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Hometown newspapers use Web to strengthen communities

The Web hosts an estimated 1,900 U.S. newspapers, the vast majority of which are based in small towns.

August 21, 1998
Web posted at: 2:00 PM EDT

by Charles Bermant

(IDG) -- Thomas Wolfe may have been right when he said "you can't go home again." If he was alive today, he might have added, "but you can log on for the latest births, deaths and Little League scores."

The Web hosts an estimated 1,900 U.S. newspapers, the vast majority of which are based in small towns. While they aren't always slick, small-town papers often provide greater detail about current events than the so-called A-list national papers.

Such was the case with the ongoing court case against Louise Woodward, the British nanny accused of murdering the Newton, Mass., child in her care. The eastern Massachusetts-based Town Online newspaper chain covered the case long before the national press caught on.

Town Online publisher Charlene Li says that when sites like CNN started pointing to Town Online for coverage of the trial, her site experienced a "significant spike" in traffic: Town Online had more than 90,000 additional hits on June 16 alone, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court let stand Woodward's involuntary manslaughter conviction. This year Town Online was named the best weekly newspaper site in the country by Editor & Publisher.

"Community newspapers have the most to win online," says Eric K. Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign. "They have the most loyal audiences and the news that you can't get elsewhere. A local newspaper won't get scooped by CNN."

While Meyer may be overstating the case, the locals may be on to something. "Advertisers are starting to invest some money into this," says Editor & Publisher executive editor Hoag Levins. "They are finding that online readers want real papers with lots of local news."

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Town Online gives the people what they want - everything from meeting notices to sports scores. Community members also get free Web space and the tools to update event times and game stats.

Like their print equivalents, small-paper sites employ a wide range of financial strategies, including everything from soliciting advertising and selling print subscriptions to building small-business Web sites and running the local Internet service provider.

The Putnam Pit may have the most unconventional approach. Geoffrey Davidian, a veteran journalist based in Beverly Hills, Calif., started this local paper to cover faraway Cookeville, Tenn. He grew intrigued - some would say obsessed - with the town, population 25,000, after he met a woman while traveling who complained that the area was corrupt and that murders too often went unsolved. Davidian's children lived in a nearby town, so he swung by to investigate. He was so offended by the town's "political corruption" that he started a local paper - admittedly, a radical strategy that few people have the time or money to pursue - and took his crusade online.

At the other end of spectrum is the Gallup Independent in New Mexico. Its Web effort is an example of how a small paper's site can miss the mark by throwing up only a few out-of-date stories, says Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing.

"Small papers need to set up their sites as the place to go to get detailed information about the community, from movie show times to the scores of the sixth-grade soccer game," he says.

The Independent hasn't devoted enough employees to its site, Outing adds. "Updating the site always gets stuck on the back burner," admits James Liapis, who runs the Independent's online effort. "I do it whenever I can get around to it."

Professor Meyer thinks online papers should charge subscriptions so they can hire needed online staff, and he points to the Telluride, Colo., Daily Planet as a good example of the trend (see sidebar).

Meyer also sees an untapped audience in expatriate readers, who often come home, for example, to bury relatives. "Funeral homes have become a huge source of online advertising," Meyer says.

The sites that succeed will look beyond the obvious. "Our goal is not to put the newspaper online," says Town Online's Li, "but to put the community online."

Our Town on the Net

Small-town papers come in all shapes and sizes online. A few of the high - and low - points.

  • Daily Planet
    Telluride, Colo.

    The Daily Planet's online site has two missions - to promote tourism and to cover Telluride's goings-on. In order to preserve its journalistic integrity, the site finances a free tourism area without help from the Chamber of Commerce. Local news sets online subscribers back $35 a year, however.

  • Pampa News
    Pampa, Texas

    Pampa News Online reports on weddings, funerals, events (Women of the Moose Charity Bingo, Monday nights at 7 p.m.) and all the news that's fit to print (which isn't much in Pampa). It's just enough to inform expatriates about what's going on at home, but not compelling enough to make outsiders want to visit. Maybe that's the point.

  • News-Register
    McMinnville, Ore.

    This third-generation family-owned newspaper subsidizes an online effort through its ISP, leveraging the paper's brand name to make longtime readers feel safe online.

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