Court Community Sites, Don't Ignore Them

By: Steve Outing The most overused Internet phrase these days is, of course, "portal." Everyone wants their Web site to be a portal, one where Web users come to find whatever it is they're looking for on the Internet. Many news companies' Web sites would like to become portals, too -- if not national portals (which is for most news organizations an unrealistic goal) then local or regional portals (a goal that is within reach).

To become a true local portal site, a news organization needs to have more depth of local community information than do most existing news Web sites. Adding content such as community calendars, information about community organizations, schools, little league sports, etc. is a daunting task, however. It's expensive to produce on your own, and "community publishing" solutions are in their early stages of development.

Yet there is an inexpensive solution available to local news Web publishers, though rarely is it employed: Partner with existing non-profit local community sites that already have amassed mountains of digital data about local events and organizations.

Business meets non-profit

Peter Krasilovsky, a Bethesda, Maryland-based writer and online industry analyst, has written a white-paper about local community sites called "Community Resources on the Web: Building Usage and Long-Term Viability." Funded by the John and Mary Markle Foundation, the document is aimed at encouraging community Web sites to think beyond the confines of the non-profit world and find ways to increase the usage of their sites. Because he strongly advocates that such sites partner with local commercial sites, his message is relevant to local news publishers looking to expand their Web presences to become more portal-like.

Many local community information sites are content-rich "ghost towns with little regular usage," Krasilovsky writes. "Early community sites haven't been a 'Field of Dreams' in which consumers will come 'if we build it.'" That's not because of a lack of Web users -- Internet penetration levels are between 20% and 50% in most U.S. communities -- but rather low awareness among community members that these sites even exist.

Krasilovsky blames the lack of entrepreneurial spirit at the community sites and community networks for their lack of success at attracting users. While oftentimes the sites are chock full of great community information and news, they are not marketed effectively. (Indeed, if such sites did market themselves well, they might pose a serious threat to local news organizations' Web sites or commercial city guide sites.) To raise traffic levels and keep them high, community sites need to shed non-profit thinking and promote themselves on a continuing basis in high-visibility venues.

"Ultimately, the limited entrepreneurialism of many community sites has created a welfare-like culture that has made it difficult to scale up," he writes.

There is change on the horizon, however, and Krasilovsky reports that many community sites he found in researching the Markle white-paper "are trying to break the welfare-like mentality." They hope to change to a position where they get a high percentage of their funding from entrepreneurial ventures, to supplement their traditional base of grant funding.

Among the community sites, becoming more entrepreneurial is controversial. But increasingly, they are partnering with for-profit sites like those of the city guide companies and newspapers. In Austin, Texas, for example, the Austin Freenet community site has hooked up with the Austin site of CitySearch. Companies like CitySearch are interested in allying with the community sites to enhance their community ties and help drive their own traffic.

Survival mode

For most community sites, says Krasilovsky, "the concept of business models is not intuitive." They've spent most of their organizational energy on fund-raising, rather than entrepreneurial efforts that could make them self-sustaining. And many have been successful enough in raising money that they can survive -- if not exactly prosper -- without having to develop commercial business models.

Hence, there's some inherent difficulty in forming relationships between a commercial publishing entity and a non-profit community site. Finding common ground can be difficult because of the conflicting cultures of each organization. Krasilovsky says that newspaper Web sites may discover that the managers of local community sites are "afraid" of them or distrustful. For a publisher approaching a non-profit community Web operation, a certain amount of salesmanship may be called for to pull off a deal.

Commercial news and city guide sites can help out the community networks in many ways. Don't think of a relationship with a community site just in terms of the public relations factor, Krasilovsky says. For example, the editorial skills of your organization can be used to better train the community site's staff; your best business minds can help educate the community site on how to think entrepreneurially. And when approaching community sites or networks, think about which groups might be most effective in strengthening and complementing what you've already got on your commercial site. Krasilovsky says he's seen too much "cynical embracing" of community sites by commercial entities without enough thought to creating a beneficial business case.

The business relationship

In most non-profit/for-profit relationships, Krasilovsky writes, it's best if no money changes hands, though there are exceptions. In the Austin Freenet-CitySearch example, the two organizations exchange Web links; co-sponsor key events; jointly distribute Web Guides developed by CitySearch; and "keep out of each other's way" by not duplicating the other's content. Austin CitySearch provides free site hosting to community organizations, and the community sites in turn promote CitySearch in their literature, on their store-front windows, etc. A local news site might consider a similar set-up.

In a competitive market where there are multiple online city guides, newspaper publishers should consider allying quickly with community sites and networks before someone else does. Most local publishers consider themselves to be the central information source for their communities, but "it is not a given that a newspaper is entitled to serve as the community's 'glue,'" Krasilovsky says. "Civic networks, the local government, public broadcasting affiliates, university extensions and other city guide sites all view themselves as the community's proper repository of civic information. But if an opportunity arises, many community sites will be tempted to partner with a newspaper or other for-profit resource to enhance their own sustainability."

Community sites can serve as important niches that can complement city guides, help provide commercial city sites with additional credibility, and offer "sticky usage" at low costs, he says.

(Krasilovsky's study was not online yet as I wrote this column. It should be available on the John and Mary Markle Foundation Web site soon.)

Contact: Peter Krasilovsky,

Take that, old media!

I liked Jeff Pundyk's latest editorial on TechWeb. The editor in chief of CMPnet takes "old media" to task for some recent problems involving inaccuracies, use of unnamed and biased sources, and writers making up quotes and sources. It's a good read; I recommend it.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing

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