Taking Community Web Model to a Major Metro

By: Steve Outing "What if," says the new Web guru of the St. Petersburg Times, "just what if in 10 years this (online division of the newspaper) makes as much money as the printed newspaper? I think we can do it!"

With those brash words, Ron Dupont Jr. last week started his new job as Web publisher of the Pulitzer-winning and highly regarded Florida newspaper. This is a newspaper that although having operated a Web site since 1995, has yet to turn a profit with it; its site is predominantly print content shoveled on to the Web. Although the site gets 1.8 million pageviews a month, it's not among the best in the industry and is probably three years behind Dupont's last employer when it comes to the Web.

But Dupont, 32, plans ? and his new employer has given him the go-ahead ? to try an approach to online newspapering that he helped pioneer at a tiny newspaper in Florida, the Sun Herald in Port Charlotte, but which has not been embraced by larger newspapers except to a tiny degree.

Sunline, the Sun Herald site Dupont directed until a few weeks ago, is much honored for its community approach to Web publishing. Twice in a row it has won best overall site awards for small-circulation newspapers in the EPpy online newspaper competition, which is conducted annually by Editor & Publisher. It's also won Digital Edge awards (including best small-paper site in the nation) from the Newspaper Association of America, and best in the state honors from the Florida Press Association. Dupont has become a regular national speaker, explaining his vision for how newspaper Web sites can become successful at a time when most newspaper publishers are still struggling to find a profitable way to do business on the Web.

Can the Sunline model work at a larger paper?

Sunline has been successful largely because it is not an "online newspaper." Rather, it can best be described as a community site, which community members and organizations can call home. Individuals are allowed to create personal Web pages on the site; niche areas of the site let people create pages celebrating their cars, boats, kids, pets, even their best fish catch. Clubs, non-profit organizations and government agencies can create Web pages for free. A physicians directory lists every doctor in the region, and some of them buy enhanced listings on the directory. It's one of the most "interactive" sites you'll find on the Web.

Dupont says he and his staff figured out early on that newspaper content was not enough to make a successful Web site. Sunline's user statistics show that 90% of traffic is on the site's interactive and community features, while news content accounts for the rest. The site averages about 1 million pageviews a month, and the number of visitors on a typical day is equivalent to 10% to15% of the area's population.

Sunline is "zoned," in that residents of a particular town in the Port Charlotte region get customized home pages on the browser software they receive from Sunline when they sign up for an account, featuring links to sections of the Sunline site dealing with their specific comunities. (Sunline is a local Internet service provider.)

At the Times, Dupont hopes to apply a similar model to a larger market. Publisher Judith Roales likes what she's seen of Dupont's approach to expanding the uses for Web sites, "and now we have to figure out how those things make sense for the Times."

Dupont emphasizes that at this early stage in his tenure at the Times, what he's proposing remain ideas, and are not yet concrete plans. But the central idea is to turn the site from mostly shovelware news content to adding a network of community pages, featuring the same kind of community information and interactive features found on Sunline.

Local residents will be able to visit the site and create Web pages about their babies, pets and so on. He envisions each suburb of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area getting its own home page, where local news will be combined with local community information. (Unlike Sunline, the Times is not and has no plans to become an ISP, however.) Community groups will get to create Web pages on the site. And users will probably be able to customize their home pages, similar to the My Yahoo! model.

Dupont also plans to start a series of Internet seminars, for beginners to advanced users, held under the Times banner ? an approach to building a Web user base that proved successful in Port Charlotte. In what will be a major personal feat, Dupont plans to initially teach the classes himself in his spare time. The Sunline Internet classes have attracted about 20,000 people in each of the last two years.

Borrowing a line from Intel's Andy Grove, Dupont says the Times needs to be "paranoid" about potential competition in the online space. He says it's time for the paper to be more aggressive ? in preparation for the day when new community Web publishers enter the Tampa/St. Pete market. For now, the Times' central online competition is the Tampa Tribune's Tampa Bay Online site. CitySearch and Microsoft's MSN Sidewalk have not yet entered the market, although Digital City does have a Tampa Bay presence. Dupont plans on being the first to set up a strong interactive community site and get community groups hooked in with the Times before other players have a chance.

Staff structure

The Times Web staff currently consists of about 10 staffers, but Dupont sees some inefficiences that could be remedied. Currently, someone must come in at 4 a.m. daily to upload news stories on the site, for instance, but the ideal scenario is to automate much of the news publication process in order to free up staff for other projects such as the community pages. The ideal situation, he thinks, is to allow the paper's copy editors to have an option as they process stories to specify on their computer terminals when and where an article gets published on the Web site. A database committee has been formed to begin the process of coming up with a solution for automating more of the Web news process.

Advertising sales obviously have to increase if the site is to become profitable. Currently, the Web staff includes only one ad sales person, but "that will change," Dupont says. The community concept as implemented at Sunline has proven successful in attracting local advertising; Sunline has about 120 advertisers currently, compared to fewer than 20 on the larger Times site today. It's the community components of Sunline that attracted that many advertisers, he says.

Like many in the newspaper industry, Dupont believes that local Web business directory services hold good financial potential, and the Times will likely move more aggressively into the directory space, also.

When the Sunline model is implemented for the first time at a major metro daily, "I think it will open a lot of eyes," Dupont says. He's supremely confident that money will pour in if the Times can pull off the community Web site vision, and expects profitability to take a couple of years. Ten years out? Yes, he claims, this is going to be big and bring in big money. Of course, not everyone at the paper shares that vision of online media matching print newspaper revenues. Surely some of Dupont's new colleagues roll their eyes at that notion.

However, there does seem to be some pent-up excitement about the Times' online efforts among the newspapers' staff. Dupont spent much of his first week on the job meeting with various departments, and he says nearly everyone he met was enthusiastic about an expanded online presence and had ideas about how their particular part of the paper could contribute. Eventually, Dupont expects there not to be an Internet department at the newspaper; rather, publishing on the Web will be as routine as publishing on paper, and all staff members will contribute to the information products that the company produces.

Why not till now?

If the Sunline community Web site model is so highly regarded ? and quite a few contest judges agree that it's something special ? why has it taken so long for larger newspaper companies to try this approach? "I think big newspapers need to get over themselves," Dupont says, meaning that they mistakenly believe that the newspaper's product is enough to ensure success online. "They need to think out of the building," and serving the community by involving the community has the best chance of being a profitable model. Dupont's impression is that Sunline and its success are dismissed by some larger publishers, who when encountered at industry conferences "gave us a pat on the head and walked away."

The "community publishing" model is slowly catching on. While Sunline designed its model from scratch, a slowly growing number of newspaper publishers are working with community publishing systems from vendors like Koz and Zip2. Dupont could cite only New Jersey Online (Advance Publications) as beginning to take an approach similar to Sunline's, where community is dominant over news.

Painful parting

Dupont believes that at Sunline he had "the best Internet job in the country," in large part because publisher Derek Dunn-Rankin was committed to the vision of a small paper succeeding in the world of Internet business. Dupont had been offered a number of jobs around the country after Sunline began racking up awards, but he says that he was committed to staying at Sunline unless and only unless a large Florida newspaper offered him significantly more money and the opportunity to apply the Sunline model to its Web site. He says the decision to leave Sunline after three years was a difficult one. "I have been so saddened and so tense over leaving Sunline that I tore the lining in my stomach," he says.

Contact: Ronald Dupont, rdupont@sptimes.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


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