Running a News Web Site With 2/3 of a Person

By: Steve Outing

The Vacaville Reporter is a fairly typical small newspaper, which has been dipping a toe in the cyberspace waters. The suburban Bay Area (California) daily, circulation 20,000, has had a Web site since 1995, but it's mostly been the work of the paper's design director, who worked on the project as time away from print-side work allowed. It has been more of a hobby project than a serious effort.

Last week, the paper dipped in part of another toe, when James Moehrke gave up the design director title to become online editor -- accounting for two-thirds of his time -- and stepped back to a lesser print role as editorial design editor. For the first time, Moehrke will have a little bit more freedom to drive the paper's modest Web effort forward.

For many small independent newspapers (The Reporter is a family owned operation, with no sister publications), this is still a typical situation. Newspaper conference speakers, industry pundits and columnists go on about the importance of the Internet to the future of newspapers, but the reality is that small-paper publishers have neither the funds nor, in many cases, the will to commit substantial resources to developing Internet businesses.

Appearances can be deceiving

Moehrke says he feels like the dog in the famous New Yorker cartoon, where one dog sitting at a PC says to another, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Likewise, "on the Internet, no one can tell you're a one-man band," he says.

The site does give the appearance of being a more well-funded effort, in large part due to Moehrke's design skills in organizing what is mostly print-repurposed content. And what's on the site today is the result of his work when he was committing less than two-thirds of his time to the project.

The one-man Reporter Web staff does feel the pressure to look bigger to the outside world, and to even try to compete with well-funded Web operations by the San Francisco papers and the Sacramento Bee. (Vacaville sits in between the two cities along Interstate 80.) And he's had readers ask why the paper's Web site doesn't do more, like run its classifieds online. "That's frustrating."

The Web site's success thus far has been measured in small gains. Last week, it got its first two local advertisers -- a florist and a new funeral home that just opened up in town -- who are placing ads in the online obituaries section. Recently, Moehrke assembled a permanent set of indexed Web pages to all the obituaries that the paper runs, thus providing a public service that the printed newspaper cannot. Online obits have permanent URLs, so it will be easy to find a dated local obituary.

Moehrke thinks that this is the type of feature that can be attractive to an audience hungry for local information, and thus be attractive to advertisers. He's also hoping to sell advertising for upcoming election-night coverage, where the Web site will provide through-the-night results for a local school board election.

Ads are sold through the print advertising department. To date, the site has not even had a formal Web ad rate card.

Local sports connection

One of the nicest features on the site is coverage of high school sports. Content is repurposed from the newspaper's sports staff (of five people), but Moehrke has created a prep sports Web area that affords a quick glimpse of a school's entire season, with articles from each game and box scores.

When the sports staff created a package of previews of the seven high schools in the paper's coverage area, Moehrke shoveled that over to the Web site and linked it all together. Then, each week he takes the game stories, combines them and links them back to the schedule. "So there is one place to see how each of the local schools are doing this season," he says. "You get a game result and a link to the story about the game. I want to do more of this sort of thing whenever I can."

The prep sports package is an idea that still needs to be expanded. Moehrke admits that the paper hasn't promoted it enough -- just one "house ad" ran in print promoting it -- but he hopes to remedy that soon. He's optimistic that a local sporting goods store or booster club will sponsor that section of the site. Other ideas that he hopes to implement include getting print staffers, freelancers or stringers to devote some time to compiling online-only pre-season material, such as team/coach/player profiles. Perhaps coaches can be persuaded to contribute player profiles.

The prep sports area also includes game box scores when available. Moehrke says the decision to include them on the Web was a practical one driven by the newsroom. They got tired of faxing them to the Sacramento Bee, and now instruct the Bee staff to pick them up off the Web.

Moehrke realizes that "it will be a long time before resources (for the Web venture) go beyond me." His strategy is to try to build a small revenue base, by building new areas of the site that will attract a repeat audience and thus advertisers, which will support his request for additional resources to expand the site. Even common newspaper Web site features like AP's The Wire are not a part of The Reporter's site, because the site doesn't have the revenue stream to support it yet.

Utilizing two-thirds of his time, Moehrke still has a challenge ahead.

Contact: James Moehrke,


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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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