The Kansas City Star is an online veteran, having felt its way around cyberspace for a couple years now. But the Star is also a veteran of the school of hard knocks, having developed a home-grown BBS as the rest of the publishing industry settled on the World Wide Web as the platform on which to pin its future hopes. Recognizing the unviability of the BBS approach last year, it embarked on a crash program to develop a World Wide Web service and scrapped BBS development. In February, the newspaper "soft launched" StarNet; it will formally launch the service and begin advertising its existence to newspaper readers in April.
StarNet as a BBS, which was developed entirely in-house by staff programmers, was a subscription model, intended to be only partly funded by advertising. This time around, StarNet on the Web is an advertising-supported venture; the intention is for nearly all content to be freely available, according to editorial director Dan Peak. The only premium service envisioned at this point is access to the paper's searchable electronic archives (though an exact charging structure has yet to be finalized).
Peak thinks the advertising model can support the operation and its staff of 8-1/2, primarily because it recruited "a real go-getter" as chief salesperson, who will devote herself to selling StarNet to advertisers. The effort is just now gearing up, and Peak notes that a number of potential advertisers are interested in having the paper create Web sites for them, rather than just running "online ads." StarNet probably will not go into the Web site design business, he says, but may build selected sites as staff resources allow.
One of the most interesting aspects of the new StarNet is its extensive use of databases. While many Web sites expect users to browse pages of hyperlinks to find what they want, StarNet has databased much of its content. The interface for an extensive community event and entertainment calendar, for example, requires the user to fill in a form and search a database. You can browse a particular day's events listings by leaving the Keyword field blank and clicking the Search button, for example.
This technique is also how a user might find local news. To find news coverage from a particular neighborhood, you would go to a local news page, select a community from a menu, then click a button to retrieve the stories. This is how a user might track local high school sports coverage, Peak says. Classified ads also are searchable databases, capable of finding ads that say "2-bdrm" when the user types 2 bedrooms, for example.
The site has much of the other usual content found on online newspaper sites, including a dining guide that allows you to vote on the quality of a restaurant, discussion forums, etc. It is very much a news-oriented site, leveraging the local news resources of the Kansas City Star and adding national coverage from its own staff and The Associated Press. With so many national news services available freely on the Web, the local emphasis is what might keep computer users coming back.
Peak says the paper probably will not enter the Internet service provider (ISP) business, preferring to make a go of it on the strength of its content. Its final strategy is still being formulated, over the watchful eye of an oversight committee comprised of key Star executives, who are no doubt mindful of the BBS experience and hoping not to lose any more money online. Peak says the Star also is considering launching a Boston.com-like service that would seek to partner with other regional media to create a mega-Web site for the Kansas City region. The paper already has the "kansascity.com" domain name locked up and may do something with it in the coming months.
Free or subscription-based: Which way to go?
As I speak to newspaper new media managers, I continue to run across a split in strategy. There are clearly 2 camps forming: those who believe that the Web community will not accept subscription-based Web sites and that newspapers offering Web sites must be free and ad-supported; and those who believe that publishers cannot afford to give away all their content online and must charge users a fee to access premium content (in addition to attracting advertising revenues). Will Kansas City's StarNet free model win out, or is the better model that used by Knight-Ridder and an increasing number of other newspapers which give away only selected content and news summaries for free, but expect a monthly fee for access to the full site's contents?
We might be able to answer this question better in another year. For now, charging a fee for access to your content on the Web is a risky strategy. Publishers, rightfully, believe in the value of the content that they are putting online; it's not produced for free and they should expect to be compensated for it. But the key to making fees for premium content work is to be selective in what you charge for -- and this is where the Kansas City model makes some sense. Charging for archive access is a no-brainer, but should you also charge for access to full-text current news articles? I think that's going too far. Consider instead only charging for the "really good stuff," which includes archive access, personal news clipping services, agent services, etc.
Over time, as the Internet marketplace matures, more people may be willing to pay for content. There's a danger in publishers pushing the market too fast. The wisest strategy may be to ease into the paid-content model slowly, all the while pushing your salespeople to make advertising the online cash cow.
New student newspapers discussion forum
Those involved in putting student newspapers online may want to participate in a new Internet mailing list, the Student Electronic Paper Mailing List (STUEPAP). Topics of discussion on the list include: converting conventional newspapers to HTML; day-to-day operations in a digital newsroom; differences between print and online newspapers; how to market and publicize online newspapers; advertising online; etc.
To subscribe, send an email message to LISTSERV@VM.TEMPLE.EDU, and type "SUB STUEPAP YOUR NAME" in the body of the message. The list also has a World Wide Web archive site for those who want to monitor the discussion but not receive list email.
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