Mercury Center Revisited: Portal Vision

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By: Steve Outing The San Jose Mercury News was one of the early pioneers in the online news business, having started a service on the America Online proprietary service in late 1993. It launched a Web site a year later, and eventually dumped the AOL relationship. Now in mid 1998, the newspaper's Mercury Center is one of the busier news sites of a regional newspaper, though it still has yet to turn a profit. I checked in with Mercury Center director Bob Ryan this week to get a sense of how the site is faring today and what's in store for the future.

Mercury Center's biggest move this year was dropping its subscription fee, which for a long time was required to see the full content of the site. Indeed, that was to be the strategy for most of parent company Knight Ridder's news sites at one time, and Mercury Center was one of the last Web sites in the company to drop that policy. Its monthly $2.95/$4.95 (print subscriber/non-print subscriber) subscription plan attracted fewer than 10,000 people before being shut off last sping.

10 million and growing

Ryan says that monthly traffic was around 6 million page views up until the subscriptions were dropped, and now have risen to about 10-11 million per month. Other factors contributed to the growth as well, but opening up the site provided most of that traffic boost. Ending the free-subscription plan got a lot of publicity at the time, and Ryan says a good amount of that new traffic stuck. While the amount of additional traffic and the ad revenues it can generate haven't yet made up for the amount in lost subscription fees, Ryan is confident that won't be too far off.

Perhaps as a result of its paid-subscription model, Mercury Center today has traffic numbers that many news sites would envy yet that are still below what some of the top U.S. newspaper Web sites garner. The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, WashingtonPost.com and the New York Times on the Web, for instance, all routinely report upward of 40 million pages views per month, according to Min's New Media Report. We might expect Mercury Center to eventually catch up under the free model, since it is perceived as a primary news source for Silicon Valley.

While "Silicon Valley" is a defined geographic place in California, it's also a "psychographic construct." And Mercury Center's position as the perceived central news source for Silicon Valley attracts Web readers from around the world. Still in the discussion stages for the site is adopting a "portal" strategy around Silicon Valley the place and Silicon Valley the construct. The strategy would expand the site's news and advertising focus out to more of a jumping-off point for Internet users who want to find out anything at all about Silicon Valley. Being strictly a news site simply won't attract the kind of traffic the site needs to succeed, Ryan says.

Other Knight Ridder newspapers also are steering toward a Web portal strategy. The Kansas City Star, for instance, has added a metro portal site called KansasCity.com, which even includes a free Web e-mail service (coming soon). And Philadelphia Online has devised its regional portal strategy, relying largely on a localized search engine and directory service of local Web sites.

SiliconValley.com

The Mercury owns the Internet address siliconvalley.com, and currently http://www.siliconvalley.com links to Mercury Center's home page. Ryan says it's not been finalized what to do with that URL, but it might be used as part of the upcoming high technology Web site that is due out this fall. That site will offer an even more in-depth look at news of Silicon Valley, including content from some sources outside of the newspaper. It will focus on technology and the business of technology, Ryan says.

In any event, a SiliconValley.com portal-like service will provide a convenient Web entry point to those interested in Silicon Valley technology. Such a site will provide technology-oriented readers with a site to get all the news and information they want without having to wade through local school board news as well, says Ryan. "It's a matter of slicing the information" for specific target groups -- such as those who live outside the Silicon Valley region but care only about what happens at Silicon Valley companies. Ryan says that doesn't mean operating two different main sites, but rather having different entry points to the main service based on what a consumer needs.

Mercury Center still relies primarily on print-side newspaper reporters for its coverage, though increasingly those same reporters are providing online-exclusive coverage to the Web site -- most often in the form of updates for breaking stories that get posted online before anything turns up in print. Mercury Center staffers are producing some original content -- such as Patricia Sullivan, who writes the daily Good Morning Silicon Valley feature -- but none of the online workers writes exclusively. The Talent Scout employment site features staff stories created for the Web first, and those later turn up in the printed newspaper.

Ryan says that the technology content areas of Mercury Center have been the most successful at attracting advertising. Good Morning Silicon Valley "is probably our most successful content product," he says, "and our Yellow Pages sales are also doing very well."

Stable staff size

Ryan has a staff of 20 people working on Mercury Center. That's only one more person than the Mercury had in its online division at the beginning of 1995, when I profiled Mercury Center for the "1995 Online Newspaper Report" (Jupiter Communications). Back then, however, the staff was feeding both the Web site and the now-defunct America Online Mercury Center area.

One other area of Mercury Center to watch is its classifieds. A new database-driven system is being implemented, to replace the aging one which serves up static HTML pages. Being developed by Knight Ridder New Media in San Jose, the system is based on technology by Object Design Inc. The new database classifieds system on Mercury Center is currently viewable; you can compare the old and new. Mercury Center is the first to implement the new system, which will eventually be utilized by other Knight Ridder sites. It will support online placement of classifieds (eventually to all Knight Ridder sites), and the technology is to be used to create a new editorial database system as well.

Contact: Bob Ryan, bryan@sjmercury.com

Digital City expansion

Online city guides are entering phase 2 of their evolution. America Online's Digital City announced this week that it has expanded into 12 additional, smaller markets, bringing its coverage to 50 U.S. metro markets. The new Digital City units are in Harrisburg/York, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; Albany-Troy, New York; Jacksonville, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Albuquerque-Santa Fe, New Mexico; Richmond, Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Steve

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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:steve@planetarynews.com

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

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