The One-Man Band Is Alive and Well

By: Steve Outing

More than 80% of the daily newspapers in the U.S. have circulations of under 50,000; nearly 70% are under 25,000 circulation. (The situation in many other countries is similar.) It's safe to say, then, that the majority of newspapers do not have much money to put into online publishing. It's not that smaller papers are ignoring the Internet -- quite the contrary, in fact -- but that their efforts often are conducted on shoestring budgets.

Dave Williams knows all about that. He's the Web site developer, online editor and one-man Internet band for the Star Democrat in Easton, Maryland. Thanks to Williams, the 18,000-circulation daily paper in a rural part of the state (along the east shore of the Chesapeake Bay, about 45 minutes from Baltimore and an hour from Washington, D.C.) does have a Web site, but it's a modest affair. When Williams goes on vacation, the paper's Internet presence goes on hiatus, too.

While much of the coverage of newspapers' Internet efforts (including my own in this column) is of the larger and better funded ventures, the Star Democrat and its lone Internet manager are more representative of a majority of the newspaper industry and its approach to the Internet.

Journalist turned businessman

Williams has been part of the 30-person newspaper editorial staff for about five years; the Star Democrat gave the former music teacher his first journalism job. Before becoming online editor, he was the paper's entertainment editor.

He now plays a challenging role for the newspaper: To be the person responsible for driving the company into having a presence and creating a business on the Internet. And by the way, please don't spend much money.

But Williams believes that it is possible for a small paper with an online staff of one to make a go of it in the interactive medium. The budget for the Star Democrat's new media operation consists of little more than his salary. He occasionally gets help from high school interns, whose work frees him up from some of the Web site's grunt work. The paper's ad director is enthused about the paper's Web operation, so he talks up the idea of online Web advertising sites to newspaper clients, and refers them to Williams to pursue as possible Web customers.

The paper pays nothing for its server space, which is the main way that Internet costs have been kept down. Williams explains that he entered an agreement with a regional Internet service provider (ISP), with the newspaper serving as its branch office. With a T-1 line connected to the main ISP and a bank of modems in the newspaper office, the Star Democrat markets Internet access accounts, co-branded between the paper and ISP, to local residents. In exchange, the paper gets free server space for its Web sites, and receives a $10 bounty for each ISP customer it signs up.

(Being in a rural area, the only competition is from other local ISPs; accessing America Online, Netcom, PSI and other national Internet access providers is a long-distance phone call for their customers. In the Easton area and other rural areas of the U.S. unreached by the major ISPs and online services, Internet access remains a good business opportunity.)

The server space available to the newspaper is as much as Williams wants, and he is allowed to resell it -- which is how he expects to make the bulk of the paper's Internet revenues. Building and hosting Web sites for area businesses will be the ticket to eventual profitability, he hopes. For now, the paper has one major client; Williams has created Web sites for two of its businesses.

Web site design clients also get free banner ads on the newspaper Web site, and Williams does accept banner advertising. So far, only one advertiser has signed up. Ironically, it's a local competitor in the Web site design and construction business.

Williams concedes that the Web operation is not yet profitable. "We're still losing money, but not hand over fist," he says. The deal with the ISP allows the paper to experiment at minimal costs, while developing a viable business model. The Web site has been in operation for close to a year.

Editorial content

The Star Democrat's Web site, which is updated once a week, consists primarily of repurposed print material, posted to the site manually. (Much of Williams' time is spent editing and processing copy for the site.) Williams publishes a sampling of local stories from the newspaper, and liberally posts Associated Press wire stories. He especially likes to run longer AP features (with photos) that do not appear in the paper; indeed, he says, many of the longest wire pieces do not appear in print anywhere, since most newspapers don't have room for such copy.

He's also added other modest features, such as a local Web page that's linked to one of the national weather services available on the Web. The newspaper has an in-house editorial cartoonist, whose work is posted on the paper's Web site and which is one of the more popular features.

Due to technical challenges with the paper's existing computer system, classifieds are not yet online. Williams hopes to have classifieds on the site by summer, and the paper probably will do an upsell -- that is, raise the overall price of placing an ad by a modest amount and have all ads published on the Web in addition to in print.

The site gets about 1,000 page views a day, with the home page visited about 100 times a day. Because the paper covers a rural area, Williams believes that Internet usage is modest. Easton is a city of 9,000, and the newspaper's circulation area covers several similar size towns in four counties.

The sparcity of population may be why the site's discussion forums have been very quiet. Williams has created an Open Forum page, which is basically an e-mail letter to the editor feature; a Solutions page, which invites people to offer constructive ideas to local problems ("no whining allowed" is the rule); and an Interactive Cookbook, where users are asked to share recipes. "So far, interactivity has been a bust," he says, though he recognizes the value of interactivity in the online medium and vows to stick it out till the site reaches critical mass.

Williams likes the idea of the newspaper creating the premier online guide to the communities it covers. While lacking resources to create something big, he still hopes to be the No. 1 online information source for his community. "To an extent, there's no such thing as second place on the Web," he says. The Star Democrat does have an advantage in that the online city guide companies that are setting up in metro areas around the U.S. and elsewhere are not likely to reach a rural area like this.

Eventually, Williams would like to create a service, which combines the online content of numerous regional media. Perhaps that will be in conjunction with other papers of the Star Democrat's parent, Chesapeake Publishing, which owns several other small newspapers and which is discussing a larger cyberspace strategy for the company.

Williams' advice to small publishers is to experiment even if there is little money to throw at the Internet. Find a person on staff who is motivated and let them experiment. Or hire a new college grad and give them responsibility over the paper's Internet strategy, he suggests. Create trade-out deals like his with the ISP, in order to keep costs minimal. Get local organizations online on your site, he says. If your local chamber of commerce is not yet on the Web, offer to host their site for free, he suggests. (Unfortunately for Williams, a competitor had already done that deal with Easton's chamber.)

Just because you may be small, don't throw in the towel. The Internet presents opportunity for publishers of all sizes and budgets.

Contact: Dave Williams,

Movin' On

Robert Gilbert has been named president and CEO of InfiNet, the Internet access and Web services venture owned by media companies Knight-Ridder, Gannett and Landmark Communications. InfiNet works with more than 100 newspapers, serving as their Internet service provider (ISP) and offering Web publishing tools and services. Gilbert previously was executive vice president. Before joining InfiNet in 1995, he was with Knight-Ridder for 21 years. Gilbert replaces David Richards, who returns to Landmark to focus on new business ventures.

NAA opens up restricted Web site

The Newspaper Association of America has opened up its Digital Edge Web site to all. The site, which is a resource for the newspaper new media industry, formerly was restricted to members of NAA's New Media Federation. Site content is open to the public, with the exception of archives of previous columns.


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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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