Alternative Weeklies Discover 'Insta-Communities'

By: Steve Outing Increasingly, news Web sites are embracing the idea of "community publishing," a concept where community groups and individuals produce "micro-news" content about themselves which is hosted by the news sites. But there's more than one way for news sites to approach "community."

The new media division of New Mass. Media, Inc., which publishes the Advocate*Weekly chain of five alternative newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, reports success with a concept that has been dubbed "insta-communities," which begins with repurposed newspaper content and uses it as the core of a newly created online community focusing around the content.

Davyn McGuire, Web marketing manager for New Mass. Media Inc., explains how the concept works:

"Basically, our papers like all others in the world come out (periodically) with their (print) special sections, whether it be about summer, winter, basketball, or in the case of alternatives, pogo polo. But what we have done is taken that stale content ? usually listings, like places to stay or eat ? that we could just repurpose online, and create an 'insta-community.' We develop a brand, throw together a bulletin board, and come up with a killer contest ? usually with a prospective advertising partner. Then we plant the seed and register it with search engines, place some house ads in our papers, and watch it grow."

Rivalry drives community

The oldest New Mass. Media insta-community is, which is a basketball "rivalry" site for the University of Connecticut and University of Massachusetts. It started out with articles taken from the newspapers, players' stats and profiles, and the teams' schedules ? and a new brand was born. Next, says McGuire, a contest was concocted that took place over the course of the basketball season. It gave away an expenses-paid trip to either the Big East or A-10 Tournament. And an online discussion forum was started.

In year two, an NCAA Tournament contest was added and a sponsor was found for the site ? Spalding, which donated an offical Spalding NCAA Tournament ball with the winner's name engraved on it. Now going into its third year, the site just landed a major sponsor in liquor maker Yukon Jack. Among the site's related activities are Yukon Jack-sponsored in-person social gatherings at local bars, hosted by the Web staff. also has grown to include women's basketball; there are after-game prizes from Spalding awarded; and an e-commerce catalog selling UConn and UMass merchandise in partnership with Campus Gear is being built.

The newest insta-community site is called Ski and Board New England, launched last week. McGuire is confident that this one will succeed because of a contest he's created; the site is giving away a pair of lift tickets every day for 100 days to various ski areas around New England. "We offered every ski area in the northeast a banner that would rotate through the site in exchange for complimentary lift tickets (that we would use in the contest)," he explains. "This was almost too easy; there were only three places that declined, and some of our partners are Killington, Okemo, Mount Snow, Sunday River and Smuggler's Notch, just to name a few." The site got 1,000 contest entries in the first three days.

The goal is to make the ski site a resource for New England skiers and those around the U.S. who come to the area to ski. "We basically (just) took the ski area info from the paper and sculpted it into a Web site," McGuire says. Ski conditions are included via a relationship with the Weather Channel.

As with most of the insta-community sites, the ski site starts out without a sponsor. The idea is to first build the community and get some decent traffic figures, then have a good story to sell to sponsors.

The sites don't become instant successes, of course. McGuire says the contests and related promotion in the print Advocate*Weekly newspapers typically get them off to a good start, then they build gradually as a community forms around the content. The discussion boards that are part of each insta-community are a key part of the formula, and the sports and recreation sites in particular get the most discussion traffic. The discussion forums are particulary active, largely because the concept gets together people who support rival but nearby school teams.

The newspapers churn out annual special sections on an almost weekly basis, and from those a select few are deemed worthy of creating Web communities. And sometimes insta-communities are created on worthy topics even if there isn't an associated print special section. One of the latter that's been particularly successful is, a directory and guide to nude beaches around New England, New York and New Jersey. McGuire says with that site, there is no contest, but it became successful in attracting traffic because of the community of nude sunbathers who have taken up residence on the discussion forum and pretty much run it themselves. The content ? because it's "adult" in nature ? attracts a lot of traffic both from the region and from elsewhere. is the Advocate's busiest insta-community site.

Other insta-community sites include Inside-Out, a gay and lesbian "fact and fiction" site for the Northeast gay/lesbian community (which includes an ongoing online soap opera, "Gays of Our Lives"); and, a guide to Provincetown, a "gay mecca" in Massachusetts.

Must be authentic

Kathryn Stoddard, New Mass. Media's director of Web publishing, says the sites may seem "instant," but they still require a lot of work and shepherding from the five-person Web staff to keep the online communities running and traffic levels up. And the choice of topics is important. "It's got to be really authentic," she says, or Web users will see through it. "People will know a hoax when they see it," so you have to choose site themes around topics where there's a genuine need for an online community, adds McGuire.

Stoddard says that the concept requires several components to be successful: The Web site itself with contests driving initial traffic and discussion forums keeping people involved over time; in-person social events organized around the communities; and print content (not always required, but helpful) with an established audience and related in-print promotion of the Web site community. The in-person social events are possible because the five Advocate*Weekly papers are all in close geographic proximity, and the online communities revolve around regional topics. She says that with the site, a big part of that community's success is due to a series of parties that the site hosts at local bars, for example.

The NudeBeachGuide site is already breaking even from its advertising revenue, and looks like it could start being profitable by next year, according to McGuire. The Advocate*Weekly's Web sites are closing in on the 1 million pageview-per-month mark.

The "insta-community" concept (which is simply what the New Mass. Media staff dubs the model they've created; it's not an official name) is sort of an alternative to community publishing (that is, community group self-publishing). Stoddard says she sees the value in community publishing efforts being tried by other news organizations, but "that's not what we tend to do" as an alternative media company that prefers to do things "with an attitude." But insta-community is about community involvement, since the sites are largely driven by contributions of the niche community members themselves.

The part of the concept that I find particularly interesting is how it takes what otherwise would be bland repurposed print content, which might be useful content but nevertheless is "shovelware," and leverages the strengths of the online medium ? using that content merely as a building block to create something truly unique to the online medium.

Contact: Davyn McGuire,

(Note: This column has been changed from its original version in order to correct some factual errors.)

Local stores; global sales?

In reaction to my last column about shopping mall sites and their importance to news Web sites, Eric Magill of Cyber Weekly Consulting, who works on online strategies for weekly newspapers, wrote in with an alternative view:

"Far from being scared, disturbed and threatened by the e-commerce efforts of national retailers, our local retail site design clients are viewing the Internet as a vital weapon in evening the playing field a little. Our experience in building Web sites ... is that local retailers should hire a Web site design firm (preferably this would be the local newspaper) to develop a serious online presence that takes advantage of the Internet's global reach, not a cookie-cutter online store built out of Web forms on an online mall geared to local residents they already reach with newspapers, radio, cable, Yellow Pages, etc.

"In our case, some of our site design clients expect online sales to surpass their brick-and-mortar stores in a couple more years, and with only a few exceptions, the others are profitable and growing because we follow these important online retailing guidelines:

1. Define a niche and exploit it by offering a wide selection of products in that niche (Mom-and-Pop Retailing 101).
2. Use the power of the major search engines to reach regional, national and global prospects local retailers can't reach in the brick-and-mortar world.
3. Design a simple, browser-friendly site that makes it easy for online prospects to find the products they want.
4. Give enough information (pictures, specs, etc.) to allow online consumers to make a buying decision.
5. Respond promptly to online consumer questions and utilize personalization techniques (such as the one you suggested: e-mailing online customers when a special product comes in).
6. Make it easy for online consumers to buy online or offline (shopping carts, secure online order forms, toll-free phone numbers, 24-hour fax ordering).

"I do believe a local mall can help its stores with a strong Web site, but such a local focus fails to take advantage of the Internet's ability to reach qualified prospects far and wide. Our clients ship orders to Russia, Canada and Europe regularly, to China, and to far-flung locations that are just a tiny speck on the globe, not to mention all over the United States. ...

"I believe newspapers interested in helping local retailers online should be building online catalogs and stores and employing online marketing techniques that help those retailers find new customers they can't do business with in a brick-and-mortar world. Newspapers that do so can be rewarded with an online publishing business that rivals their print publishing business."

Just a quick comment about Magill's note: While helping local retailers reach a national or even global audience is a good thing, I believe a higher priority should be helping them be competitive online in order to keep local shoppers from defecting to online shopping at national Web retail sites.,, et al pose the risk of taking a considerable chunk of a local bookstore's revenues away, for example. Newspapers, in particular, can develop Web programs to help counter that threat.

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


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