tribune and Cheyenne Tribune-Eagle.

Traffic jams

Whenever a big news story with national implications breaks in a news organization’s back yard, its Web site is likely to get overrun by non-locals coming to get the inside scoop. News-specific Web search engines create special link sections to local coverage of major stories, bringing in non-local visitors. The assumption by many Internet-using news seekers is that the media outlets closest to a major news event will have the best coverage. That’s often the case, if for no other reason than that local media have more reporters on the scene than anyone else.

We’ve seen it time and again, when Web sites get hammered with traffic because of a big local story. When a hurricane goes through Florida, that state’s news sites see huge boosts in visitors — many of them from outside the state. When an earthquake hits San Francisco, that city’s newspaper Web sites are where non-local audiences flock. When British nanny Louise Woodward was on trial for murder in Massachusetts, the Web site of Community Newspaper Co.’s small papers in Newton became one of the principal sites on the Web for people interested in following the case in detail. For two-plus years, the papers’ Town Online Web site attracted a substantial international audience — including many regular readers from Britain.

So, the question: what can be done with such non-local audiences when you’re a local news Web site?

Enhance your reputation

I will make a business case for gearing your online coverage to a national audience, but let’s start elsewhere. To ignore non-local readers and decline to offer substantial coverage of significant back-yard news events is to send the message to the world outside your print circulation area that you do not have a quality news organization. That may not be the case, but that’s the message you’re sending — since only locals will see the fine work you’ve produced in print.

The local news site that provides award-winning coverage online of a big local news event gains a national reputation as a quality news organization. While that’s intangible, I suspect most publishers would be pleased with the additional respect gained by a strong online performance during a big story.

Todd Engdahl, editor of Denver Post Online, which carried extensive coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing trial (which took place in Denver), says that the newspaper’s reaction to that back-yard news event was a journalistic one: This was a big story and “we had to cover it” online as well as in print. The story would have been extensively covered online even if there were no national audience. To limit online coverage would have hurt the paper’s reputation.

At Town Online, the Louise Woodward British nanny murder case put the Web site on the map, so to speak. Community Newspaper Co.’s Newton reporters covered the case from the start, when it was a little noticed local story. As press attention from around the world grew, Town Online became the de facto site for information on the case, according to executive editor Eric Bauer. At one point, the site had more than 400 articles about the case archived. British people hungry for news on developments became regular users of the site and joined the site’s discussion forums. Journalists from England and national U.S. news organizations regularly consulted the Web site and newspaper reporters for expertise on the case. Bauer says he did dozens of interviews on BBC radio, and other print and online staff members got coverage and were interviewed on TV news programs like ABC’s Nightline and BBC News. The case made media celebrities of local journalists who otherwise reach an audience of 30,000-40,000.

The boost given to Community Newspaper Co.’s local papers because of the international attention brought on by the Web site was invaluable, says Bauer. And more tangibly, Town Online’s Web traffic was forever changed for the better. When the Woodward case became a national obsession in the U.S. and England, the site’s traffic increased tenfold; when it was all over, the site’s average traffic level settled down to 3-4 times what it was before the case became big news. Bauer says that there was no concerted effort to financially take advantage of the traffic gains brought on by the case, but Town Online nevertheless did benefit from increased banner ad revenues.

“When big news breaks in your market, if you do not cover it appropriately, you can cause tremendous damage to your reputation as a (Web) site to visit for news and information — even if your primary objective (with the site) is not news,” says Peter Zollman, an interactive news media consultant based in Altamonte Springs, Florida, who has examined this topic in his research.

Zollman points to the example of Austin360, which did an outstanding job of providing coverage when a massive tornado devastated nearby Jarrell, Texas. The Cox-owned site attracted a huge national audience, including those with relatives in the affected area looking for news about their loved ones. In contrast, CitySearch Austin did not provide news coverage of the tornado, since it didn’t consider itself to be a news site but rather a community guide. Zollman says that in his interviews with CitySearch staff, they admitted that this was a mistake, because Web users did expect to find news about the tornado on the site. He says that for a major local news event, local Web sites need to provide coverage — even if it’s via a partnership with a local TV or radio news station to provide the coverage, or linking to other news sources.

One-time coverage, at least

The public’s expectation that a local news site will cover major news in its back yard requires that it do something beyond republish wire stories. I would recommend that even for newspaper sites that don’t wish to cover local news online on an ongoing basis, consider making an exception when a big story breaks. Not only do you have a chance to shine before a national audience, but you won’t disappoint the increasingly large numbers of news consumers — both locally and nationally — who expect your site to offer them information. Web users have lots of sites to attract them; lose them due to poor coverage and you’re unlikely to get them back anytime soon or without great effort.

The cannibalization myth

Publishers who continue to resist posting local news content online may still believe the old myth that some local readers will give up their print subscriptions if local news is available online. Anyone who’s been involved in Internet news media for a while will laugh at that, but as evidenced by strategies like those in place in Wyoming, there are many who aren’t yet convinced that a strong Web site won’t hurt them.

Evidence clearly points to the contrary. News Web sites tend to attract a different audience — often those people who don’t read the local print edition. They also bring in a modest number of net new print subscriptions, typically, as new people are exposed to the news organization’s product. Yes, over time there is the distinct likelihood that an online version of a newspaper could take away print readers. But that’s a long way off; and by the time digital media is that successful, all smart news organizations will have figured out how to make money off digital readers as well as print readers.

Courting national audience as part of strategy

For some local newspaper sites, national-interest local stories help out the bottom line. At Vegas.com, the Web site of the Las Vegas Sun (Nevada), there were four significant stories last week that had significant national interest, says general manager Bryan Allison. When such big local stories break, “We look at it journalistically first,” he says. “Our take is if it’s a big story we’re going to tell it. .. Who better to tell it than us?”

For breaking Las Vegas stories, Allison says he often sees links to his site from Yahoo!, MSNBC, CNN.com and others, which significantly boost site traffic. Because his site serves a tourist destination, it has attracted an increasing amount of national advertising, so the big-story traffic increases boost his ad revenues. And for big stories that are known about in advance — such as last week’s opening of the flashy new $1.6 billion Bellagio hotel/casino — some advertisers come on board because they know the site is about to get a new wave of traffic. Vegas.com also has been successful selling ads around its coverage of the annual Comdex computer show in Las Vegas.

The Bellagio casino story even brought in some music sales revenue. TV ads for the new facility, which have been airing around the U.S., feature a song by an Italian tenor. The site got so many inquiries about the music that it posted a page with information and a link to purchase the CD containing the song from Amazon.com. As part of Amazon.com’s affiliate program, Vegas.com got commissions on 200 sales of the CD, Allison says.

Steering traffic to national-interest sites

Most newspapers these days have diverse Web sites, often with content that will appeal to a local audience as well as online readers living far away. Many papers have created niche Web sites that cover a local specialty area but attract a national audience. A Denver newspaper would create a national skiing site offering the best depth of news and information about skiing in the Colorado Rockies, for example. Newspapers in California’s Wine Country or in Detroit have created wine and auto Web sites, respectively, that attract global online readership and are supported by wine and auto advertisers who seek to reach a wide audience.

For such sites, a big local story is like a marketing gift. Thousands of new people will visit the Web site looking for news — and they’ll be exposed to other content offerings on the site. As any news Web site editor who’s experienced this will tell you, a major news event brings large spikes in user traffic. After the event has subsided, some of that traffic “sticks” and traffic levels settle down to a point higher than before the news event.

Diaspora

Of course, this varies from news outlet to news outlet, but for some, expatriates are a viable market worth serving by offering coverage of important local news stories. Large and medium sized cities have thousands of ex-residents, or people who travel there regularly, who look to news sites from those places for news. Smaller cities can take advantage of this, too, especially if they have a major university that regularly creates sizable numbers of ex-residents; or if they are resort towns that attract regular visitors and have many part-time residents. With a sizable enough expatriate or visitor market, a Web site can market to travel- or tourist-related advertisers, for instance.

National ads

Not every small newspaper has what it takes to attract national Web ads, but many do. If your town has a tourist attraction, annual event, etc. that regularly brings national interest, your Web site can gain national traffic by catering to those interested in the attraction/event. Naturally, any additional traffic drawn to your site will boost readership of those parts of your site, so taking advantage of major breaking local news events to attract national traffic certainly qualifies. If your site has the traffic, your sales staff can be successful in selling national ads to supplement revenues from core local advertisers. For instance, the Denver Post’s Engdahl says more of his site’s ads are national than local, and they are sold without a relationship to a Web national banner ad network.

National ad networks are the other option, of course, though it’s still only the largest news sites that make more than a pittance from banner ads from the ad networks. Most of the networks want to work with the sites with the most traffic, so sites with under 1 million page impressions a month will have a tough time getting noticed. But gains made from national traffic bursts involving major stories can help a site get to that level.

Sell the paper!

For a really big local story, most newspapers will produce special print sections or at least have extra pages. Their Web sites can even sell copies of the print edition featuring coverage of the event, as commemorative editions.

Be well rounded

The successful newspaper Web site often has news as only one element of its overall strategy. A site might emphasize its online community guide or online classifieds over news coverage, and that can be a fine strategy. But major breaking back-yard news is when an exception must be made and news coverage at least temporarily put on the front burner. It’s an opportunity to increase site traffic both locally and nationally, and the resulting boost in traffic will aid the other elements of the site in the long run.

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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.

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

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