Caught in the Web?

Print to Web: What local papers say

Xpress surveyed Buncombe County newspapers about their online offerings. Some declined to take part or did not respond. The information below was derived from those surveys and other research by Xpress. Our questions were:

  • How much of your print content is available online?
  • Is online content archived?
  • Is all the online content free? If not, which parts must be paid for?
  • Do you allow readers to comment on your site?
  • Does your site have any social-networking features?
  • What online-only content does your site offer?
  • Do you offer online advertising?
  • What little-known online offering of yours, if any, should more people know about?
  • What is your site’s average monthly usage? (a two-part question):
    1. Number of page views per month?
    2. Number of unique visitors per month?
  • What upcoming additions, if any, do you plan to your Web site?
  • How has the Web changed the way you pursue your mission?

Asheville Citizen-Times (declined)

Home page: www.citizen-times.com
Print content online? Yes
Archived content? Yes
Paid content? Archive fees
Reader comment? Yes
Social networking? Some
Online-only content? Multimedia features, such as photo galleries and podcasts
Online ads? Yes

Asheville Daily Planet (no response)

Home page: www.ashevilledailyplanet.com
Print content online? Yes
Archived content? Limited
Paid content? No
Reader comment? No
Social networking? No
Online-only content? No
Online ads? Yes

La Voz Independiente

Home page: www.lavozindependiente.com
Print content online? Yes
Archived content? Limited
Paid content? No
Reader comment? No
Social networking? Forum
Online-only content? Some
Online ads? Some
Little-known online content? New forum, photo galleries
Site traffic? (no estimate)
Upcoming online additions? Perhaps mobile news feeds
The Web and your mission? “Many of our readers don’t have computers; print is still how they get their news. But the Web gives us an opportunity to reach a broader audience, and we’re considering mobile-news feeds.”

Mountain Xpress

Home page: www.mountainx.com
Print content online? Yes, except for syndicated content (such as Freewill Astrology)
Archived content? From 1998 to present
Paid content? None
Reader comment? Yes
Social networking? Some basic
Online-only content? Yes
Online ads? Yes
Little-known online content? Our photo galleries
Site traffic? 366,000 page views/month, 76,000 unique visitors/month
Upcoming online additions? Better search capabilities, various section upgrades
The Web and your mission? “The Web has opened up the means for readers to talk to us and to each other online. They can establish a dialogue in real time about the matters they care about, instead of waiting a week to submit a letter to the editor in print. The Web has also made it possible for us to publish in other media—video, audio, extensive photo galleries, etc.”

OIA

Home page: www.outinasheville.com
Print content online? All of our print content is posted monthly, in a [dedicated] section
Archived content? “It was previously archived in PDF format, [which] proved insufficient, so we have plans to implement a content-management system [that] will allow for seamless, automated archives.”
Paid content? “All of our online content is free.”
Reader comment? “Yes, but currently only on our blog, Outloud.”
Social networking? “Our blog.”
Online-only content? “A weekly online TV show called ‘oiaTV.’ We also publish daily news, entertainment and editorial content throughout the month, some of which is expanded or condensed for the print product, but most of which is online only. In addition, readers can sign up for our weekly happenings e-mail, ‘Come Out and Play,’ which is published on Thursdays with the upcoming weekend and week’s events.”
Online ads? “Yes, we offer several tiers of rotating and static ads, flash ads, ads in ‘Come Out and Play,’ as well as video ads on ‘oiaTV.’”
Little-known online content? “Probably ‘oiaTV,’ [which] was just launched at the very end of July. … It is relatively underground.”
Site traffic? 9,000 page views/month, 3,000 unique visitors/month
Upcoming online additions? “More interactivity through flash games, polling, surveys, expanding ‘oiaTV’ to include broader content. … We have big plans for the [new] year, but that’s another story.”
The Web and your mission? “We have begun to think in reverse, putting more emphasis on the Web site and updating the print product to reflect Web trends, rather than vice versa, as well as honing our advertising approach to encourage online-exclusive advertising and, of course, the creation of online-only content like ‘oiaTV.’ But at the same time, we are not sacrificing the quality of our print edition: It’s only improving in step with the Web site.”

Asheville Tribune

Home page: www.ashevilletribune.com and www.weavervilletribune.com
Print content online? Yes
Archived content? Some
Paid content? No
Reader comment? Yes (Weaverville) No (Asheville)
Social networking? A blog on Weaverville site
Online-only content? Sometimes
Online ads? Yes
Little-known online content? Links to government sites, other media
Site traffic? 250,000 hits/month (Asheville, Weaverville combined), about 10,000 unique visitors/month
Upcoming online additions? More content. “People come to the site for the stories.”
The Web and your mission? “No, it hasn’t changed our mission. It’s enhanced it.”

The Blue Banner

Home page: www.thebluebanner.net
Print content online? Yes
Archived content? Yes
Paid content? No
Reader comment? Yes
Social networking? Yes, for registered members
Online-only content? Podcasting link, Mountain Highlights (video), Storyville (audio), classifieds (including a campus book exchange), events, discussions, UNCA links, Blue Echo (radio)
Online ads? Yes, just started
Little-known online content? Locally produced multimedia (Highlights and Storyville)
Site traffic? 9,000 page views/month
Upcoming online additions? More ad options, issueless editions, blogs, more interactive community content (maps, surveys, etc.)
The Web and your mission? “It has simply given us greater options for supplying our audience with campus-related news.”

The Urban News

Home page: www.theurbannews.com
Print content online? Yes
Archived content? Some
Paid content? No
Reader comment? Yes
Social networking? Yes
Online-only content? (decline)
Online ads? Yes
Little-known online content? (decline)
Site traffic? (decline)
Upcoming online additions? (decline)
The Web and your mission? “It’s helped my mission. People in other countries, cities and states—people who are from Asheville but [traveling]—can pull up the publication online and be brought up to date on [what’s happening], up to the minute, in Asheville. That’s an added benefit.”

For all the Internet’s many wonders, a lot of folks aren’t yet ready to give up the tactile, personal experience that printed news delivers, Asheville resident Johnnie Grant maintains. “We still need to feel that paper in our hands,” she asserts.

But the fact is, more and more people now get their news online. A Pew Research Center study, released this past August, details that 40 percent fewer people read their news in print, on a typical day, than did 10 years ago. In the past two years, the use of online news sources has grown by about one-third.

“There’s a paradigm shift in [how we] present the news and how we deliver it,” says Grant, who publishes The Urban News, an Asheville-based monthly. Her paper added a Web site a few years ago, and like many other local print-news outlets, she’s caught up in the major changes rumbling through the industry. “You find the trend and you adjust,” says Grant.

But the Internet revolution isn’t the only challenge facing the news business today: In the last few years, print newspapers worldwide have grappled with declining ad sales, rising paper costs, sinking subscription numbers and, most recently, a tanking economy. Apparently in response to such pressures, the Asheville Citizen-Times recently laid off 16 staffers and announced plans to close its local printing facility (which employs some 60 people) in January, shifting operations to another Gannett-owned printing plant in Greenville, S.C.

In the midst of such adjustments, however, many papers both in Asheville and elsewhere have also made a mad dash to build an online presence, creating Web sites, hiring techies, teaching old-school reporters how to do multimedia and turning traditional columnists into bloggers.

No doubt about it, the Internet has changed the way we work.

To be sure, the Asheville area still boasts a lively and diverse array of print-news sources (plus assorted other niche-market and lifestyle publications), all of them vying for local advertising dollars and exploring new revenue sources. But since Xpress Associate Editor Nelda Holder wrote several years ago that “feisty independent local journalism appears to be thriving here in Asheville” (see “Reading From Left to Right,” June 8, 2005 Xpress), at least two publications have disappeared from the streets: the nonprofit Asheville Global Report, which is now online only as The Global Report (theglobalreport.org),  and Mountain Guardian News & Opinion, which has ceased publication.

To get a handle on the current situation, Xpress surveyed eight print-news outlets in Buncombe County, including our own staff: the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Asheville Daily Planet, La Voz Independiente, Mountain Xpress, OIA, The Asheville Tribune, The Blue Banner and The Urban News. (Note: we omitted the Black Mountain News which, like the Citizen-Times, is a Gannett publication, and the Weaverville Tribune, produced by the same folks who bring us The Asheville Tribune.) We asked a dozen questions, ranging from a simple request for each outlet’s Web address to an overview of its online content to the big question: How has the Web changed your mission?

The answer to the latter, of course, is ever-evolving, but here are some highlights from the responses we got (for complete results see sidebar, “Print to Web: What Local Papers Say”).

Testing, testing …

As an initial assay of each company’s level of Web savvy, we sent our original requests via e-mail.

Within minutes, La Voz Independiente Publisher Robert McCarson called us. But other responses only gradually trickled in, and a few editors and publishers had to be pestered the old-fashioned way (by phone or even by a personal visit). Several responded completely by e-mail, and one—the Citizen-Times, owned by the Gannett Co. (which owns USA Today as well as many other papers)—respectfully declined to participate.

Along with La Voz, however, we did hear from The Asheville Tribune, The Blue Banner, The Urban News and OIA  (aka Out in Asheville), as well as our own staff. Xpress has also been exploring the topic of journalism’s future in our online forums, working such threads as “The death rattle of print journalism?” and “Should Xpress convert to online only?” (See www.mountainx.com/forums.)

Alexander resident Ralph Roberts, for example, wrote: “I have been the publisher of several papers and years ago saw the faint handwriting on the wall and gave up my periodical ways to go into book publishing. I may have misread that pale scribbling [on] that, but [I’m convinced] the place to be now is the interactive media—the Internet and video.”

And as for jettisoning print entirely, Xpress Multimedia Editor Jason Sandford wrote that such a move would be premature but not necessarily nutty, “considering that The Christian Science Monitor, for one, recently announced that it’s going online-only.”

At this writing, however, none of the publications that responded has chosen to completely exit the world of ink and paper.

Points on the World Wide Web

Nonetheless, at some point, all of them apparently came to the same conclusion reached by Asheville Tribune co-founder and now Editor-at-Large David Morgan: “You’ve got to have a Web site like you’ve got to have clothes.”

But what resources do you allocate to it, what features do you offer—and how do you make money from it?

Some local print-news media limit their online presence to simple templates; other sites, designed in-house, offer a host of features. All provide free access to current and recent content, although the Citizen-Times charges fees for archived material. Most sites allow reader comments, but few have extensive social-networking features. All offer some level of online advertising—but none says it gets a significant amount of direct revenue from it.

OIA Editor Lin Orndorf admits that the LGBT-community newspaper launched its Web site a few years ago by simply posting PDF files of the print edition. The resulting online experience was akin to scanning microfiche at the public library. This summer, however, the monthly gave its site a major face-lift, introducing multimedia and other online-only content, a blog and a video feature called “oiaTV.”

The payback, she says, has been modest but growing traffic at www.outinasheville.com.

“We have begun to think in reverse, putting more emphasis on the Web site and updating the print product to reflect Web trends rather than vice versa, as well as honing our advertising approach to encourage online-exclusive advertising [and] online-only content,” Orndorf reports.

Still more online-only and interactive features are in the works for the new year, when OIA will rebrand as Stereotypd, she notes. Orndorf says her publication is also edging into nonprint territory by expanding “oiaTV” to present interviews with “local, regional and even national celebrities, politicians and entertainers.”

A similar blurring of media boundaries is increasingly evident at UNCA’s Blue Banner. Online editor Jason Herring reports podcasting links, a video-news broadcast (“Mountain Highlights”) and original audio documentaries (“Storyville”). “We’re striving to include more multimedia options … that highlight the diverse talents [on] the UNCA campus,” says Herring. The Web, he concludes, “has simply given us greater options for supplying our audience with campus-related news.” Of course, as a college paper, the Banner doesn’t rely on ad revenue for its survival, though state belt-tightening recently mandated by Gov. Mike Easley resulted in a $900,000 trimming of the university’s 2008-09 budget.

Morgan of The Asheville Tribune admits to being a little more old-fashioned than most. He leaves the blogging to his younger cohorts at The Weaverville Tribune, a sister publication, and his Web sites have remained just as simple as the print versions, though he does regularly provide additional articles online. Morgan deems fancier sites “an artist’s expression of the news.”

And though he first said the Internet has had no effect on the Tribune‘s mission, he quickly amended that, saying the Web has “enhanced it, but it hasn’t changed how we do the news.” Morgan compiles news he finds interesting and regularly runs longer pieces, both online and in print. The Web, he says, helps him keep informed, particularly with news around the country that provides context for how Asheville “fits into the bigger picture.”

Interestingly, the Tribune‘s bare-bones Web site draws almost as much traffic as OIA‘s more ambitious Web presence.

As a weekly whose content changes more rapidly, Mountain Xpress gets a good deal more Web traffic than these monthlies—about 76,000 unique visitors per month, Web Manager Jason Shope reports. The section seeing the most growth right now is the online forums, where readers can post questions, ideas and observations and engage in dialogue with one another. But the forums, notes Shope, are still evolving, and Xpress does not offer much in the way of social networking.

Managing Editor Jon Elliston, on the other hand, points out that Xpress has used the Web to break away from the limitations of weekly publishing. “We can report [news and events] almost instantaneously. And there are virtually no space limitations on the Web.”

But with those enhanced capabilities come new challenges: “It makes for more work,” Elliston notes. “We’re running what are in essence two publications—one online and one in print—but with more and faster interactivity with readers.”

One possibility in that direction may be linked to cell phones. Many La Voz readers don’t have home computers, McCarson notes. He’s investigating mobile-messaging options—the next step in news delivery, he argues—to complement the online version of La Voz.

Grant agrees, demonstrating how she’s been using her own BlackBerry. “People are finding it easier to view their news online,” she says. A publisher who doesn’t take advantage of such trends, Grant maintains, “is missing the whole point.”

What’s next

Despite the financial stresses and profound uncertainty amid dizzying fundamental changes, however, the message from local journalists remains hopeful.

When asked the big question—Where do we go from here?—Elliston at Xpress emphasizes that the publication’s long-standing goal hasn’t changed, saying, “A core part of our mission is to engage active, thoughtful citizens and draw them into an informed dialogue about local matters, and the Web provides multiple tools for doing just that.”

Meanwhile, Xpress Forum Administrator Steve Shanafelt wrote in a recent post: “I’d like to see Xpress start thinking of itself as a Web site with a newspaper, rather than a newspaper with a Web site. (Or, as [Publisher Jeff Fobes] would probably correct me, a community resource with a Web site and a newspaper.).”

And Fobes himself, speaking about his paper’s online efforts, writes, “We’re all in a learning curve here.” But after noting the challenges of shifting resources to the Web and evolving from “print habits,” he goes on to say:

“I urge reporters to think less about ‘owning the story’ and see themselves as servants of the information society, helping bring sense to all these newly empowered storytellers emerging from the grass roots. Besides, there are only a few of us reporters (and with the current economic climate and death rattle of print media, there are fewer and fewer), but there are multitudes of citizens who have lots to say.

“This is a wild and exciting time to be in journalism/media.”

And while this is hardly the first time a new technology has fundamentally altered the media landscape—witness the advent of motion pictures, radio and television over the last century or so—it may be worth considering that all of those media are still with us, if in somewhat altered form.

Grant—who lived on the North Carolina coast for about 25 years—says one valuable aspect of Internet journalism is its ability to draw traffic from other cities, states and even countries. Ashevilleans, for example, can tap into the The Urban News online and get the home news they’re missing while on the road or living elsewhere.

Morgan adds that we’re increasingly confronted with a deluge of information, and it remains the journalist’s mission to get at something resembling the truth. Web-savvy journalists, he believes, can continue that mission—and, of course, his own son now downloads news on his BlackBerry, Morgan confesses. Nonetheless, he feels journalists would still do well to remember a tale longtime friend, radio host and Tribune Senior Editor Bill Fishburne once shared from his college days. “A professor told Bill: ‘You know what it takes to put out a newspaper? Words!’”

And in the brave new world of Internet journalism, that’s one resource that seems to be in more abundant supply than ever.

You can reach Contributing Editor Margaret Williams at mvwilliams@mountainx.com

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

8 thoughts on “Caught in the Web?

  1. Excellent and informative article, Margaret!

    To state this topic in basic form, the mistake newspapers make in going to the web is retaining too much of their print format and publication schedules. The web is not newsprint, it is a much more interactive and time-driven medium. To succeed on the web, stop thinking like a newspaper.

    Kinda hard, huh? ;-) I’m facing the same problem as a book publisher and still working out answers. But my own company — like most publishers — will become web-driven or go out of business.

  2. iCareTooMuch

    Integrate with Kindle and other Ebook providers.

    I enjoy reading the paper in a normalized format, but I rarely have the time or foresight to grab one out of the machine, from my driveway, or even off my desk. Like many professionals, I spend the majority of my day sitting in front of a screen. Clicking a button is natural to me, and my newspaper should support that format.

    Also, how about recreating the print edition in Flash and offering that as a value-add to the normal subscription.

  3. Margaret Williams

    “Stop thinking like a newspaper …”

    That IS hard! And even harder to stop thinking like a weekly paper. Although I was away for a few years, the weekly routine is ingrained in my gut. But switching to news-on-the-web’verse is also a philosophical evolution. Our thinking on HOW to deliver the news and WHERE to focus our efforts/resources and WHAT to do w/ existing print-news business models … keep ‘em, chuck ‘em?

    What would Google do?

    And “integrate w/ Kindle and other Ebook providers” and “recreating the print edition in Flash and offering that as a value-add to the normal subscription.” Xpress has some Web-page redesigns in the works, and a few other brewing ideas that we hope will make it easier to click and browse and find the information you need to find (or want to share), whether you’re looking up calendar events, breaking news or the latest forum comments.

  4. jen

    The only negative thing I see about on-line compared to printed news is that is lacks a lot of content. The Mountain Xpress for example…I have to get the printed version to see all it has. It is not on-line. Also, most people like holding a paper and carrying it with them. The Kindle thing seems silly to me. Reading on a computer screen is hard enough. Hard on the eyes. Plus it usually cuts in on format and layout. (I’ve made some). I think print will continue, but it will definitely be sized-down.

  5. Rob Close

    I see plenty of content with mountainx.com; and all I see missing are most of the ads.

    But reading a real paper is a much nicer experience. And it can join me on the toilet.

  6. Margaret Williams

    Therein lies the rub: How to boost online-ad sales … In the industry, online ad sales are only generating about 2% of total revenues, so the bulk of revenue still comes from print sources.

    And yes, there’s still a tactile pleasure to reading a real newspaper (wherever you park yourself).

    I subscribe to several magazines, and I find that I typically read them all the way through — almost every article. But online, I skim a lot, click and move on, getting highlights.

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