Kansas’ CJOnline: Innovation in the heartland

Kansas’ CJOnline wins awards — and audience — with its multimedia pizzazz

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

The pilgrims come from the world over, making the journey from far-flung media empires to learn the True Way of Online Publishing, the precise combination of innovation, grit and pluck that the folks at CJOnline have concocted to make it the liveliest little news site in the land.

Last March, for instance, a delegation from London’s Daily Mail — including owner-publisher Lord Rothermure — trooped out to the mecca of Topeka, Kansas, to glean the secret of the site’s success. Others have journeyed from Gannett, Lee Newspapers and umpteen universities.

“It blows me away to see all these people who want to fly out to Kansas. I’m always afraid they’re coming to make fun of us,” says Rob Curley, the dry wit who ran the Topeka Capital-Journal’s new media operations until last month. “They quickly find out how small-townish Kansas really is. You can walk right up and talk to the governor.”

Why the pilgrimages? Let us count the reasons:

• A well-deserved reputation for innovation. CJOnline’s Kansas Legislature site, its HawkZone sports site and an interactive marketing campaign created for a casino advertiser won top awards at last month’s Digital Edge Awards, sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America. Remarkably, CJOnline landed among the finalists in eight out of eight categories it entered.

• A commitment to multimedia. While Big Media players like CNN.com and ABCNews.com have removed free video clips from their sites, CJOnline has forged ahead in the other direction. The site posts five to 10 audio interviews [italic]per day, plus video clips, court documents and more.

• A willingness to take chances. CJOnline has launched a number of sites that break the old rules, such as RockKansas, HawkZone and CatZone.

• A nose not just for news but for profits as well. CJOnline makes money. (See News sites hustle for profitability.)

One visitor from Gannett told Curley, “You know what you have? Really cool software, really smart Internet people, and a buy-in from the publisher unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Despite all that, Curley left CJOnline and Morris Communications four weeks ago to become the general manager of the online operations of the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kansas, a 19,000-circulation daily with an online staff of 12. “I wanted to be able to control my destiny a little more,” he says of his resignation from CJOnline, where he left a track record of enterprising online journalism that sometimes flouted the conventional wisdom.

One mark of CJOnline’s success is the parade of editors lined up to take Curley’s place. Within 48 hours of the job posting, they had 100 resumes, including a surprising number from editors at major metro dailies. “It just goes to show how many people out there are looking for the right publisher who’ll let them do their form of interactive storytelling,” Curley said.

Publisher John Fish said the interview process will begin shortly and he expects someone with “outstanding credentials” to take the new media reins. “It’s a tribute to our staff and operation that so many high-quality candidates are looking to come aboard.”

Site’s secret sauce: evergreen packages

Far better than most other news sites, CJOnline knows how to package content around news themes in ways that breathe new life into archived content. Whether you call it evergreen content, shells or living archives — or Web In-Depth, as CJOnline does — it works.

“We’re pretty good at figuring out the projects that the community sees us as the authorities on,” Curley said in an interview shortly before his departure. “Web In-Depth is where we work closely with print reporters to take a story into online overdrive: video and audio, photo and virtual reality galleries, Flash, court documents, archived stories, message boards and more. And we try to make it fun and intriguing along the way.”

Here’s a glance at some key Web packages on CJOnline:

• Want to find out what’s happening in politics in Kansas? CJOnline built the definitive Web site covering Kansas state government and politics. Kansas Legislature gives the lowdown on this year’s race for governor as well as coverage of perennial budget battles, biographical sketches of every legislator, a reader’s guide to government services, a weekly video feature by the paper’s legislative correspondents, online-only weekly diaries from a member of the state Senate and House in which members of both parties give an insider’s view of what’s happening beneath the dome, and an archive of the governor’s most recent state of the state address.

The standout feature may be the real-time bill tracking tool (done through a partnership with the state of Kansas’ site), which lets a user find out the exact status of a piece of legislation as it winds its way through the Legislature’s labyrinthine machinery. Then there are the continually updated committee minutes, detailed daily agendas for the House and Senate, and streaming live RealAudio from both chambers when they’re in session. Other cool features include 360-degree virtual-reality tours of the statehouse and governor’s mansion, and interactive Flash maps that show the location and hours of every government office in Topeka.

By the way, those nifty VR images? Said Curley: “We took them with a $250 digital camera we bought at Target and freeware we downloaded off the Internet and stitched together in an economical way that still packs a gee-whiz factor.”

• The site won raves last year for its Survivor: Topeka City Council game, where local citizens could vote one member of the local city council off the imaginary island of Topeka each week. The minisite stirred public discussion on competing media outlets. More significantly, a few of the officials who were first voted off the island were also voted off the city council just weeks after the game ended — including the city’s mayor.

• In March, after nearly a year of work, CJOnline unveiled Loving God’s Hate, a sitelet devoted to the Rev. Fred Phelps, a controversial local minister whose church believes that homosexuality is a vile sin. The site’s launch was timed to coincide with an HBO special on Matthew Shepard, the gay man beaten to death in Wyoming. Phelps and his church picketed the funeral of Shepard as well as the funerals of people who died of AIDS.

The site provides a historical perspective on Phelps, a longtime polarizing figure in the local community, offering readers video of his sermons, a 2 1/2-hour audio interview with him, photo galleries of his pickets, and interviews with community leaders. Users, in short, are given the tools to make up their own minds about the preacher and his brand of intolerance.

• If you know Kansans, you know they’re fanatics about their sports teams. CJOnline decided to create separate Web brands to cover the teams of the two local universities: HawkZone for the University of Kansas Jayhawks and CatZone for the Kansas State Wildcats. Together with coverage from the print edition, the two sitelets include the largest collegiate sports database ever built by a newspaper, including the results of every KU basketball game dating back to 1898; constantly updated audio and video clips; Flash animated playbooks; expanded photo galleries shot by the newspaper’s photographers; cyber player “trading” cards built in Flash; in-depth history sections that pull heavily from the newspaper’s archive; and virtual stadiums that show the view from every seat in the house and include 360-degree virtual reality photography.

What’s most impressive about all this is that both sites are built on one of the largest collegiate statistics databases anywhere on the Net. Amazingly, the database, which includes detailed info for every NCAA Division I team and player in the nation, is updated for each player right after every game.

CJOnline’s managing editor, familiar with how databases work, configured a program that lets users dynamically compare any two teams or players in the nation, with comparison bar graphs drawn on the fly. In addition, an in-depth local sports site provides dynamic stats on every local high school player (both boys and girls) from 20 different area schools. Slick stuff.

More freedom with separate brands

But there’s a more fundamental lesson here for online news sites.

“Early on, we recognized that there were things we could do with separately branded sites that we couldn’t do on the regular newspaper site,” Curley said. “For example, Greg Sharpe, the radio voice of the Wildcat Radio Network, writes a column for CatZone. You probably wouldn’t see his column in the newspaper’s sports section because of his affiliation. Readers love the downloadable screen savers and virtual player cards with bios and stats of each student. If we ran those on CJOnline, a journalist would say we’ve crossed the line into boosterism. But once you create a separate brand, all those conventions no longer apply.”

Curley’s point about the need to serve different audiences is well-taken, and he has taken heat for it from his journalistic colleagues. Especially when it comes to the HawkZone Swimsuit Calendar and Budweiser Women of KSU.

“Sometimes people want more than news and sports,” Curley said. “We decided we needed to have the same mindset of a TV network. NBC gives you news and sports, but they’ve also got ‘Fear Factor’ with the Playboy models and WWF. We like the NBC approach instead of the PBS approach. You can’t win if you program just like PBS, and most newspapers take the PBS approach.

“We catch a lot of guff about that from the traditional journalism community,” Curley went on. “It drives me crazy because we’ve dedicated so many resources to doing great journalism on the Web that this has become a distraction.”

When Curley left he was uncertain whether to continue the calendars for a third year. For the record, CJOnline was approached by students at both universities to launch the calendars, which have proved to be popular both on campus (2,000 students turned out to help pick the winners) and on the Web (to perhaps no one’s surprise, they’re the most heavily trafficked pages on the two sports sites). Newspapers are typically clueless about how to reach a certain male demographic that Curley calls the beer, beef, basketball and babes brigade, but the fact remains, they’re out there in droves.

• Here’s another lesson from the Book of Rob: Want to reach younger readers? Chances are you won’t be able to lure them to your newspaper site. With a thriving live-music scene just 20 miles up the road in Lawrence, Curley said, “I guarantee you that a 19-year-old in Lawrence is not going to check out the Topeka newspaper’s Web site to find out what’s happening.”

Thus was born RockKansas, a local music site with a sort of Rolling Stone sensibility. The site contains edgy writing, wallpapers, lots of attitude, hundreds of MP3s from Kansas bands that you can download for free, and a Beer-o-Meter that ranks the daily beer specials in Topeka, Manhattan and Lawrence. The site also houses a Kansans-only online radio station that streams hours of local music. For those who like their music live, the site compiles the most comprehensive concert calendar in the state.

On occasion, Kansas even produces a music sensation. Kansas City’s Puddle of Mudd’s had a hit with “Blurry,” the No. 2 country song in the nation a few weeks back. Reported Curley: “You couldn’t watch MTV and not see these guys. They felt burned by the mainstream media in Kansas, but the reporters from RockKansas hit it off with them, and we’ve been able to cover them and post heir MP3 demos. How cool is that?”

• Last year Curley’s Topeka team built the new Hannibal.net site for its sister Morris newspaper, the Hannibal Courier-Post. The most impressive aspect of the site is its rich and vibrant homage to Hannibal native Samuel Clemens. The venerable author may not be making much news these days, but students, scholars and Twain fans the world over find their way to the site, which contains the only known video of Mark Twain available. The minisite also features interactive storybook games; reader forums; downloadable transcripts of nearly all of the author’s works; complete versions of all his major books, essays, letters and speeches; video and virtual reality 360-degree tours of Hannibal; current stories on Twain-related events; and readings from Ron Powers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and fellow native son.

• In the same tradition, the Topeka crew built Morris’s JuneauAlaska.com site three years ago. The site, which boasts a striking tourism section, features video, VR and Flash maps, and other interactive content.

Buy-in from the print side

How does CJOnline do all this? With a crew of 12 full-time and four part-time staffers, half of whom work in editorial — a fairly hefty online commitment for a 55,000-circulation daily paper. The site certainly gets a bang for its overhead buck. While the majority of the site’s expenses go to salaries, the cost of living in Topeka is low, “so you can hire a great Web producer for $30,000 or someone straight out of college for around $22,000,” Curley said.

The site does all its training in-house. “We found that when you’ve got hyper-motivated, talented young journalists who can already write a solid story, teaching them how to edit audio or shoot VR pictures or scan in court documents is a cinch,” he said. “When you’re got super-bright people hanging around other super-bright people, this magic just seems to happen.”

In the past six to nine months, CJOnline has begun getting applications for entry-level positions from top journalism school graduates and Fulbright scholars. “The top young minds in journalism want to go where they can learn how to hone their craft, where they can do journalism on steroids, and they’re figuring out that you don’t have to be at a 300,000-circulation daily to do that,” Curley said.

The site is updated at least four times a day on weekdays. The lone reporter dedicated to the site comes in round 7 a.m. and calls the local authorities for breaking news reports, even if it’s nothing more than a car accident or two. “That’s the low-hanging fruit,” Curley said. “Our goal is to have a breaking news story on our home page by the time you get to work at 8:30.”

By noon, the print newsroom gets into the act, with reporters turning over stories of four to seven paragraphs to the online staff. The site’s reporter then turns to longer-range projects, such as service journalism pieces, scanning of court documents, shooting VR pictures, or digitizing reporters’ audio interviews.

CJOnline’s staff interacts frequently with reporters from the print newsroom. Part of the buy-in involved getting staffers to bring back audio clips from the field. The interviews are then edited by multimedia editors and posted to the site.

“We decided to go with a low-tech solution to audio,” Curley said. “We bought a fleet of handheld tape recorders from Radio Shack for about 40 bucks each. We have a ton of these babies and each morning we hand them to our reporters who are covering a story that would seem to benefit from having expanded audio interviews. We wind up with five to 10 audio interviews every day on the site All the reporter has to do is push the little red record button.

“Analog recorders proved the best bet. Even if we bought more expensive digital recorders, we were still going to have to download the clips to a computer so that they could be edited and encoded for the Real server. So we weren’t really going to be saving any time if we went digital.”

Why the commitment to multimedia when so many other news sites are retreating from video and audio?

“We want our site to be both deep and wide,” Curley said. “On any given day, only 5 percent of readers may follow a multimedia link, but that’s on a par with our most-read text story.” Visitors to the site will access audio clips 2,000 to 3,000 times and video clips 1,000 times on a typical day. “That may not be a lot of traffic, but to me, those numbers warrant the investment CJOnline is making.”

Curley observed that the site frequently gets calls from editors at some of the nation’s largest online newspapers who want to know how they get such high-quality audio clips. “When I tell them how we do it — with $45 tape recorders from Radio Shack, 99-cent PC patch cables and a $35 sound-editing program from Download.com — they just about fall over and die.”

CJOnline also offers users free Web-based e-mail (so that users can have [email protected]), several customized e-mail editions, several Palm Pilot editions, as well as niche sports topics/team news available on mobile PCS phones. The site’s other utility-based features include a custom-built local calendar of events throughout northeast Kansas, a sophisticated interactive local real estate site, and successful database-driven automotive and employment verticals.

CJOnline is drawing 4.5 to 5 million page views during the summer but expects to return to its usual rate of 6 million impressions next month when collegiate sports returns. The site doesn’t track unique visitors.

Part of CJOnline’s financial success stems from its willingness to let advertisers sponsor entire sections of the site rather than just run a banner ad on a series of pages. Its Kansas Legislature sitelet, for instance, is sponsored by Koch Industries. Southwestern Bell sponsors CatZone — a smart business decision because it helps spur demand for broadband-hungry multimedia content.

Does Curley worry that such advertising entanglements will color the site’s business coverage? He pointed to Westar Energy’s sponsorship of the Kansas Olympics section, then cited a series of stories critical of the state’s largest electric utility. “We constantly rake them over the coals, online and in print, because of how they’re running their company,” Curley said. “We bend over so far backward just to make sure there’s no appearance of a conflict. I’d rather lose their money than go easy in our coverage of them.”

A contrarian vision that eschews herd journalism

What’s ahead for CJOnline? Publisher Fish says, “We are more committed now than we have ever been. CJOnline has become an integral part of everything we do here, from the news side and marketing to the technology side. With CJOnline we’ve built a condo, and we’re not going to turn around and move into a tent.”

Curley’s departure will certainly have an impact. “Rob’s an extremely talented individual and brings a unique set of skills to the operation. Obviously we’ll miss him,” Fish said. “But the greatest strength of CJOnline is the total staff, and the quality of what we’ve built is much bigger than any one individual. We’ll continue to press forward and make enormous improvements.”

Indeed, the spirit of hard-charging innovation seems intact. The staff has already begun preparations to launch a section in 2004 for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which, you’ll recall, came out of Topeka. Look for audio interviews, historic footage, a Flash animation of the bus routes taken by the schoolchildren, and more.

We can only hope that such enterprising journalism will continue without compromise. CJOnline has set a high standard for an industry that too often takes the well-trodden road. More news sites ought to be following its example by taking chances, pushing the online envelope, parting from the herd.

Curley has thought a lot about this. “Look, everything we do is about doing great local journalism online. You don’t see CJOnline trying to out-CNN CNN.com. We cover local stories with great detail and care. Sitting on top of that is a collective realization that sometimes it’s more fun to taste good than to have good taste. It may not have much to do with journalism to post where to get the best beer bargains in town, but I think the readers love that.”

Like those young journalists in California and New York who are willing to move to Kansas for the love of their craft, Curley has decided to ply his trade in the glamour-free Midwest, turning down job offers from some of the largest metropolitan papers in the land. Instead, he has jumped ship from a 55,000-circulation daily to a 19,000-circulation paper.

There may be a lesson in that. “Good journalism isn’t dictated by how many papers you sell on Sunday,” Curley said.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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