Small Florida Paper Makes the Right Moves

By: Steve Outing

In the Editor & Publisher Best Online Newspaper Services Competition results announced last Friday, the winner for best overall service by a small-circulation daily was a bit of a surprise. I'll admit that until the jury of international judges identified Sunline as the best of the lot in its category, I hadn't seen the site. Well, now I'm impressed. This site is a must-see, as it has much to teach other publishers -- large and small -- about developing a successful strategy on the World Wide Web. It employs a particularly good model that smaller papers will want to emulate.

Sunline is the Web service of the Charlotte Sun Herald of Charlotte Harbor, on the southwest coast of Florida. The Sun Herald is a 28,000-circulation daily that's part of a small chain of newspapers, Sun Coast Media Group. The area is heavily populated with senior citizens, and the newspaper's readership is estimated to be 95% seniors.

The online efforts launched in May 1996, with creation of a Web site that brought community organizations online and an independent Internet service provider (ISP) business. The paper has nearly 2,000 ISP customers, and the Web site gets an estimated 1,800 unique visitors a day. Sunline Internet editor Ronald Dupont Jr., who moved into the position after a stint as city editor, leads a team of six employees on the content side; another six run the home-grown ISP business.

Community, community, community

The core philosophy for the site from the beginning was to put the entire community online, says Dupont. Community groups and organizations are given areas on the Web site and provided with simple tools to post information about their activities and members. It's this concept that has created an allegiance to the site from users, he says.

Much of the site's revenues currently come from ISP fees, though Dupont fully recognizes that the access business won't last indefinitely. To grow the ISP business, the paper's online staff conducts twice-monthly Internet classes in a theater setting. The beginning and advanced level classes, which are free, typically attract 400-500 people, and some of them sign up for Sunline ISP accounts. Dupont calls the classes "shows," and says that some people -- many of them seniors -- show up repeatedly. A typical class might demonstrate something like RealAudio; one class demonstrated listening in on the Space Shuttle.

Dupont is enthused about the success of the classes, because "we're teaching seniors who otherwise might never have gotten on the Internet." Indeed, a number of class graduates now use e-mail to keep in touch with grandchildren. He tells people the classes are free, but encourages them to bring cookies for the audience to share. "We get inundated with cookies," Dupont says.

Web site users are encouraged to contribute material to the site, including creating their own Web pages. More than 500 ISP subscribers have created pages. One of the most popular interactive features of the site is the Pets page, where users can post online pictures of their pets. The staff even added a "silly" feature that creates e-mail links so people can send messages to the animals. It may be goofy, says Dupont, but lots of people are using it. A similar feature lets users put up pictures of babies -- but the pets page gets more usage.

In a community populated with so many older people, obituaries are a big thing. Sunline has created an "In Memory" page, where survivors can post a photo of a deceased loved one or friend and an essay about the person's life. Dupont's latest idea is for people who know they are in their final days on Earth to leave their goodbyes in advance, which Sunline will post after they're gone. He is encouraging seniors to record their messages on tape and leave it with a lawyer, who upon the person's death will turn it over to Sunline; the tape will be converted to RealAudio format and posted on the Memory site. Dupont says that if a dying person wants to post a one-hour goodbye audio, that's fine, and there will be no charge. "It's just disk space." (To date, no one has taken Dupont up on the offer, to his knowledge.)

His intention is to keep the memorium pages up indefinitely. "I hope it becomes a place of happiness and history," he says. Not all agree. When he floated the idea at an Internet class, "about half the people thought it was morbid, while the others felt it was cool."

The most used part of the site are the discussion forums, where users discuss everything from politics to fruitcake recipes. Dupont plans soon to add online polls, which will instantly update aggregate results after a user submits his or her answers.

Sunline also offers live online chat, but typically doesn't get more than 3-5 people on at a time. Still, Dupont isn't giving up hope, and he's planning a major chat event that will be billed as an "online community meeting" featuring celebrity guests.

News is not what this site is about as much as community, but Sunline has been putting up 10 stories a night from the paper. An automated system to put all news content from the paper onto the Web is currently in beta. The newspaper's classifieds also are published online, via a home-grown program that converts ads from the paper's front-end system into Web format.

Advertising model

Dupont expects Sunline's long-term success to come from advertising, but in its first months of existence the emphasis was on designing the right mix of content and community. Only recently has the site been going after advertising.

The approach is different from the standard banner placement model seen at most Web sites. Dupont says that he tells advertisers that he will place text-only versions of their ads in appropriate community pages, at the bottom of the pages under a "Related advertisers" label. Advertisers love this, he says, because he's giving them what the newspaper will not: the promise of placing an ad adjacent to related editorial content. Advertisers also get graphical ad banners along the right side of the site's news pages.

The approach is beginning to pay off with the addition of local advertisers. Dupont claims to be making enough money with ads, plus Internet access revenues, to be making a profit. Of course, the paper still has to work on paying off a half million dollars in capital expenses to set up the ISP business, since it opted to do it on its own. The paper expects to be in the black with its Internet services in 2-3 years.

Dupont credits much of the site's success to Sunline's Webmaster, Frank Wanicka, who designed most of the technology, including the features that allow users to create their own Web pages and upload photos to the community sections.

With so much talk in newspaper new media circles being about partnerships, Sunline has demonstrated that going it alone is possible if you have the talent in-house. Dupont says the site is in a continual state of flux, and trying new things is part of the company culture. "Everything here is set in Jello."

His advice to other Web site publishers: "Don't forget the reader; don't forget the customer. Make (the online experience) easy for them" to participate in.

Still too many small papers are not online, for fear of the medium or uncertainty about how to make it pay. The Charlotte Sun Herald seems to have hit upon a strategy for getting its local community to buy into the online experience -- and pay to support the paper's cyber efforts. Small-newspaper publishers can take heart in Charlotte's experience, for there is an online model that appears to work in small communities.

Says Dupont of the newspaper industry and the online world, "You can't afford not to lose money on the Internet."

Contact: Ronald Dupont Jr.,

Freelancers' rights strategy at Copley

Jeff Rose, operations supervisor for the SignOn San Diego Web site of the San Diego Union Tribune, wrote in after reading a recent column about the argument at the Boston Globe over freelancers being asked to give up their copyright for work done for the Globe:

"Our counsel at the Copley Press, Hal Fuson, has advised us that as long as we faithfully reproduce the daily, keeping it intact and with no repackaging, it is simply an alternate form of delivery for the same product -- and our 'first publication' contracts with freelancers for the print version need no renegotiation.

"For this reason we do the 'shovelware' thing -- faithfully try to reproduce the print daily in its entirety online. We then also repackage certain parts of it outside the daily, but rarely does that include freelancers (and when it does, we negotiate separate contracts with them). Examples of repackaged information include collections of recent Padres and Chargers stories, and of our most popular sports columnists. We also do similar repackaging in the areas of science, real estate and in-depth news features (in our 'Spotlight' section).

"I don't believe this legal position has been tested in court, but Hal has expressed a reasonable comfort level with it."

Do you agree with me?

When I was in Houston last week for Interactive Newspapers '97, I met a good number of readers of this column. A comment I heard a few times went something like, "I really like your column. Of course, I don't always agree with you." No big surprise there! But these comments reminded me to urge you to write in when you have an opposing view. I like to publish letters that present opposing views to my own. Don't let me have the last say. This is an interactive medium, after all.


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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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