'While You Were Sleeping ...' -- Entrepreneurs Move Quickly

By: Steve Outing Cheyenne, Wyoming, is not exactly a hotbed of Internet publishing activity. The dominant newspaper in this 50,000-population state capital has a marginal Web presence. Online city guide ventures like CitySearch, Digital City, Microsoft Sidewalk and US West DiveIn don't have the city on their radar screens. There is no alternative news weekly or city magazine to set up a Cheyenne city and news Web site.

And therein lay opportunity for some local entrepreneurs, who hope to build a significant online business while the local newspaper has been slow to take the Internet seriously as a business opportunity.

CheyenneWeb was started in March 1997 by Don Hajicek and Darren Emerick, a catalog buyer and fashion buyer, respectively, who saw an opportunity in their community and went after it. Emerick knew nothing about the Internet at the time, but his partner convinced him that there was a significant business prospect awaiting them largely because of minimal competition in the Cheyenne market when it came to local content for the Web.

The duo started out with the idea of creating an online city guide for Cheyenne and the surrounding county. But the site evolved to become a news media site, as well, with staff and freelance writers providing feature articles about a variety of regional topics. Through a partnership with the news director of a chain of local radio stations, CheyenneWeb offers news rewritten from radio -- thus competing with the daily paper, the Wyoming Eagle-Tribune. CheyenneWeb emphasizes online-original content, and is updated twice a day on weekdays and once a day on weekends.

Last December, CheyenneWeb added a "literary webzine" called The Angle, which features writing on Wyoming and regional issues -- from local politics to personalities, with an emphasis on features rather than news. The business also offers Web site design services and has a partnership with a Web presence provider to operate an Internet service provider (ISP) business, which has 500 customers. For now, the ISP revenues are mostly floating the operation, while revenue streams for the content side of the business are being built.

The place to be

What CheyenneWeb demonstrates is that in a smaller market where major players haven't developed a Web strategy, a couple entrepreneurs can still make a go of it on the Web. "I'd much rather be here than in Denver," says Emerick of the nearest big city, 100 miles away, where the major papers, alternative news weekly, city magazine and several city guide companies all are vying for attention from local Web users. It's difficult enough to compete just with local print and broadcast media in Cheyenne for advertising dollars, Emerick says.

CheyenneWeb currently employs six people, including the founders. Hajicek serves as publisher; Emerick is editor; there's a staff sports writer; Pam Lewis is editor of The Angle webzine and edits the news sections; Emerick's wife handles customer service; and local radio veteran Rob Black serves as news director. (Black is an employee of both the radio chain and CheyenneWeb.) The site gets around 800 unique visitors a day, and 70,000 to 80,000 page impressions per month. The Tribune-Eagle's Web site operates with one full-time online staffer, otherwise relying on print-side staff to populate the site with content and provide graphics, ad support, etc. According to Tribune-Eagle Webmaster Steven Girt, his sites get around 2,400 visitors per day.

Most of CheyenneWeb's writing comes from freelancers, including about 15 writers who contribute regularly. Emerick says that when the site started business, local writers flocked to it and volunteered to write for free. Fairly quickly, writers began being paid -- a modest $10 per article -- and were reimbursed for articles originally written for free. The freelance rate has now moved up to a still paltry $15 per article, but the Web publishers hope to increase that figure as the business grows.

Feature article topics run the gamut, largely because writers are given freedom to write as they please. That's one of the benefits that writers get in exchange for the low pay, says Lewis. Articles have ranged from one about a local softball tournament; to an opinion piece about President Clinton; to movie and book reviews; to a eulogy for Barry Goldwater written by a former libertarian candidate. It's not hard to find people who want to write, because they are writing about topics they care about, she says.

Lewis says that about 60% of the freelancers are professional writers, with the balance community members who often require some editing help. Because writing outlets in the local market are not numerous, CheyenneWeb seems to have become a popular venue for local writers.

A feature of the site that has proven popular are reader feedback forms at the end of all articles. The editors say these are used frequently, and it's not unusual for an active discussion thread to build up appended to a story.

Emerick says that a major content thrust for the site is community self-publishing. Implemented only in its beginning stages, the site's editors hope to provide templates to community groups to allow them to post news and information by themselves. The idea is to allow elementary school sports teams to post results of their games; churches to post their newsletters; etc. In short, says Emerick, CheyenneWeb wants to publish the news and information that the local newspaper won't run (either in print or on its Web site). Currently, a local soccer organization is using the CheyenneWeb site to publish its results, schedules and news, for example.

That initiative is being held up by a dearth of programming talent in Cheyenne. Those qualified programmers who do live in the area are in high demand, and it's difficult to get programmers to relocate to southern Wyoming. For the self-publishing concept to move forward, a simple-to-use template self-publishing system must be written (or purchased from a vendor like Koz, Zip2, Alki Software or other company plying the online community publishing space).

Paper slow to compete

Lewis says that the site is fairly unique in the southern Wyoming market, and that the Eagle-Tribune's Web site "isn't really ourcompetition" because it only repurposes limited newspaper content and runs short blurbs urging Web visitors to read the printed newspaper. Her site's advantage, Lewis says, is its commitment to creating original online content and updating it often. "We have people who visit our site several times a day," she says; "these are active users." CheyenneWeb also sends out a daily e-mail newsletter, which features the day's headlines, weather, movie listings, promotions for CheyenneWeb events (like celebrity chats); community event listings; etc. The newsletter goes out to around 570 people currently, and is designed to encourage them to check out the Web site.

Lewis says that CheyenneWeb is trying hard to become a useful alternative media as well as a community guide site for the southeastern Wyoming region. For a sales tax special election a month ago, the site posted results through the evening as they came in from the county clerk. It also posted guest opinions; articles on the ballot issues; and operated a discussion forum. In contrast, she says, looking at the Eagle-Tribune Web site "you wouldn't even know there was an election."

Lewis left her work in public relations to take the CheyenneWeb editing job, and says she took a cut in pay to do it. A newspaper editor before going into PR, she says that she made the move because the business concept behind CheyenneWeb looked so promising in a market with the characteristics of Cheyenne. She thinks her site can become the dominant "portal" site for southeastern Wyoming, since the major newspaper in town has made no serious moves to date toward filling that role. (The Eagle-Tribune's Girt says his site is growing, and new features are planned, including a soon to be launched real estate service.)

"If the local newspaper does not become an Internet portal for its community, someone else will," says Lewis. That would be CheyenneWeb.

Contact: Darren Emerick, darren@cheyenneweb.com
Steve Girt, webmaster@wyomingnews.com
Pam Lewis, plewis@cheyenneweb.com


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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 steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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