A Rural Community Newspaper With True Online Commitment

By: Steve Outing

Over the weekend I attended and spoke at the Colorado Press Association annual convention in Denver. I had a chance to meet and listen to Randy Sunderland of the Delta County Independent, a family-owned (Sunderland's family) newspaper in Delta, a community of 20,000 in western Colorado. The Independent, it might be surprising to note, is on the forefront of the online/new media world -- moreso than most Colorado newspapers.

Sunderland, who is obviously excited and enthused about opportunities for newspapers in cyberspace, calls himself an "evangelist." And he and his newspaper are truly committed to making a go of it with his one-man World Wide Web service, DCI Online -- so much so that Sunderland has given most of the print side management duties over to his wife so that he can concentrate on building the new media side of the newspaper operation. The service was launched last November.

Sunderland operates his own server (a Macintosh 7100 server running WebStar) and has a partial T-1 connection to the Internet, which is expandable as DCI's traffic warrants it. That's not going to be necessary soon, since the service has only about 40 of 50 regular users, he says. His research told him that 1,500 to 1,800 people in his community have Internet access, so he's got a fairly small market to work with.

That may not sound like much. The Independent has a circulation of 7,500, so even if Sunderland was able to get a sizable percentage of his target market, DCI Online will not even come close to the print side's circulation until Internet usage is more widespread.

What Sunderland is doing is what it takes to succeed with a community-based online service: building an online community. It's growing slowly, and he takes pride in each spike in usage and in each new regular user who decides to make DCI Online his or her new online home base.

The most significant part of Sunderland's efforts involves building close relationships with the schools in the area. DCI Online hosts Hotchkiss High School, Delta High School, Hotchkiss Elementary and the Delta Montrose Vocational Technical Center. The schools create their own home pages and areas online and can post whatever they want. The high school pages include school sports news, information about school clubs, and some students have created their own home pages. (I stumbled upon "Kristin's Cheerleading Page.")

Though Sunderland asks no money from the schools, "This is the biggest success I've got." Local high school students are among the most frequent users of DCI Online, and they often suggest ideas to Sunderland for improving the service. He also teaches classes in Web publishing at some of the schools. All this is building a future online customer base that he hopes will pay off down the road.

Also important to the project are visitors from outside the area looking for tourist information about his area. DCI Online hosts a tourism page and charges the City of Delta $50 a month for hosting an informational page about a local museum. The site has been registered with most of the Web search engines, and computer users looking for tourist information and finding DCI Online during a search is a good Web traffic builder, Sunderland says.

The site is free, supported primarily by advertisers -- of which DCI Online already has a few, including a local bank. Rates are low -- $25 per month for a link in an advertisers' directory and $50 per month for a single page on the server promoting a business. Sunderland hasn't worked out a formal rate card and negotiates deals with advertisers on a case by case basis.

The service certainly isn't a raving financial success yet, but he says the early ad income is close to meeting his expenses. Cost of setting up the server and getting connected to the Internet were about $15,000. He seriously considered becoming an Internet service provider for his area, but decided that he didn't want to be answering technical questions from his customers. There are now 6 ISPs servicing nearby communities (though none in Delta), all a local phone call for Delta residents. When Sunderland was building his service a few short months ago, there was only one ISP in the region.

Sunderland told me that one of his media competitors recently described him and his DCI Online project as a "rich boy playing with his toys." He obviously doesn't see it that way and believes in the financial potential of growing the online side of his business. "I was happy to get the publicity," he says.

He views DCI Online as a "useful tool to promote my business." It's a research and development project, an investment in the business' future, and a way to protect the newspaper's franchise, he says.

Be my cyber Valentine

For those of us who spend far too much time at the computer to go out and buy a Valentine card, now there are cyber Valentine services. You might try the Detroit News' Love Bytes digital valentine service. Using a Web browser, simply select an image (perhaps the cat who's spit up a red heart-shaped hairball), fill out a form and click. Voila!, the valentine is on its way to your beloved. The recipient receives an automated email message containing a URL (Web address) where he/she can view your personalized card.

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


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