Publishing on the Internet is inexpensive, when viewed next to print publishing costs. Still, many newspapers sink considerable amounts of money and devote from a handful to dozens of staff members into creating Web sites. It doesn't have to be that way.
Howard Owens, a freelance writer in San Diego County, California, has launched a Web service for the small community newspapers of Forum Publications called East County Online (or ECO). He did it for practically nothing: "ECO was born with virtually no start-up costs," he says. "I've probably spent about $100 on some flyers and a few how-to books."
ECO started out with a discussion between Owens and the operators of the San Diego Online Web site and San Diego Magazine. He offered to create an East County Online component of San Diego Online if they would give him free server space. In exchange, Owens would share 40% of any advertising revenues received by ECO with San Diego Online.
Owens freelances for San Diego Magazine and for Forum Publications, which publishes 6 community newspapers in eastern San Diego County. He also entered into a deal with Forum's publisher, who would let Owens republish content from the newspapers in exchange for a share of ECO and of future online advertising revenues.
With no money coming out of Owens' own pocket yet, he set out in search of some original content for the site, so it wouldn't be merely "shovelware." He called up Michael Grant, a popular former San Diego Union columnist who had gone into teaching, and convinced him to write a regular column for the site -- for free, at least in the short term while ECO builds a revenue base. He also found a city councilman, Tom Connolly, who was willing to write for free, and an out-of-office politician, Jay La Suer.
Says Owens, "La Suer and I have been through a number of clashes over the years, me as a reporter ... him as a politician and subject of unflattering stories by me and others. ... One day we ran into each other outside of Computer City. He had just bought a Mac, his first computer. I told him about my plans to launch ECO. He immediately asked if he could write for it. I wanted a conservative political columnist, and here he was out of the blue, and free.
"The point is," says Owens, "I've been able to hobble together this thing through good fortune and ambition. Where others are spending big bucks, I've spent nothing." He has, however, spent much of his time on the project, currently working 70-hour weeks doing freelance writing to pay the bills and working on building ECO for a future payoff.
The story isn't all good news, since so far the site has attracted no advertisers and no one involved is getting paid. "I haven't yet made a big marketing push; I wanted to let ECO mature a bit first," he says. Within the last week, however, Owens received 3 advertising inquiries, "so I take that as a good sign that we are maturing to the point of being a viable vehicle for advertisers."
ECO charges $120 for a link to an advertiser's Web site that will stay up for 6 months. Owens also offers Web site design services for local companies, and if the Web design bill exceeds $400 he'll throw in a free link to the site on ECO. He's beginning to see that businesses are more interested in having their own Web sites than in buying links on publishers' sites. That may be the end of the business that supports ECO.
ECO's audience is modest -- about 250 to 300 visitors per week, currently -- but growing. Owens hopes to expand the site, adding more local information and some interactive features (including a personalized update service that would allow site visitors to be reminded when their favorite columnist has a new piece on the Web).
When Owens launched the site last year, he included links to other good sites on the Web, but soon discovered that his home page was being hit regularly but his inside pages of local content were not. After pulling the plug on external links, visits to the local columnists shot up. "That told me that there is a lot of interest in local news that isn't part of the print edition," Owens says. "People do want local news."
The challenge, for ECO and other community newspaper-based online services, is to turn that demand for local news into a viable business on the World Wide Web.
Sacramento Bee's Women and Computing series online
I suggest you check out the Sacramento (California) Bee's special report, "Logged In or Left Out: Women and Computing," which has been posted on the Bee's temporary Web presence on NandO.net. This is an extensive series of articles, photos and graphics that ran in the newspaper covering an important topic.
Howard Weaver of McClatchy Newspapers' New Media Strategies group says the Bee online reprint "represents an interim step for the Bee and McClatchy, where a wider digital publishing strategy is now taking shape." He says by mid-year the company should have some concrete announcements to make.
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