Hot Local Issue Becomes National Online

By: Steve Outing

In Utah, one of the hottest ongoing public policy issues is the designation of public lands as wilderness areas. The debate in the politically conservative state (all of its members of Congress are Republicans) pits environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts against ranchers, farmers, miners and other business interests.

The principal newspaper in the northern part of the state, the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, got a taste of the depth of feeling about the wilderness issue recently. It conducted one of its regular weekly online opinion "polls" about a compromise proposal by a Utah Congressman to designate 2.7 million acres in southern Utah as protected wilderness. A U.S. Bureau of Land Management inventory of Utah wildlands identified 5.7 million acres of unprotected public land, and some environmentalists want all of it designated as wilderness.

The S-E's Web poll, which asked whether people supported or opposed the proposal and solicited written comments, attracted about 2,000 responses -- far more than is typically seen for the informal polls posted on the paper's Web site each week. (The online surveys are not scientific polls and are not promoted as such.)


According to the newspaper's assistant managing editor and online services coordinator, Mark Shenefelt, the success of this particular poll topic gave the newspaper an opportunity to better integrate the online and print components of its business. The Web polls allow respondents to include a comment about the issue of the week, and they can further indicate if they would like their words to be considered for print publication.

The paper's editorial page editor used the online-generated comments in the wilderness poll to create a full print op-ed page in a recent Sunday paper, devoted to the best of the online readers' opinions and accompanied by a staff-drawn editorial cartoon.

The system for collecting readers' comments for the Web polls was created by an S-E staffer, and is designed to send copies of comments meant for publication along to Shenefelt and the editorial page editor. It also automatically puts the comments on the Web site. Online visitors can cast their votes and then see the latest breakdown of others' answers.

The newspaper regularly solicits reader comments online as well as via an audiotex voicemail system. Interestingly, this most successful survey generated only a handful of responses by phone. (For phoned-in comments, the staff must transcribe a caller's comments.)

Shenefelt attributes part of the interest in this particular online survey to publicity from special-interest groups on both sides of the wilderness issue. He thinks that organizations that care about the issue urged their members to speak out by taking the newspaper's Web poll and contributing written comments. He estimates that 20-30% of poll takers were local, with the rest spread throughout the U.S. It's worth noting that the online nature of the poll was what attracted so much interest and made it easy for people to participate.

Participants in the S-E's polls are asked to include their name and address, for verification purposes. Shenefelt says that online comments are treated just like postal mail letters to the paper. The policy that prohibits anonymity for letters in print is carried to the online medium.

Print promotion

The newspaper regularly promotes the online polls in print, including coverage on the Sunday editorial page, where readers are reminded about the latest online poll. The paper also has made a commitment to promoting its online operation in the print edition, using frequent "house ads" and including references to online content in print section fronts.

The S-E's Web site has been operational since late last year, and has a staff of 6 plus Shenefelt, who puts about one-half of his time into the project. That's a sizable commitment for this afternoon daily with a circulation of about 65,000. The paper is part of a small chain of newspapers, Sandusky-Norwalk Newspapers, and is the largest publication in the group. Its commitment to online ventures is a matter of doing it on its own, Shenefelt says.

The Web site includes a "Top of Utah Yellow Pages" directory, which uses technology from Zip2. The S-E is one of the smallest papers to do business with that Silicon Valley online guide technology vendor. The site also includes AP's The Wire service; is a member of New Century Network; includes ClickTV's service; and co-brands HeadBone's kids' Web features.

Shenefelt considers the Web site still to be mostly experimental, but the paper is committed to making print and online work together, as it did with the wilderness poll. "This is the best example so far ... that this really works," Shenefelt says.

Contact: Mark Shenefelt,

Giving it away

In response to my last column about publishers needing to give more away free on the Web in order to survive in a challenging business environment, Web ad network Real Media's president, Dave Morgan, wrote:

"I absolutely agree. With the Web offering marginal distribution for essentially nothing, I think that the only way to compete in online publishing is with free news and information and paid advertising. Why? Because no matter what, there always seems to be someone out there willing to give away for free what you are trying to sell -- the 'Netscape Phenomena.' Given the fact that there is, at least, a belief that every additional user/eyeball offers additional revenue opportunity (advertising), there is tremendous incentive for publishers to give lots away for free if it doesn't cost them much (or anything)."


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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 at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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