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Newspapers searching for profitable online strategy

Some 60% of the daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Mississippi Press Association (MPA) now have an online version of the news, and many are taking advantage of technology improvements to become more attractive, useful and interactive.

“The biggest changes you are seeing right now with newspaper Web sites is they are truly becoming multimedia sources of information,” said MPA executive director Layne Bruce. “For the first 10 years, they were static. It was just words on a screen and a photo, and maybe some advertising. Now you have a situation where daily papers and even some weeklies are uploading video and podcasts to their Web sites, which is mirroring a trend across the world as far as newspaper Web sites are concerned.”

Making the cut

Bruce said there is so much potential with Web sites that words on a page and photos don’t cut it. People expect to be dazzled when they go on the Internet. Newspaper Web sites are beginning to catch up in that regard.

“They are dynamic and interactive,” Bruce said. “It took us a little while to learn how to present content in this way because we were used to the confines of the print edition. Now we have situations where we are producing interactive editions on the Internet. I think it is a big step forward for us. That trend will continue. It is going to get more and more interesting. Even if a newspaper owner doesn’t operate a regularly-updated online edition at this point, there is no denying the Internet itself is one of the biggest stories of the past century.”

Dailies such as The Clarion-Ledger and The Meridian Star are posting video clips of the top news stories. The Star has even posted a behind-the-scenes video of a newsroom planning meeting. The Madison County Journal, a weekly newspaper in Ridgeland, is producing podcasts that provide a summary of the print edition’s contents.

Losing subscribers?

There has been concern that newspaper Web sites could lead to a decline in subscriptions. Why should someone pay for a newspaper when they can get it free online? Newspaper circulation overall has declined in recent years for a variety of reasons. The most recent numbers show nationwide newspaper circulation dropped 3% in the past six months.

“There has been tremendous gnashing of teeth over the loss of circulation for print editions,” Bruce said. “Obviously, it is a big concern. But it is impacting larger newspapers more quickly and significantly than small community newspapers, and the bulk of our membership is small town community newspapers. Looking at the trend in Mississippi, there has been negligible change in circulation. Circulation is down only .05% in the past five years for Mississippi newspapers.”

Bruce said most newspaper Web sites cover their expenses, but not very many are acting as a profit centers for their newspapers.

“That’s changing but, again, slowly,” he said. “Newspapers are still searching for the right online business model, but some companies and even some local owners are being very aggressive with their approach. Consumers expect, at a minimum, to be able to contact, subscribe and advertise through newspaper sites. So we have to adapt and make our newspaper Web sites relevant to our customers and readers.”

Complementary products

The Natchez Democrat plans a new feature that is a prime example of how newspaper Web sites can be interactive.

“We are preparing to launch a new Web site with additional features,” said publisher Kevin Cooper.. “It will be more robust in terms of what content we put on line. We will also start using technology to be useful in different ways. For example, our community calendar we have printed for decades is too flat. With the new online calendar, users can click a button and have a reminder sent by e-mail or text message. Further, the newspaper will begin to do more video and audio online. In some markets like Natchez, we don’t really have a TV station doing local news. We are considering putting a media broadcast online.”

Cooper has come to view the newspaper Web site as essential as the phone system. Certainly the Web site is very popular. Right now, it is at a million page views per month.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo plans to improve the way the print product complements the Web site.

“I don’t think the Web site will replace the print version of the newspaper anytime soon, but we intend to improve the way it complements the print product and also increase the interactiveness between the two, “ said editor Lloyd Gray. “We’re certainly aware that the Web presence is important to us and will continue to grow in importance.”

Gray said there isn’t a newspaper Web site in the country that pays its way as it relies on content from work produced by the print edition. If you strictly looked at it from perspective of how much does it cost to have Web site versus how much advertising is received, there is close to a break even. But the online presence wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the print side staff.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of room for revenue growth on the newspaper Web site,” Gray said. “I think you see that growth already occurring and it will be increasing in the next few years.”

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal is planning a major Web site overhaul that will include improvements and changes. Gray said the paper also in the process of trying to figure out the best content strategy rather than just putting the print product online. He expects most papers will end up doing more breaking news, daily updates and shorter, more compact versions of stories on the Web, and have more analytical stories in the print product. Newspapers put a few paragraphs out there and refer readers to the newspaper the next day to get more detailed information.

“The flip side of that is you can put a lot out on the Web site that is lengthy and voluminous that you don’t have room for in the paper because of limited space,” Gray said. “There will be some placing of primary, long document source material, putting lengthy chunks of information out there for readers. Then again we have to be careful about putting vital information on our Web site and not in the paper because a sizeable portion of our readership doesn’t use the Internet regularly. Some probably don’t even have a computer.”

Another state newspaper making upgrades to its online presence is the Starkville Daily News. In part because many alumni of Mississippi State University like to keep up with the news, the Web site gets 10,000 to 15,000 hits per day.

“As a community paper, our Web version is a very important component of what we do,” said Brian Hawkins, editor of the Starkville Daily News. “We have changed the Web site to make it more interactive for readers. There are download forms for online submission of things like sports statistics, weddings and community announcements.

Lots of local people use the site to submit local information. It is improving our efficiency collecting news.”

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

About Becky Gillette

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