The Nanny Case: When a Big Story Hits Small-Town Newspapers

By: Steve Outing

The trial of British nanny Louise Woodward, convicted of murder for killing a baby in her care but then having the sentence reduced to manslaughter and being released from jail, is the kind of story that many small-town papers dream of -- or perhaps dread. Taking place in the small Massachusetts city of Newton, the "nanny trial" made international front-page headlines in its later stages.

The story brought two local newspapers -- the daily News Tribune (circulation 8,600) and the weekly Newton TAB (circulation 32,100), both owned by Community Newspaper Co. -- international visibility, as they worked to cover this major local news. And it was a windfall for the newspapers' Web site, called Town Online.

Since the initial murder conviction was announced, and later overturned by the judge in the case, traffic to the Web site (which is shared by 15 of Community's 100-plus newspapers in the eastern Massachusetts region) increased by more than 1,000%. In the last 30 days, some 350,000 people have visited the site. This Monday, when the judge released his ruling overturning the murder conviction, more than 91,000 people used the site.

Those are some good numbers for the Web site of what are small newspapers, especially considering that national and international media sites also were providing deep coverage of the story.

Community Newspaper Co. director of interactive media Charlene Li says that her small papers' Web site ended up competing successfully with the likes of CNN and the BBC -- largely because her staff had been publishing information about the trial since it began and had built up a large following before the national and international media noticed the story.

Li credits Town Online executive editor Eric Bauer with recognizing early on that this trial was going to develop into a major story outside of Massachusetts. In March, a Woodward trial special area was set up on the Web site, with coverage from the News Tribune as well as the Web site staff itself. The trial site also is heavily interactive. Discussion boards were set up for people to to debate the case, live chat rooms were opened, and Web polls were taken throughout the trial.

Hometown news for the UK

Because the case involved a British citizen, interest from residents of Woodward's hometown of Elton, England, was high. Li says that coverage of the case early on was not available in the UK, so Elton residents and other British people interested in the case began frequenting the Town Online Web site, where they could find the most in-depth coverage. A worldwide group of Woodward trial watchers formed a community on the Town Online site.

Indeed, Elton residents got much of their news from Town Online early on only because resident Vic Brown printed out pages from the site and posted them on bulletin boards at the local post office and in a pub. "We were the only source of information about the case in England" early on, Li says, because the BBC had yet to notice the story. (Indeed, Li says that international reporters covering the story have thanked Town Online for providing information that they used as background for their own later reporting when the case became a major story.)

Li says that about 25% of traffic to the site has been coming from England. Traffic to the site's Woodward discussion boards also has been heavy -- typically 1,000 to 1,500 posts a day recently -- again with a heavy contingent of participants from outside the U.S. British discussion participants, many of them repeat users, even used the site to try and plan a homecoming for Woodward.

The discussion boards are generating some non-English postings, too. Internet users in Sweden -- a country where many U.S. au pairs hail from -- were particularly interested in joining the site's discussions, Li notes.

Live chat rooms also proved to be busy, especially later on and after the verdict. The site operates two chat areas: one that is always active that promotes a general free live discussion, and another that's turned on for celebrity guests. After the initial verdict and sentencing, the district attorney in the case, Thomas Reilly, agreed to be the guest of a live cyberchat on the site. It attracted 50,000 visitors to the site and 450 questions were submitted to the chat moderator. The chat session became the lead story on most local TV stations that night, and was covered by national outlets like CourtTV.

The online polls also were particularly interesting, Li says, because it showed the swings of public opinion during the course of the trial. One week Woodward would be viewed as being innocent, the next guilty.

Upgrade when you need to

This much attention to the Town Online site was not without its challenges. Li says that as the trial heated up, the site had to be beefed up and its Internet connection was upgraded to a high-bandwidth T3 line. Even through the days of heaviest interest in the trial -- after the verdict and early this week when the jury's decision was overturned -- Li boasts that her site did not crash under the load.

She says that she did receive offers from other publishers to mirror the Town Online Woodward pages on other servers, to lessen the load, but her technical team was able to cope without the help. Because of the central nature of the Community Newspaper Web site, resources were available to pay for such an upgrade.

Li says that for small papers facing a similar situation, you have to call for help, "And don't be shy about it." Li likens a situation like this to a flood, where a newspaper's competitor might end up volunteering to print an afflicted publisher's product. Without upgrading the Internet connection or setting up mirror sites, a story like this will create such demand on a site that it's unlikely to survive peak usage periods.

Show me the money

Looked at from a financial perspective, a huge audience of international Internet users may not seem like such a great thing for a Web site that relies primarily on local and regional advertisers. Li says that the idea of selling national advertising for the high-traffic Woodward pages was discussed, but the idea was dismissed because it was "too sensitive" and it would have looked as though the site was trying to profit from a tragic news event. Advertising on the discussion boards and chat areas also was weighed, but again rejected. "We received some feedback from users of the bulletin boards and chats that they perceived our site as MORE legitimate than CNN or MSNBC because of the lack of ads," Li says. "Those sites were seen to be in it for the money rather than the news coverage."

"Our sales and marketing people feel very strongly that we will make our money AFTER the event," she says. "Sales inquiries (for Web advertising) have increased significantly and the media coverage of all the people going online to get information has made more businesses take this medium seriously. ... This has really jump-started our Web sites."

Li also says that the whole trial experience and the international notoriety it brought the Town Online Web site has done much to raise the profile of the company's interactive publishing efforts within the company itself. As most newspaper Web managers know well, "Half the battle is internal," Li says. The Woodward trial experience is going far to bolster Li's efforts to promote print-Web integration.

The company still has a considerable way to go on that front. While 15 of the company's newspapers in eastern Massachusetts are part of the Town Online site, more than 100 still have no Web presence yet.

Contact: Charlene Li,


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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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