Recently, MediaShift started running reports from “embeds” at various media outlets and educational institutions. This report comes from Mark Van Patten, general manager for the online efforts at the Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily News.
I decided early on that the best strategy for our newspaper to grow its web presence was to not to hire people, but to find other firms to partner with.
This took us from working with a guy with a server is his apartment to working with a phone company and finally a newspaper-specific host/content management system. We gave up control over many aspects of our website in order to remain flexible.
Today, we partner with the largest newspaper Internet hosting publishing firm you’ve never heard of, TownNews.com. I’ve been the catalyst for the Daily News online activity since it began in 1995. The Daily News is located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of Western Kentucky University and the only place in the world where Corvettes are built. Bowling Green is located in southern Kentucky, 90 miles south of Louisville, 70 miles north of Nashville. The Daily News employs about 100 people in a growing county of 100,000.
I’m still the catalyst today for our online activities. Am I saying that with pride or braggadocio? A little of both, but more out of frustration. The problem? Only a handful of employees in the building are wishing we could do more online. But we’re as deep with features as most newspapers, despite our smaller size.
I’ve used the same strategy for our online newspaper as with any other venture in the newspaper business: try to hire or partner with people smarter than me.
Chris Houchens is a smart guy that I hired to bring a different perspective to our online newspaper. He had a marketing perspective with plenty of non-newspaper media experience. Be careful when you hire a smart guy, they have a blog and aren’t afraid to use it.
Reacting to a comment that Mitch Joel wrote in his marketing blog about print publications needing to become multimedia productions, Chris said:
But even at this very moment, the offices of newspapers, magazines, radio/TV stations, and other traditional media are full of people who: 1) don’t understand this; 2) don’t want to understand this; 3) are afraid of this; 4) feel that they are already on the cutting edge just by replicating their content online; 5) are so caught up in a traditional stylebook of the ‘way things ought to be’ that they are actively fighting online ventures.
We have all of those people in our building at the Daily News.
TownNews.com provides hosting and a publishing system for over 1,500 newspapers and shopping circulars. A newspaper entrepreneur (yes there are a few left) Marcus Wilson was working for the Bigfork Eagle and saw the potential in the hundreds of newspapers like the Daily News. We wanted more, but just didn’t know where to turn. His International Newspaper Network (INN) was the forerunner to TownNews.com, of which Lee Enterprises is now a majority partner.
Like the partners before TownNews.com, we have been the squeaky wheel that, hopefully, has kept them on their toes. We have pushed and they have pushed back sometimes, but we always have been pushing in the same forward direction.
Here’s some of what TownNews.com brings to the table to help newspapers “own the Internet” in their communities (CEO Marcus Wilson’s mantra):
> The Job Network: to compete with employment sites
> YP (Yellow Pages) Engine: a directory to compete with telephone directories online
> The Port: a social networking component
> Ad Owl: placing and paying for classified ads online
> Wheels Lite: automotive inventory management system
> Real Estate Lite: real estate inventory management system
> SWAT: a person that comes into the market to build revenue
Here is their current menu for newspapers. We have integrated all these modules into our site, except for The Port. We appreciate their efforts, but often ask them: “what will you do for us today?” We don’t want to be bleeding edge, because we can’t afford it, but we want to be leading edge.
With TownNews.com, we are backed with a staff of designers and developers that would be totally unaffordable to us. Our readers expect teeny-weeny newspapers like ours to have the same features as the big news sites. TownNews.com gives us a shot.
Yet, it is very frustrating that the very features that should be routine for a newspaper website cause me the most grief:
> Video player embed code doesn’t work after 24 hours because of their
> RSS feeds have no formatting. RSS readers are fed an unreadable block of text.
> The photo gallery is so poorly designed that it is embarrassing.
> Not enough capacity for a huge traffic spike /opportunity-missed.html
These sweet spots, as Houchens refers to them, for newspapers are woefully underserved by TownNews.com. Yet Marcus Wilson, TownNews.com CEO, touts their importance on a regular basis.
As with most partnerships, communication is important. TownNews.com is as good as the newspaper business at communicating with customers, i.e. very poor. TownNews.com knows we want to be among the first to implement new tokens, widgets, features, modules. Yet, more than once, our online director Houchens has learned of something totally new by serendipity.
I’m glad we hooked up with some smart guys at TownNews.com, but I wouldn’t be true to myself if I wasn’t constantly looking for other smart guys to partner with. Giving up some control has served us well and it’s a strategy most other newspapers would do well to follow: no matter their size.
Mark Van Patten isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. He has compensated by surrounding himself with smart people. As a result, he in his 38th year of working at small newspapers, starting on the street as an ad sales rep and working his way up to publisher. Currently, Van Patten is general manager of the Daily News in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He blogs, Twitters, Flickrs, Diggs, Stumbles, Tumblrs, and Woopras his way through the web and is Linked-in. He blogs at MarkVanPatten.com for business and GoingLikeSixty.com for fun.