Community Newspapers Join Web En Masse

By: Steve Outing

A year ago, newspaper chains typically had one or two of their properties experimenting with online services. The lucky newspapers were typically test cases for the rest of the company. But that situation appears to have changed, with many companies now putting all of their newspapers online en masse.

For example, Knight-Ridder Newspapers watched as the San Jose Mercury News explored the online world with Mercury Center; and the Detroit Free Press experimented with a gopher server. Today, the company is working with InfiNet (of which it owns 50%) to put all of its 27 newspapers on the Web within the year.

Yesterday, Chicago-based Pioneer Press Newspapers launched its new World Wide Web service, Pioneer Press Community Newsstand, which brings all 47 of its newspapers online. These are small community publications that serve the suburban Chicago, Illinois, area.

The Pioneer project is nicely done. Each newspaper represented offers local neighborhood news; restaurant reviews; searchable archives; email forms for letters to the editor; calendars of local entertainment and community events; and print subscription information.

The service is free to Internet users and will be supported by advertisers, according to project webmaster Bill Oakes. Ads will be placed at the bottom of pages, and can be targeted at a specific community or run on multiple newspapers' pages. In the dining reviews area, restaurants will be able to pay to have their menus included in the listings. Pioneer Press does not plan to offer Internet access accounts, but rather will rely on advertising.

Oakes says the project is being run with a lean staff in the central office, without relying much on staff at the individual papers. Pioneer papers operate on an SII system, and the Web staff brings content from the editing system into a Harris pagination system. From the Harris system, copy is converted to HTML and dumped into Pioneer's Unix Web server. (The company operates its own server.)

Pioneer Press' project is significant because it says to me that the newspaper online industry is maturing. We've learned enough as an industry that it's no longer necessary to dip our toes into the water and experiment with a single newspaper. Because of the modest costs of publishing on the Web, it's now possible to bring up all your properties simultaneously.

Whether consumers will embrace the idea of reading community information online is unknown, of course. I believe such ventures do hold promise, once more of the public is comfortable using online services. A service like Pioneer Press Community Newsstand provides local-local information people truly need -- school lunch menus, community group calendars, garage sale classified ads, etc. -- and cannot get elsewhere.

The challenge for community newspapers is in offering on the online service something more than what's available in the free print edition that lands in your driveway once a week. Simply repurposing content is unlikely to succeed as a strategy for community newspapers. But neighborhood publications' online services will make it if they succeed in establishing a local online community. Establishing discussion forums on local issues is a good way to hook local computer users into coming back to your service, and is an excellent way to enhance the print product -- not try to replace it with an online version of the newspaper.

Sent me mail recently? Please send again

After being burglarized long ago, I installed an alarm. When my main hard disk crashed last week, I finally bought an adequate back-up system. I think I've learned my lesson now. (Have you backed up lately?)

As a result of my crash -- and my haphazard system of backing up my files -- I lost about 2 weeks of email. If you sent me anything in the first 2 weeks of October, I'd appreciate a resend. Thanks!

Have you read Wednesday's column?

Speaking of glitches, a coding error on my Wednesday column rendered it unreadable on most browsers. It's been fixed, so if you haven't already read Wednesday's column about Times Mirror's online usage survey, may I suggest you check it out now.

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 and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at

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