Monday, September 08, 2008

The Batavian

When I was at AEJMC in Chicago at the beginning of August, Howard Owens, the digital strategist for Gatehouse, handed me a card with "the batavian.com" on it.

"Been meaning to tell you about this. We're getting ready to unveil it," he said in that stealthy way that intrigues without giving too many answers. I stuck the card in my pocket. The semester began and the usually routine of classes, and it wasn't until this weekend that I got to look at it.

Most interesting. And my timing seems to be fortuitous, because Owens is out this morning with the "unveiling." (The site actually launched in May.)

Scott Karp has a full post today; he's been in on it for several months And there was more a few days ago from The Fighting 29th a blog in the area.

What Gatehouse is doing is experimenting with the idea of creating a community news site without having a newsPAPER and built around the core idea that community contributions to the site are just as valuable as those of the "professional" journalists. With lower initial and operating costs (without being tied to "big iron"). the chances of success are improved. I'm not going to spend time getting into all the ins and outs of the site -- read Karp or read Owens' post on the site about its philosophy.

I want to talk about a bigger-picture meaning for a moment: What this means for smaller newsPAPERs.

I have said for years now that smaller community newspapers, even if their finances have been pretty good till now, are in as much danger as their big-city counterparts. The world is going digital. Period. Whether you are in South Succotash or South L.A., those 15- to 35-year-olds are increasingly carrying iPhones and similar devices. They are used to maneuvering digitally. It does not matter if you are the "most trusted source for local news" in your three square miles of this Earth.

A recent study here at the University of South Carolina found the state of community newspaper sites to be abysmal (sorry I can't link, but this is the academic publishing business, folks, which sometimes makes newspapers look like screaming centers of innovation - the paper, I hope, should be available in a few weeks at the AEJMC site on AllAcademic.com. Search for Mitchell, K., Collins, E., & Saunders, A. (2008). Finding it, storing it, discussing it: A
content analysis of weekly newspaper Web sites).

The Daily News, Batavia's local paper, would be the poster child. A Web site that has nothing on it but how to subscribe and how to buy ads. And a link if you want to buy some of its old stories from the archive. (One might playfully criticize Owens for picking a too-easy target.)

The point of all this is that it is too easy for competitors to come in, as Gatehouse has done in Batavia, and undercut you, especially by building ties to the growing digital community in your area (and if you think it isn't growing, then what's that farmer in his tractor doing with his iPhone while he plows). And it is remarkably easy to reverse print from the digital content.

Such sites grow community. We have see it in Hartsville with Hartsville Today, a vibrant online community that was done in conjunction with the newspaper but that has taken on a life of its own.

Even my friend and director of the S.C. Press Association, Bill Rogers, a sometimes curmudgeon about "bloggers," realizes some realities here. He's experimenting with creating a template of a site that smaller papers can use to more easily post to the Web. He and I may disagree on how to do it -- he's using Dreamweaver templates, so 2005, when he should be looking into the myriad online tools already available through Wordpress, Drupal and such (because they all are much more compatible with using widgets to greatly expand the power of a site). But the core idea is the same -- no one, not even the tiniest paper in the tiniest town, can afford to ignore the Internet and the opportunities it gives to broaden and deepen community and your ties to it.

To do otherwise merely invites another Batavian to suddenly appear on your digital doorstep. (Tim Windsor even has coined a name for it -- To "Batavian," "to snatch a market away from the snoozing competition with an online-only play.")

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7 Comments:

At 9/8/08, 11:39 AM, Anonymous Dave Bullard said...

Kudos to Howard and The Batavian.

Until you get into this community online journalism thing, you have no idea how much content is actually out there.

I'm co-owner of one of the country's oldest web-only hyperlocals, Fulton Daily News.com and Oswego Daily News.com, in the cities (not far from Batavia, and it used to be a GateHouse market until just the other day) of Fulton and Oswego, NY. We've been here 9 1/2 years, mixing original reporting from two staff journalists with a figurative flood of locally generated content. (And we just rebranded to absorb the rest of the county, at Oswego County Today.com.)

On an average day, we get 10 - 15 news releases -- everything from church chicken dinners to institutional releases from the local college or hospitals or county government.

Add to that the stuff we get from some (not all) local schools for sports...and obituaries....and bowling and softball scores from the local adult leagues...and...and..and...

Well, there's a lotta stuff out there that's just not finding a home.

So The Batavian can expect a rich harvest of the important and the mundane.

And we're just getting started. We're going to begin regular content solicitations -- things like, "Send us your child's first day Back to School picture", now that our CMS makes it fairly easy for us to do it.

The site looks like it's on WordPress. So are we, and we love it as a solid, better-than-basic CMS. Pair it with the CForms form creation plugin, and you've got an easy way to get public contributions into the system. Give me a way to play with databases easily, and I'd be thrilled to death with WP.

But.

The hardest thing in this business is convincing local retailers to use you as an advertising vehicle. It takes a lot of ads to make enough money to support a staff (take a look at the one-man operation newzjunky.com for one approach) and there is massive resistance to this form of advertising.

National advertisers know how to make their ads work online; locals often have no idea.

The growth of the medium online will be hampered by the difficulty in generating revenue.

 
At 9/8/08, 3:13 PM, Blogger Jess said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 9/8/08, 10:10 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Jess, you think thebrunswicknews.com is bad? You should check out peninsuladailynews.com - That's what I get to deal with (as a consumer). I've presented to the local daily how bad their site is, and most of them know it. The problem is they fail to recognize its significance and make it a priority. Therefore, I've started making some movement of my own, ie "Batavian"

 
At 9/9/08, 12:50 AM, Anonymous TR @ WSB said...

We didn't start our site to be a news site (though my co-publisher and I have 30-plus years in "legacy media") nor did we intend to wind up competing with the local weekly paper, but the fact is that we now have more than quadruple their publicly stated online traffic - August was our third straight month of more than half a million pageviews - and more weekly households/businesses visiting (consistently) than their publicly stated hard-copy circulation. We're not fancy, not clever, not cutting edge, and we're still publishing in the same out-of-the-box two-column WordPress blog theme we started with when we thought this was "just a blog" almost three years ago ... but with the enthusiastic help of community members, plus a little know-how from our experience covering and digging up news, we present tons of news/information (with photos and video) each day, 24/7/365, and that's what every community deserves, and will respond to, regardless of who winds up providing it to them.

 
At 9/10/08, 12:34 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Dave:
You are so right when you point out that while we tend to talk about the newsroom, we often gloss over the deeper problems in the ad bullpen.

It's a two-edged problem: Local advertisers want to spend the least amount of time thinking about their marketing (they've got a business to run) but get the best bang for their buck.

Until now, newspaper and broadcast ad people have been able to sell them the mass audience model. And there are no incentives to change that inside most commission structures at publications.

But small-busisness groups are slowly schooling their members on the digital world. If news organizations' sales forces aren't there and equipped to help, then ...

For instance, one woman with expertise in online sales told me about a local advertiser who wanted to pull an ad from a newspaper site. But she was savvy enough to know what ISP was hosting the retailer's site and that she could get the basic traffic logs, flawed as they are. Using those, she showed the retailer how referrals from the newspaper's site had tripled since the retailer started advertising. Account saved.

Now, that sort of stuff might seem second-nature to those of us who muck around in the digital space and various traffic reports, but it is not second-nature to your typical "print" or TV salesperson. It starts with training to become the one-stop helpful ad shop for the advertiser. Then it just takes a lot of waiting, perserverance and patience.

 
At 9/10/08, 12:38 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Jess:
Be kind.

TR:
Wishes for your continued success.
I know you have ads, but do you have a business model?

Doug

 
At 9/14/08, 8:26 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I deleted Jess' comment at her request. That will leave some references in other comments broken or unclear. Hope you understand.

 

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