Does ‘Web First’ Strategy Make Sense for Small Newspapers?

    by Mark Van Patten
    September 12, 2008

    Mark Van Patten

    The Bowling Green Daily News doesn’t have a “web first” strategy in the way we run our newspaper. That means that we don’t post articles to our website before they appear in print. Apart from some breaking local news, most major stories don’t appear on the Internet until after the press is running.

    Right now, our readers aren’t particularly Internet savvy. Many still use dial-up for Internet access. They generally only check their email a couple times a week. They don’t know much about what’s available online. They still depend heavily on the printed paper for their news.


    But that’s not going to stay the case for long. When our readers discover the Internet, and the myriad websites that have local information, they will start migrating from print to online. If readers are going to trust a newspaper, it has to be first with news more often than any competitor. So if we are going to keep readers in an online world, they have to know that when an important story breaks, they can quickly find coverage on our website.

    Our Situation

    The Daily News is a small afternoon paper — we serve a county readership of about 100,000. Our biggest competitor is the local television station, which reports news at 5:00, 6:00, and 10:00 pm.

    In a community our size, most local news occurs in the evening. Government agencies meet late afternoon or early morning, but apart from the odd cantankerous session or controversial issue, rarely produce anything unexpected. Press conferences are usually held in mid-morning; most agencies notify us ahead of time so that we can have a story prepared to publish the same day that any public announcement is made.


    The big hard news items for us are fatal traffic accidents, fires, particularly heinous assaults, high-interest trials and severe weather conditions. The TV station often mentions these events on their newscasts, but they rarely have video footage — unless it happens early enough in the day they can get a person to the scene and back before 8 p.m. They hardly ever do live shots for a breaking news story.

    The competing television station will play the footage at 5:00, 6:00 or 10:00 p.m., or sometimes, if it’s a big story, on all three broadcasts. But our newspaper won’t have the story in readers’ hands until 5 p.m. (at the latest) the next day.

    If we adopted a “web first” plan, we could beat the television station by hours and beat the print newspaper by many, many hours. We would “own the Internet” in Bowling Green.

    Should We Do Web First?

    Our Managing Editor Mike Alexieff, has repeatedly said that he has only one concern about adopting a “web first” strategy: killing the print edition.

    “I don’t want to give our readers any more reasons to drop their subscription,” he said. “Our print edition pays the bills…our website only brings in 5% of our revenue and that is flat…what would happen to the newsroom if our print product goes away?”

    Alexieff points out that there is no threat online that can compete with the Daily News. He sees no threat on the horizon because of the capital investment required to launch a site and get a staff in place. He cites the cost and lack of potential revenue as a reason to stick with print instead of adopting a “web first” strategy.

    Troy Warren, the paper’s circulation director, sees it in a different light.

    “The news has always been free,” he said. “Advertising has paid for the news. Circulation rates cover the cost of delivering the newspaper, so people have been paying us for delivery, not for the news. I’m not freaked by a ‘web first’ strategy; I think it’s inevitable. Someday my job may change and I would become an electronic delivery person instead of a print delivery person.”

    He says he isn’t threatened by the changes that the newspaper is going through. He believes that eventually there will come a tipping point when newspapers will have to choose between investing resources in print or online; he isn’t sure how the Daily News will adapt when that time comes, but he is sure that time is fast approaching.

    The Amplifier Already Does Web First

    The site’s online director Chris Houchens reminded me that we already have a publication that takes a “web first” strategy: The Amplifier, a monthly arts and entertainment tabloid that the newspaper brought under its wing about a year ago. That experiment has not been especially successful.


    Chris Houchens

    “We put stuff on the web first all the time with The Amplifier but if it’s not in the printed edition, we hear about it — even though the story may have been online for a month,” Houchens said. “We constantly push content to the tabloid’s MySpace page and tease in the print edition to find stories upcoming on the web. You would think this market of readers would be prime for web first.”

    Traffic to The Amplifier website has stagnated, while advertising in the print edition continues to grow every month.

    Houchens says that newspapers have to realize that the online newspaper does not serve the same function as a printed edition. A printed newspaper has to appeal to a wide general audience, while on the Internet, where users can go anywhere and read anything, websites that appeal to niche audiences are more successful. (Houchens wrote more about this idea on his blog recently.)

    Online, we face another potential challenge from a nearby college newspaper.

    “Our bigger threat (than the local television station) is the College Heights Herald,” Houchens said, mentioning the twice weekly newspaper for Western Kentucky University. “These students don’t have the newspaper mindset. They distribute the news like they consume it.”


    The competing College Heights Herald

    The College Heights Herald has been quick to adapt to an Internet world, even sending out email alerts of story updates. Every time that Houchens has gone to post a breaking story for bgdailynews.com, he says he finds an email in his in-box from the College Heights Herald already addressing the same story. He says this is especially true with stories involving Western Kentucky University.

    h2: What’s the Harm In Not Doing Web First?

    The big harm in not having a web-first strategy is that we may fall deeper into complacency — and not be prepared for the day when our readers find that they don’t need us anymore. Once our readers discover RSS or even email alerts, there is a risk that they will find replacements for the printed newspaper. They will become their own editors, compiling a list of websites where they can search to get their own news.

    If a certain reader is only interested in national and state news, sports, and obituaries, for example, it would be easy for him to find all that information online without ever visiting bgdailynews.com. In a future online world, we will have to find ways to keep our readers.

    If an entrepreneur sees a crack in our dominance of covering the news, a wedge could be driven in and cause readers to abandon our print edition and our online edition. Currently, we are using the print content and revenue to subsidize our online edition. It’s our R&D for the future, when the day comes that our newspaper has to make that choice between print and web.

    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: newspapers web first

    4 responses to “Does ‘Web First’ Strategy Make Sense for Small Newspapers?”

    1. Alexieff doesn’t have a clue as to what a “web-first strategy” actually is.

    2. “He sees no threat on the horizon because of the capital investment required to launch a site and get a staff in place”


      This quote sums up the mindset of many small newspaper editors, including those in our area. They feel that the threat isn’t real, just a passing fad, once which the paper will outlast.

    3. @Howard Owens: You want to share what you think a “web first” strategy is? Or you just want to take potshots from the corporate suite?

    4. @Steve you are right on… Many newspapers (even big) are afraid to adopt the web-first strategy. It’s hard to figure out why from the outside but I assume it’s a result of many factors including a) fear and resistance to change b) bureaucratic red tape that exists in “old school” institutions c) threat of cannibalization of the print product.

      I think educating both the advertisers (the *real* customer) and the community first would lay a great foundation for the inevitable migration to digital, web based media.

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