Gleaming portal, pauper news site

Pulitzer takes a two-tiered approach in St. Louis with STLtoday.com

This column appeared March 22, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

Pulitzer Inc. threw the switch March 15 on STLtoday.com, a new portal that bills itself as the definitive online guide to living in St. Louis. It’s bright, colorful and slickly packaged.

Now only if it had a soul.

As part of Pulitzer’s new portal strategy, its flagship paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, takes a seat far to the rear of the bus. It’s an interesting approach, one that bears watching for other publications in mid-sized markets. Online staffers at the Post-Dispatch update the portal with breaking news, but they’re only peripherally involved with the new venture’s operation.

In words and deeds, STLtoday has taken pains to distance itself from the Post-Dispatch (they’re both subsidiaries of Pulitzer). And while, in my view, they’ve gone overboard in that effort, the company’s goal of broadening the site’s mission to create a gateway to St. Louis seems the right approach.

Since the earliest days of online publishing, news publications jumped onto the Web bandwagon but offered users little except digital versions of their print products. Users, meantime, flocked to portals that offered practical services or to the largest news sites to get their daily dose of news.

As one user of the site wrote in a post Monday on the STLtoday forum: “I personally don’t use the Post Dispatch site for news. If I want news I go to CNN or Yahoo.”

What’s a mid-sized online newspaper to do, then? Pulitzer decided to follow in the footsteps of Knight Ridder’s Real Cities portal strategy. At Knight Ridder’s papers, typing in a paper’s url will transport you to the regional portal. The San Jose Mercury News’ old sjmercury.com now summons up bayarea.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer and cross-town Daily News’ phillynews.com whisks you to philly.com, and so on.

Pulitzer has one-upped Knight Ridder’s portal strategy by ensuring that the portal’s accompanying newspaper site will be so inconsequential that it withers on the vine

The regional portal approach is a strategy I generally like, given the realities of how people use the Web. Users do rely on local online news outlets to provide authoritative, up-to-date accounts of what’s happening in their back yards. A recent survey suggests users for the most part are satisfied with local news sites. But to build a successful Web business, news is not enough. People go online with varying missions in mind: entertainment, dining, investment advice, travel, shopping.

So Pulitzer has gone portal. But it has one-upped Knight Ridder’s portal strategy by ensuring that the portal’s accompanying newspaper site will be so inconsequential that it withers on the vine.

Multiple personalities

First, some quick background. The Post-Dispatch has always had something of an online identity crisis — call it the Sybil of online newspapers. Over the years the paper has switched its online brand from Postlink to STLnet to Postnet. The Postnet.com site was retired last week, partly because someone dropped the ball or they would have discovered that PostNet International, a parcel shipping outfit in Nevada, owns the rights to the trademark.

Throughout it all, the powers that be at Pulitzer decided that the sites served a grander purpose than merely the online arm of the daily newspaper. To this day, the company insists that Postnet was a separate enterprise rather than the Web site of the Post-Dispatch. But nobody in the public believed that fiction — the site was run by Post-Dispatch employees out of the Post-Dispatch newsroom.

All that changed last week when two new sites were launched: STLtoday and the Post-Dispatch site. Don’t try looking for the latter at www.post-dispatch.com, though — that will take you to a splash page, which will in turn ferry you to STLtoday. Only by clicking on the Post-Dispatch icon in the portal’s right nav bar, or by typing an obscure url, will you discover the newspaper’s new shovelware site.

The decision to underplay the Post-Dispatch site and promote the portal was deliberate — and understandable, given the circumstances — but it begs the larger question: Is this new two-tiered approach of gleaming portal and pauper newspaper site the right one?

Reasons behind the move

“For years our Web operations have had a mission statement that we were the definitive online guide to living in St. Louis, and we really weren’t delivering on that mission,” says Colette Hogan, president and chief executive of STLtoday.com. “To be the winning portal for St. Louis we had to move beyond delivering news from one content provider to offering consumers a broad array of services and information from multiple viewpoints and content partners.”

Hogan says Pulitzer looked at a number of other regional portals and city guides, such as Boston.com, the Real Cities sites, AOL’s Digital Cities and Citysearch, borrowing lessons from each. The most dramatic changes came in the areas of navigation and content.

“To be the winning portal for St. Louis we had to move beyond delivering news from one content provider to offering consumers a broad array of services and information from multiple viewpoints and content partners.”

The new portal broadened its content offerings by signing on 24 partners, such as Reuters, Wall Street Journal Sunday, United Media, localbusiness.com, Sports Stats Online and Tribune Media Services. It’s also bundling localized news and content from Suburban Journals, the string of suburban papers that Pulitzer bought last year. That adds a nice touch of local news, such as the police blotter and a recap of neighborhood home sales.

In addition to news, STLtoday.com offers seven other channels: business, sports, entertainment, neighborhoods, jobs, autos and real estate. Some of this was available on Postnet, though often difficult to find.

Another change came on the technology front: The company’s market research found that broadband access is not yet prevalent in the St. Louis market, so the site employs Flash to load images quickly for users with dial-up modems, although that has proved to be a mixed bag, given the number of user complaints about the site crashing their systems.

“In our redesign we focused on speed and utility — the utility of finding a restaurant or movie, or finding what artists are exhibiting at what gallery,” Hogan says.

STLtoday’s navigation appears more graphically intuitive than Postnet was, although readers — notoriously fickle when it comes to any redesign — seem split on the functionality of the new site, which was designed by a local marketing firm. Relates Hogan: “Some people complained, ‘How can you use the team colors of the Tennesse Titans?,’ ” whom the St. Louis Rams beat in the Super Bowl last year.

Hogan, who attended St. Louis University, was a marketing executive for Time Warner and then the Chicago Tribune before joining Pulitzer last June. She says she hopes to make the Web enterprise profitable, perhaps by next year.

She told a Post-Dispatch reporter last week that the portal is striving for independence from the newspaper. “We’re Switzerland over here,” she said. “We’re neutral.”

“Some people complained, ‘How can you use the team colors of the Tennesse Titans?,’ ” whom the St. Louis Rams beat in the Super Bowl last year.

And she underscores the point in a phone interview. Asked about the lack of personalities being showcased throughout the site, she says, “Why would we do that? We’re not a newspaper, and we’re not promoting the newspaper’s personalities. That’s handled by the Post-Dispatch, a separate company. Over here we’re focusing on what’s a winning business model.”

Newsroom ramblings

The new portal’s birth has received a mixed reaction in the newsroom. Consider:

* The Post-Dispatch online staff had little involvement in planning the site. The 13-person staff of editors and producers has been instructed not to update the Post-Dispatch’s Web site with breaking news throughout the day.

* A week ago the company hired a site editor for the portal, a local journalist who once worked as a writer for the Riverfront Times, the local alternative weekly that takes regular aim at the Post-Dispatch.

* Other newsroom staffers, who had occasionally provided the online staff with original source documents, video or audio sound clips, apparently can no longer do so: STLtoday doesn’t do multimedia — “We’ve put up streaming video in the past, and people don’t rush to it,” Hogan explains — and in-depth reporting seems out of place on the portal.

* P-D staffers were upset by the secrecy with which the portal debuted. They were kept in the dark about the launch date until a few days beforehand, and had only 24 hours to trouble-shoot the site before it went live.

All this has led to some bruised feelings in the newsroom, according to individuals familiar with the situation.

But Jan Paul, the Post-Dispatch’s online editor, minimized any feelings of discontent in the newsroom. “I’m not getting the sense that people think the rug was pulled out from under them,” she says. “I do get the sense that they wish they’d known more about the site before it was launched.”

She points out that her staff helped draft some of the specifications for the portal’s home, news, sports and entertainment channels and that, at least for now, her producers update the portal with breaking news throughout the day.

Paul says the new home.post-dispatch.com site should be seen as “more of a resource or research tool” for users seeking articles from the newspaper’s past seven days, plus a fee-based archive of older material.

She acknowledged that the company’s focus is on driving traffic to the portal rather than to the shovelware site, but adds, “Newspapers need to have their own presence on the Web. I hope we can develop it more than what we have now. But the portal concept is a good one, and we think it’s a winning strategy.”

Positives and negatives

There’s a lot to like about STLtoday.com. It’s clean and nicely organized, a vast improvement over most news sites and portals. The breaking news, sports and entertainment updates throughout the day give users a reason to return. The Flash animation on the Neighborhoods page is terrific.

On the minus side, online editor Paul says, “If I had one criticism of ourselves at this early point, I’d say we need to be a little more lively and Web-ified in our writing.”

Allow me to go a bit further. In my view, the site seems cold, austere and marketing-driven. Where is the warmth and personality? Where are St. Louis’ unique voices — popular Post-Dispatch columnists or, say, iconoclastic radio hosts?

For a regional portal, there’s precious little in the way of information about local civic or community groups. Links to the outside world seem nonexistent, as if you’re in a walled fortress. (Isn’t a portal supposed to be where you start your journey to the Internet?)

Interactivity is minimized because the forums are hidden away under a drop-down menu. There’s no “About Us” link or staff list — and, unless I missed it, no mention of Pulitzer Inc. — so users, especially newcomers or travelers, are left wondering who’s running this site.

Staci D. Kramer, past president of the St. Louis chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and now a contributing editor for Inside.com, likes the portal approach but thinks STLtoday.com misses the mark because of the lack of involvement by newsroom staffers in its operation. “It’s not a journalism site, it’s a site that uses other people’s journalism,” she says.

“I don’t think they had to diminish the newspaper in this way by putting up a stripped-down, skeleton site. That seems prehistoric, frankly.”

Kramer, who worked briefly at the Post-Dispatch in the 1980s and covered the local journalism scene for 10 years for various publications, says STLtoday is treating the Post-Dispatch as just one of 24 content providers.

“What Pulitzer is saying is that you should read the Post-Dispatch because it sets the agenda for the community, but they can’t even set the agenda for the new local portal,” she says. “It sends a mixed signal when you have a flagship paper as the No. 1 source of information about the community, and then you ace them out of their own Web site.”

As for the new home.post-dispatch.com site, Kramer adds, “I don’t think they had to diminish the newspaper in this way by putting up a stripped-down, skeleton site. That seems prehistoric, frankly. I don’t see why they couldn’t have had the best of both worlds: a strong portal integrated with a strong newspaper site.”

A few observers have speculated that the creation of STLtoday as a separate business unit was designed in part to thwart the Newspaper Guild, which represents the paper’s news and sales staffs, among others. Tim O’Neil, president of the local Guild chapter and a Post-Dispatch reporter, declines to speculate on the company’s long-term staffing plans, but says the Guild has filed an unfair labor charge against Pulitzer for creating a non-union sales force for STLtoday.

For now, though, the newsroom’s online staff continues under Guild representation. The Post-Dispatch’s publisher, Terry Egger, declined to return a phone call for this article.

The road ahead

Time will tell how St. Louis’ new portal will fare. Postnet.com was the most visited local Web site in St. Louis, with up to 16 million page views a month. “Anytime you mess with success like that, it’s a little scary,” Hogan says. The company declined to release traffic numbers for the first week of the site’s incarnation as STLtoday.

Hogan points out, wisely, that in six months visitors will see a different site than the one they see today. “This is version one. Who knows what we’ll do with version 2?” She wasn’t sure about partnering with local TV and radio stations, but held out the likelihood of broadening the site’s reach to include civic organizations.

STLtoday does a lot of things right, and online publications should take notice. But streamlined navigation and additional content is only the first step. The most valuable asset an online media site offers is not story content, it’s the ties and connections to the community, the knowledge base about a city or region’s citizens, the institutional memory.

Here we have a cool and clean tablet but, ultimately, a blank slate.

For a version 1.0 release, STLtoday.com shows lots of promise, and in time it’s likely to make good on its mission to be the definitive guide to living in St. Louis. Now they just need to carve out a more meaningful role for the largest media organization in the region.

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