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Newspapers, television finding ways to make Web sites pay

For years newspapers and television stations have put a lot of time and money into developing Web sites. In the early years few Web sites were paying their own way. But now TV stations and newspapers have found ways to make the Web sites pay — in more than one way.

“We put our newspapers online because being online is just another channel of distribution to reach readers,” said Bill Hunsberger, publisher and president of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. “We have more than 20,000 people per day who come to our Web site, almost five million page views per month. It is a lot of readership, and we are, in fact, making money from our Web site from advertising.”

There used to be a concern that people would drop their paid newspaper subscriptions if they could get the news online. But Hunsberger said the newspaper’s Web site has expanded readership — not lessened it.

The newspaper’s clarionledger.com site is constantly evolving, growing and adding different types of content. This time of year high school and college sports really drives readership for The Clarion-Ledger, and the Web site plays into that by — for example — having an online database for high school athletic statistics.

“It is a very popular site,” Hunsberger said. “The Web site is a good business for us. It has been one of our fastest-growing revenue sources over the past few years.”

According to a recent article in American Journalism Review, “Online publishing is a still a big experiment, and papers around the country are trying just about anything to beguile advertisers and persuade them to open their wallets. For years, newspapers dumped money and resources into the blossoming online operations without seeing profits. The frenetic pace of newspapers’ spending for online dropped, however, after the dotcom collapse. At the same time, newspapers grew more adamant about squeezing profits out of their electronic offerings.”

According to a recent survey, half to two-thirds of newspapers online claimed to be making money on their Web site.

Victoria Bracknell, technology coordinator for the Mississippi Press Association, said that newspaper Web sites have changed how some non-daily newspapers are approaching their news.

“For instance, the Senatobia Democrat is a weekly paper,” Bracknell said. “But very often if you have breaking stories the newspaper will put them on the Web site between the issue dates. It is providing more of a competitive edge for a weekly. Also when it comes to local elections, many of them are posting election results to their Web site the night of the election.”

Bracknell wasn’t sure that additional revenues are driving the proliferation of newspaper Web sites. She believes community service is often a more important consideration.

“The weeklies have always been more about supporting the community, and this is another opportunity to do that,” Bracknell said. “Hopefully it will translate into increased revenues, but I’m not sure that is something that’s easy to measure. For a weekly newspaper it gives more a sense of community, a venue for people who have moved away to keep up with what is going on in their hometown.”

Bracknell doubts most smaller newspaper Web sites are supporting themselves.

“I think newspapers, particularly smaller newspapers, are doing it for different reasons,” she said. “They are doing it because they think it is good for the community, and not just because it is a revenue source.”

Newspaper Web sites should keep the content as fresh as possible, and provide searchable archives. Obituary information is very popular, and readers and even staff benefit from being able to do searches for stories published months or even years ago.

About 70% of funds from online newspapers come from classified ads. Some newspapers also generate funds by charging to access the archives.

Most daily newspapers in Mississippi are online. Only one is not. Bracknell said weekly newspapers are lagging a bit behind, with about half having Web sites online.

For television, an important consideration is extending the station’s brand, says Leon Long, vice president of operations for the Liberty Corp. Long is vice president and general manager of WLOX-TV in Biloxi/Gulfport and is vice president of Liberty Corp., responsible for operations of seven of the company’s television stations including WLBT in Jackson.

“We think the Web site is a way to extend the WLOX brand so that people who aren’t in the viewing area or near a television set at any given moment can keep updated as far as the latest news, weather and sports,” Long said. “Our effort here is to be the news provider for South Mississippi, and you can’t do that on a single path any more. You do that on a multiple path. You give news to people they can digest in a number of ways.”

Long said the Web site gives television stations another way of delivering the product. During work hours they see increased use of their Web site. Possibly people are at work and don’t have access to a television, but can check the Web site to get quickly updated on news, sports and weather.

“We are getting to people in a non-traditional way in non-traditional hours,” Long said.

Long said while the station certainly tries to recoup Web page costs, success has been hard coming. “It isn’t the easiest business to run,” he said.

But some benefits are important if intangible. By being the news source people turn to for breaking news, the Web site can enhance overall viewership.

“During times of breaking news, we will see a spike in the numbers of people who use WLOX.com,” Long said. “Hurricanes are a great example. We not only post a lot of local content, but also link people to national hurricane sites so they have more information available to them.

“It is a very interactive site. People who live in the area with digital cameras take shots, and we can post them on the site. We are getting some wonderful content in. It is a great way to connect with viewers, and have a two-way, interactive path. We also solicit story ideas on the Internet.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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