Putting an entire community online

Some small papers have had success on the Web by including their readers in the process.

This column appeared in the July 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.

Many small papers continue to struggle online, but before they throw in the towel they ought to examine some of the Web’s success stories.

Sunline, the Web edition of a tiny chain of dailies and weeklies in southwest Florida, has won a slew of state and national awards for small online publications. It averages about 10,000 visitors a day — not bad, considering that only 100,000 people live in the papers’ circulation area.

From its outset in 1996, Sunline’s focus has been on building an interactive electronic community from the ground up. “We’re too small of a paper to think that if we put our paper online the hits are going to pour in,” says Sunline Internet editor Ronald Dupont, Jr. “So we decided, ‘Let’s put the whole community online.’ ”

Sunline put up Web pages for all clubs, organizations, musicians, nonprofits and government agencies in the community. Next it sponsored computer classes for local residents on topics like chat and online games. The demand was overwhelming: more than 20,000 people — many of them seniors — attended the monthly sessions last year.

Sunline waited six months into the process to put the Port Charlotte, Sarasota and Fort Meyers papers online. “The papers are doing well, but 80 percent of our hits go to the community end of the site, not to the papers,” Dupont says.

Sunline’s business model centers on its operation as an Internet Service Provider — a conduit for folks to dial up the Internet. It offers free personal Web pages to its 4,000 paying subscribers, and half of them have created their own home pages with the easy-to-use tools on the site.

But that’s just for starters. Members can post photos of babies, kids, pets and cars. In response to requests, Sunline just added three more categories: Readers can upload boating or fishing photos, and they can write their own movie reviews. An area called Written Wisdom lets people put up their favorite quotes, everything from Plato to cute things their children say, and it’s already received hundreds of entries.

Other inventive approaches taken by Sunline:

• mailing lists where people can have school lunch menus, horoscopes and news summaries e-mailed to them.

• Internet 101, a beginner’s guide to using the Web.

• an online database of all homes for sale.

• a section called In Memory that allows people to post tributes to a late loved one. Members can even write their own goodbyes and have their attorneys post their parting words and an audio farewell of up to an hour. “Half the people think it’s morbid, half think it’s cool,” Dupont says. “My hope is that, over time, this becomes a place not of sadness but of happiness and life and memory. Just imagine somebody’s grandchild coming here one day and saying, ‘Wow, look at what Grandpa wrote about his life.’ ”

ANOTHER SMALL, family-owned paper that is answering the call of the Web is the San Diego Daily Transcript. The business and legal affairs daily has a print circulation of 14,000 while its online counterpart, The Source, records 2 million page views per month.

The company has about 100 employees, including a 23-person editorial staff that writes and edits for both the print paper and the Web edition, which launched in November 1994. “We’re not an offshoot of the daily paper but an online operation that reinvents the way the news is delivered and consumed,” says managing editor Andrew Kleske.

“When you come to us to look for home sales in your neighborhood, why would you want to go hunting through the classifieds when you can plug in your zip code and zero in on what you want through a robust, searchable electronic database?” A house hunter can not only access information quickly but also find out a neighborhood’s crime rate or household income levels.

Unlike the vast majority of newspapers, The Source also makes all its archives available online. The result is that search engines point to The Source three times more often than its nearest local competitor, the vastly larger San Diego Union Tribune.

The Source, which is profitable, primarily targets the business community, but it also serves as a one-stop city guide by providing hotel and restaurant guides, community activities, movie listings and other entertainment offerings. The paper also snapped up the elnino.com URL and got plenty of traffic to that sister site after hiring an oceanographer to write weather reports.

“Readers want a full breadth of news and information that’s relevant to their daily lives,” Kleske says.

Other small and midsize papers worth a look online: Tamnet in Slidell, La.; Michigan Live; and the Bakersfield Californian.

A great many larger online newspapers and magazines could take a page from these small, innovative pioneers.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT