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    How Outside Firms Like TownNews.com Can Help Small Newspaper Sites

    by Mark Van Patten
    August 5, 2008
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    Mark Van Patten

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    Enter TownNews.com

    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.

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    Map showing TownNews.com clients served

    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.

    Underserving Newspapers

    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
    link-naming convention.
    > 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.

    Tagged: hosting outsourcing townnews
    • No offense, but this reads like a press release. I took a look at TownNews.com a few days ago because I’m a webmaster/IT Director/Online Editor at a student paper interested in moving off College Publisher, and I wasn’t too impressed. In terms of usability, most of the “recently launched” sites I looked through screamed 1998. One even had a banner ad with flashing text.

      My opinion is that, as the journalism business evolves, it’s critically important for the companies to “own” their platform, in terms of innovation or otherwise. The platform, and how you distribute content, is a competitive advantage.

    • I agree. TownNews.com looks like it came straight from the 90s. If the people paying the bills at local newspapers really cared about serving their users/readers, they would immediately invest in hiring at least one skilled developer and designer and using a proven, open-source platform like Django or even WordPress.

      For a few hundred dollars you would be miles ahead with WooThemes or Revolution.

      Local newspapers have to start caring about user experience. It doesn’t mean they can’t outsource a few things, but those products/services have to meet certain standards. Look at ljworld.com. It’s what every small to mid-sized paper should strive to be.

      Out of curiosity, what’s the pricing for a basic TownNews.com plan?

    • Thank you, Mark, for both the kind words and the valid criticisms of TownNews.com. I chuckle that you refer to us as “the largest newspaper Internet hosting publishing firm you’ve never heard of.” We are a quiet company, dedicated to working in the background to help our customers succeed. We take pride in helping many papers, including the Bowling Green Daily News, win many “best online newspaper” contest awards. We celebrate when our online ad-order taking product, Ad-Owl, helps our customers/friends increase their classified revenue. Our Job Network product has proved to be a great solution for nearly 300 newspapers (and growing). Our SWAT team has helped newspapers sell some $8 million in on-line advertising. Our excellent team of programmers, designers, customer service and project managers work with hundreds of newspapers daily to find solutions. We have a sales staff, including our SWAT team, of more than 20 people who spend many hours in the field working with newspapers. We have two major data centers — one in Chicago and one in New York City — that offer unmatched bandwidth, storage and security. We also offer state-of-the art “edge serving” through Akami. And we will soon release a new Content Management System that will advance our technology into a new era. We have more than 100 employees dedicated to helping the newspaper industry. We have a great partner in Lee Enterprises. But we try to do all this work quietly. We fashioned ourselves as the “regional print shop in cyberspace.” That makes us our customers’ “Internet printers” with the end results accruing to the customers. This leaves the final decisions regarding design, sales, product usage, content up-dating, etc., fully in the hands of the customers. Most of “our sites” do not say anything like “powered by TownNews.com.” If asked, we will help with consulting. We do try to encourage newspapers to “own the Internet” in their markets — and many have succeeded — using our technology, yes, but in combination with their own hard work and dedication.
      Mark Van Patten has been, quite frankly, a minority of our customers who have always pushed us to “do more” — as opposed to too many in the industry who want only to make it to retirement before the Internet really becomes a factor. The good news is, more and more of our customers are pushing TownNews.com for better products and services. We appreciate our customers wanting to do more, and demanding more from us. We plan to oblidge, but quietly.

    • Dave

      I work for TownNews and just wanted to share what we hear from more and more newspapers regarding having people on-staff create and manage the software elements of their websites (I’m not referring to their updating tasks).

      While some newspapers have pulled their website management in-house, many have done so and then reversed their decision as it often costs much more than they anticipated — the software itself may only be a few hundred dollars a year or less, it’s the staff time dedicated to it that adds up. A newspaper I work with spent less than $1,000 on the software tools but upwards of $50,000-$60,000 for staff time (in some markets this represents a single body).

      Also, many of the newspaper’s front-end systems such as their classified software don’t work well with off-the-shelf software options such as Joomla and others not specifically made for newspaper software systems.

      At a time when the newspaper industry is going through a serious realignment of resources and staff downsizing is an every day occurrence, spending $3,000-$5,000 annual on a website with TownNews that pulls in easily $100,000+ in revenue looks like a pretty good deal.

      Thank you Mark Van Patten for your kind comments.

    • @Daniel: Pretty old fashioned thinking for a college student. What you suggest is equivalent to believing that in order for a newspaper to be great, they have to own the press. That might have made sense “back in the day”, but I often wonder why newspapers are investing in new machines to last 30 years, when the conventional wisdom says ink on paper is dying.

      @Drew: news management is just the tip of the iceberg. (Marc Wilson explains this better in his comment.)

      And if I read about the LJWorld.com one more time, I’m going to puke. The owner had one guiding principle for his online newspaper: don’t lose money.

      We have one guiding principle for our online newspaper: make money.

      @Marcus: Thanks for adding your valuable insight. I value our partnership and don’t ever want it to become vendor/customer.

      @Dave: Our payback was from day one – we were profitable!

    • I have worked for several local news papers and the first thin I always have to do is dump TownNews and buld new websites. The only reason these newspapers go with them is a lack of knowledge. All they do is cost the papers money that they could spend elsewhere. They are taking advantage of them. All these small papers need is one webmaster and a joomla site they can get 3 times the functionality for 1/3 the price. The only thing that they have to offer is the yp engines that I think they buy from some one else. Hi Marc.

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