Online-Exclusive Columnists' Ranks Growing

By: Steve Outing Back when I started writing this column in August 1995, I was an oddity -- a columnist writing for the online medium for a publisher whose core product is a print publication. The idea then, which is as valid today as it was then, was to give print readers of Editor & Publisher a reason -- quality original content -- to go to E&P's Web site.

Three years later, what I do is more mainstream. Online-exclusive columnists are popping up on news Web sites as publishers of traditional publications finally recognize that one way to get consumers to visit a Web site is to offer writing that's not available in print. That seems so obvious, yet for too many newspapers operating Web sites, original online writing remains rare. Fortunately, at a growing number of sites this is beginning to change.

Let's take a look at some newspapers sites that have taken the plunge and hired columnists to write exclusively for the online medium.

San Francisco Bay Guardian

This alternative newsweekly has two popular Web columnists, whose work is among the most visited content on the Bay Guardian Web site, according to managing editor Jon Maples. Freelance writer Brooke Shelby Biggs writes a biweekly Web column called "NetEffects," which covers the convergence of technology and culture. And Andrea Nemerson, a human sexuality expert, writes a sex advice column that's exclusive to the Web site.

Maples says that the exclusive columns took very little time before driving significant traffic to the site. Biggs, who used to write for HotWired and had built a reputation there, gave the Bay Guardian site "a shot in the arm" when her column launched, Maples says. If you can find the right person with the right tone for an online audience, "they can be a great traffic booster and prestige booster," he says. The online columnists are promoted heavily in the print edition, with "house ads" and in a "table of contents" section that promotes online original content.

Nemerson is the Bay Guardian's second sex columnist. More well known is Isadora Alman, who writes a syndicated sex column that got its start in the Bay Guardian's print edition and continues to be published by the newspaper. Because Alman has her own successful independent Web site, the newspaper found another person to write for the Web. While that might sound like a delicate situation, Maples says that there are no hard feelings about the situation, and Nemerson writes for a slightly younger demographic on the Web than does Alman in print.

Another online-only column is authored by Summer Burkes, a calendar assistant at the newspaper who has branched out into writing feature pieces like "Ladies night at the gun range" and a column about roller derby.

Maples admits that the online columnists are probably getting paid less than they would be if they were writing for print, but the Web site is not in a position yet where it can throw much money at writers.

San Francisco Examiner

At the Examiner freelancer Emil Guillermo writes a weekly online-only column about Asian American issues, which serves a large Asian American population in the Bay Area. Assistant managing editor Tim Porter says this is the first of what will be a line of online columnists writing "as a way of giving the site a personality distinct from the newspaper. We have barely begun."

Guillermo's column has been running for 2-1/2 months and to date hasn't attracted a significant amount of traffic, but neither has it been promoted in print effectively yet. Porter, who heads a Web site staff of only three people, says the goal is to better integrate newspaper and Web site, with continual promotion in print of online-original writers. He's hoping in the near future to add online columnists to cover youth, restaurants and eating out, and the San Francisco 49ers football team. Online columnists likely will cover topics similar to what's found in the print edition, yet provide a distinctly different voice for the different medium. "We are treating this as another section of the newspaper," Porter says.

Due to budgetary restraints, Porter expects to use freelancers rather than Examiner staff for the online columns. The Examiner has an odd online situation where in addition to its own independent Web site, it also contributes content to The Gate, the Web service of the competing San Francisco Chronicle and KRON-TV.

San Antonio Express-News

One way to get around budgetary constraints but still get original content is to accept volunteer help from the newspaper staff. That's how the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News has acquired two online-exclusive columns.

Susan Yerkes, a popular lifestyles section columnist, writes a column called "Whazzup?", which among other things includes stuff that doesn't make her print column. She updates the online column a couple times a week, typically. Yerkes is an online enthusiast, and also hosts an online "Pet Talk" area which features a chat area, discussion forum and an interactive area where pet lovers can post pet obituaries.

Bruce Davidson, a former political editor at the paper who now is a member of the editorial board, writes an online column called "Political Briefing" (updated 1-2 times a week) and hosts a forum where he talks politics with his readers. Both Davidson and Yerkes do their online work on their own time and without extra pay by the newspaper.

New media managing editor Linda Ash also writes an online-exclusive daily column, called "News To You." She describes it as "a chatty little column that keeps our readers posted on what is happening locally as well as wire news updates." The column is updated through the day by Ash, especially after she attends the 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. news budget meetings. Online editors working the late shift update or rewrite the column in the evenings as new news breaks.

Ash is enthusiastic about the online columnists, and plans to add more over time. A science reporter has volunteered to do a column which will start in July, and an online entertainment editor next week will begin writing a column about the local entertainment scene. (The latter column will be part of the editor's regular job duties, and not extra work.) Hiring freelance columnists is the most likely way that the site will expand its original writing, and Ash says the plan is to pay them.

Because the Express-News Web site dropped its subscription model earlier this year and became a free site, Ash thinks that original writing is vital to the site's new model. "Why else would people come to our site," she says, if not to find writing that can't be found in the printed newspaper.

Hartford Courant

At this Connecticut newspaper, the Web site has four online-only columnists and plans to add a fifth soon. General manager of electronic publishing Mark Del Vecchio says he relies on freelancers, preferrably ones with well-known names. One online columnist is a former columnist for the paper who most recently worked in radio; now he writes a weekly Web column. Another is a well-known TV political reporter who hosts a Sunday public affairs show; her insider column on politics is the Courant site's most popular. The third columnist is a former restaurant reviewer for the paper's Sunday magazine, now writing for the Web. And the fourth is a Web columnist who writes about the Web and focuses on Connecticut Web sites.

Del Vecchio says he's also trying to get a good columnist to cover casino gambling, which is a significant business in the area and which the newspaper covers only sparingly.

While the online columnists all have "day jobs," the Web columns are like extra part-time jobs for them. In addition to writing their columns, they are expected to host Web sites that are built around their columns. They answer e-mail from readers, take part in discussion forums, and sometimes write outside of the column format. Del Vecchio says their pay for the column-writing gig is similar to what they might receive if they were writing for print.

While the columnists do provide a nice draw to the Courant Web site, at least one of them has angered some print readers. People who fondly remember former Courant columnist Colin McEnroe have complained by letter and phone that he's only available on the Web and not in print. But Del Vecchio points out that McEnroe's Web column is ill-suited for print, since it relies heavily on hyperlinks and is a bit long for the newspaper.

The columnists are starting to bring in some revenue. The Courant ad staff has been able to sell sponsorships where an advertiser gets a Web banner ad on the columnist's site as well as a logo on in-print ads that promote the online columnists.

Arizona Daily Star

This Tucson paper has three online-exclusive columnists, all of whom are staff members. Director of new technologies Bob Cauthorn says he prefers to work with staffers rather than freelancers, and strongly believes in the need to provide Web users with original writing. He tries to have one or two original columns per day on the StarNet site, though of course the majority of content is now, and for the foreseeable future, repurposed from the printed newspaper.

StarNet has had a teen columnist for a couple years. Zoe O'Reilly began writing the column when she was 17, and works as a part-time staffer for StarNet. Joe Salkowski writes about cyberspace topics with a weekly column. And Kim Westerman writes an online-only restaurant review column.

For now, the original columnists are part of a Web area called "Dispatches," which is a prominent link on the StarNet home page. Cauthorn says that an upcoming site redesign will place "Dispatches" online-original content directly on the home page. He says it's difficult to tell how much impact the original content has had on growth in site traffic due to the Tucson area's population growth, but in the year and a half of doing original Web content, the site's daily readership has more than doubled. StarNet gets about 20,000 discrete visitors per day, he says, which is around 20% of the Daily Star's print circulation.

San Jose Mercury News

The paper's Mercury Center Web site has been publishing the online-exclusive column "Good Morning Silicon Valley" for nearly two years. Online editor Patricia Sullivan writes the daily column, which goes out to about 38,000 e-mail subscribers and gets about 6,000 Web viewers daily. There are four components to GMSV. In addition to Sullivan's column -- which briefly summarizes the top technology news of the day and links to stories on Mercury Center and external Web sites -- Mercury Center's John Morrell writes a roundup of the newspaper's technology stories called "First Light;" a "Tech Stocks" column is produced by CBS MarketWatch; and a "Tech Ticker" column is repurposed from print reporters' coverage.

Sullivan says she loves the reader reaction that the column gets in the form of 20-25 e-mail messages from readers each day. "I never got this kind of reader reaction working in print," she says. The column is promoted regularly in the newspaper with house ads and blurbs on the front page of the business section. Other than GMSV, Mercury Center relies primarily on repurposed print stories and columns.

New Jersey Online

NJO has a couple of online-exclusive columnists. Arturo Pardavila III, a sports producer for the site, writes a column called "The Art of Sports", which focuses on New Jersey-centric sports news and provides additional coverage of local teams over what's found in the site's parent newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger. The site also carries an exclusive weekly restaurant review column, "Rosie's Food Bytes" by Rosie Saferstein. (NJO does not pick up the newspaper's restaurant reviews.)

According to NJO senior producer David Hancock, the columnists are not yet a major attraction for the site and are an experiment to see how well original content attracts a following. Rather, the site's biggest draws are the database services that help consumer's find a movie, a beach, etc., he says.

CitySearch's next move

Not long after city guide company CitySearch broke off its merger with newspaper-backed city guide vendor Zip2, CitySearch has filed documents with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering, according to news reports. The company is seeking to raise nearly $50 million.


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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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