Detroit Free Press Plays to Its Strength: Autos

By: Steve Outing

Today the Detroit Free Press (a Knight-Ridder paper) opens its first World Wide Web site, Auto Authority, to viewing. (It's officially announced on Tuesday.) And the site is a good example of a newspaper playing to its strengths in developing a cyberspace strategy.

For a newspaper to launch a presence on the Web, a good place to start is to focus on the dominant interest or industry of its community. In Detroit, covering the automobile industry is a no-brainer. The Free Press has opted to leave the gate with an auto site, then in one week it will introduce its more general Web site, called The Freep. (The paper has had a forum on the CompuServe proprietary network for a couple years.)

Auto Authority (AA) is, as should be obvious from the name, designed to become the central venue on the Web for news and information about the auto industry. It's a joint project of the Free Press, auto specialty publisher Ward's Communications, International Resources Network (an automotive industry consulting and research firm), and ELM International (a directory publisher and auto industry consulting company).

AA is an interesting service because it has two personas: It's a consumer oriented service with news, an archive of auto reviews, and coverage of motor sports and the automotive "lifestyle"; and it's a business to business site that serves the auto manufacturing and suppliers industry. It not only competes with consumer magazines and newspapers covering autos (and Web sites like the Indianapolis newspapers' SpeedNet), but also industry trade newsletters and news services. It's an example of how a newspaper, when it can offer in-depth coverage of a particular industry, can break out of the consumer publishing model and cross over into being a player in trade journalism as well.

The Freep (as the newspaper is widely known) historically has made a major commitment to covering the industry. The paper currently has four print staff members and a freelancer covering autos. This team cranks out more information, news and reviews than can be published in the print edition, so the AA Web site offers an opportunity for more of their coverage to be available to the public.

As an example of the kind of depth that AA will bring that the newspaper cannot, the Freep's auto staff today is attending the automobile industry management conference in Traverse City, Michigan, which typically attracts about 1,000 manufacturing and supplier executives from around the world. The team will post to the AA Web site gavel to gavel coverage of the event, down to transcripts of speeches. Print Freep readers will see only limited summary stories from the conference.

Online publishing director Lauri Bennett says that AA aspires to be of global interest as the central knowledge base of the automotive industry, both to business and consumer audiences. The online staff is a modest three people, but Bennett says that the print staff is well integrated into the effort. Indeed, the automotive writers see AA as a way to get more of their work before a wide audience. The online staff also has been moved to the same floor as the newsroom.

The Freep couldn't expect to create a deep site on its own, of course, so partnerships are an integral part of the strategy. The newspaper's partners provide trade coverage of the industry, plus searchable databases.

Bennett says that a revenue model for the service has not been worked out, but a likely model is that consumer content will be free while industry-specific information will carry a surcharge. Searching industry databases supplied by the partners may cost per search, for example, with the Freep sharing in the revenue.

AA is being hosted on the servers of InfiNet, the Internet service provider part-owned by Freep parent Knight-Ridder. The newspaper plans to start offering consumer Internet access accounts through InfiNet soon, and will likely offered bundled access and content.

The Freep general news Web site due to launch next week has been a long time coming. The paper is one of the last large U.S. newspapers to launch a eb service. Bennett says the public expect this. "We get calls every day asking where the Freep is (on the Web)," she says. The site will be heavily oriented toward sports and news headlines, and offer a guide to the Detroit area.

Contact: Lauri Bennett, or

Got a good idea? Send it in

Stop The Presses! reader Ralph Frattura, new media manager of the Sacramento Bee (California), recently suggested that a valued addition to this column would be periodic mentions of innovative content ideas being implemented by newspaper Web sites. I think that's a great idea, and while I've occasionally done that, more frequent reports of innovations would be useful for many of you, I suspect.

So, if you have a content feature on your site that you think is particularly innovative and would like to show it off to your industry colleagues, please send me a note describing the feature. Don't forget to include a URL. My e-mail address is

Good ideas from the Sacramento Bee

Frattura offered up a couple innovative concepts being tried on the Sacramento Bee's new Web site:

* Smile. "Produced for lunchtime every weekday (on the theory, advanced by NandO, that office users get on the Net at lunchtime). It's funny stuff from wherever we can find it, from last night's talk shows, magazines, books, the Net. Bits and pieces of this kind of humor are on the Web, but not on a timely, comprehensive basis. We put up the previous week's worth of Smile as a weekend version of the product."

* The Online Movie Club. "This is all about movies, with reviews by The Bee's critic, a wide range of national critics and club members. Club members? That's the best part. We use tickets to promotional movie screenings as a giveaway incentive, available only to members. In two weeks we've got more than a thousand registered members."

Contact: Ralph Frattura,

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