As Gene Simmons arrived at the Sarasota Film Festival in April, Sarasota Herald-Tribune staffers were on the scene filing online reports, including a video podcast of the KISS bassist sans face paint. The video of Simmons became one of the most popular features on the newspaper's Web site that week-and an example of how important Web sites are becoming to the print media.
Throughout the region, media companies are investing resources to do more online than just recycle stories from the day's paper or broadcast. They're adding video to accompany stories; updating weather reports by the second; offering opportunities for "citizen journalism," in which readers or viewers can comment on stories, contribute to blogs and submit photos; and customizing content.
"We watch to see what's popular on the site and we use that information to build a site that readers really want," says Conan Gallaty, director of online operations and strategy for the Herald-Tribune. Breaking news and daily news coverage are still essential, but the sites provide more features to attract viewers, whether they're logging on from their condo in Southwest Florida, their home in Ohio or a hotel room somewhere around the world.
Such efforts are essential. Nationally, news audiences in the TV and print world are declining (newspapers readership is down from 58 percent in 1994 to 42 percent in 2004; for TV news, the number declined from 77 percent in 1993 to 59 percent in 2004, according to The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press), while online news consumers are rapidly increasing (from 23 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2004).
Recent research by New York-based Scarborough Research confirms that newspaper sites are contributing significant numbers of readers who do not necessarily read the print editions, with the happy result of larger audiences overall. The "online-exclusive" audiences of the newspapers accounted for anywhere from 2 percent to 10 percent of their total audience, representing hundreds of thousands of additional readers for many papers in larger markets. The study examined papers in the top 25 markets in the country, including Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Papers are using their print editions to drive people to their sites and vice versa, says Gary Meo, senior vice president for print and Internet services at Scarborough, which compiles newspaper audience ratings and consumer behavior information. Newspapers are employing podcasts, citizen journalism, blogs and online letters to the editor in an effort to get readers more involved with the paper. "Part of that is also because advertisers like media where people are engaged with the content," Meo says.
In markets like Sarasota, viewers may not go to local sites for national or international news, but for community coverage and information about the arts, movies and dining. "The smaller market papers are really focusing on local, local, and that's really their value," Meo says.
The Herald-Tribune's site averages roughly 3 million to 4 million page views and roughly 300,000 unique visitors a month. The figures grow by 10 percent to 20 percent a year, and advertising revenue has increased by double digits, according to Gallaty, who could not provide specific revenue numbers. The site has a staff of 13 and also serves as the site for its broadcast station, SNN 6. At times, they share content with TBO.com, which serves as the portal for the Tampa Tribune and Channel 8 WFLA in Tampa and has a staff of 42.
The Herald-Tribune's site generates the most traffic from 9 to 5 p.m. on weekdays, when people are at work and have access to a computer, and the company has aggressive plans to offer more to local employers and employees. One new feature will be a recruitment tool that asks job seekers a number of questions based on the industry. The service will create a usable system for local employers to get a candidate who actually knows the industry, Gallaty says.
Gallaty admits the Herald-Tribune is focusing on doing a better job providing specific community coverage, especially in fast-growing areas like Lakewood Ranch, where they battle Bradenton's The Herald for readers. "We can't just build a Sarasota Web site and expect Lakewood Ranch residents to visit it."
To make content as personal as possible, Herald-Tribune users can register and choose to have types of stories about certain topics, like real estate, geographical areas and advertising e-mailed to them. As they log on, those content areas will be more prominent. "You don't see ads for things you have no use for," Gallaty says. "It becomes your Web site."
The Herald's online site, HeraldToday.com, saw 1.7 million visitors in March 2006 alone. Traffic has increased by 90 percent each year for the past three years, says Joan Krauter, executive editor and vice president of The Herald, a Knight Ridder (soon to be McClatchy) paper based in Bradenton. Online classified sales have been growing 85 percent a year, and the newspaper just hired its first dedicated online sales person, says Caryn Manning, vice president of advertising. Ads are now sold in bundles, with clients placing some of their money in print, some online, and some in the paper's specialty publications.
With a goal of being the "leading source of local online news," Krauter says the newsroom is going to 24/7 news reporting, and staff writers are no longer looking at themselves as simply newspaper reporters. "Everyone in the newsroom has an online goal for 2006-breaking news items to strive for and unique content, such as photos, videos and documents that can be scanned and placed on the site." Such coverage changes the pace of the day for newspapers, as reporters and editors have to think about providing information throughout the day, rather than just filing a story at 7 p.m.
"In some ways it's invigorating, and in many ways it's daunting," Krauter says.
The Sun-Herald chain of Gondolier newspapers, which has sites for its newspapers in Port Charlotte, Venice, North Port, Englewood and DeSoto County, draws a total of about 15,000 different visitors a day. Online editor Scott Corwin, the only online staffer, says that number has consistently increased over the last five years.
Corwin says the biggest traffic generators are obituaries, community news and stories dealing with crime or natural disasters. "Our focus is strictly local stories that are written by our staff writers," he says.
The Gondolier's print editions come out three times a week, so the site is updated on publication days. Sites for the other Sun-Herald editions are updated daily as well as when news breaks. The sites also have Internet-only features, such as a weekly readers' poll and blogs.
Corwin says the sites allow readers to stay connected when they return to their homes up North. The site "certainly hasn't been a detriment" to print circulation, he says. "It hasn't cannibalized our subscribers at all."
A decade ago, everyone was just hoping that the Web site would pay for itself, says Kay Miller, news director for WWSB-TV, the local ABC affiliate. WWSB started out small, with just one online staffer, and was able to break even immediately. Although the site is still overseen by a skeleton staff of two, it's now profitable. "For years, the mindset used to be, 'We'll throw you on the Web site,' when it came to placing advertising online," says Miller. "Now I think we can sell the Web site separately. It's more than just a bonus. It's a separate entity that's an inexpensive way for an advertiser to get a lot of eyeballs."
Doppler radar, views from Web cams positioned atop local buildings, video reports and recipes draw the largest number of page views on WWSB's site. During severe weather season, hits jump up 400 percent a day as viewers look for real-time pictures of the scene in Southwest Florida. This fall, the station plans to launch a redesign that will add more weather maps and video.
People want to watch news on their own schedule, Miller says. "If they hear something has happened, they want instant pictures, they want instant gratification," she says. "What has driven that is certainly cable news. Whether it's a plane crash or celebrity sighting, people want to go online and see the images immediately. We have gotten so used to doing that."
Video takes up a lot of space, she notes, and it's key to find a company that can provide enough storage space for the site to provide videos from the day as well as archived reports. "It's much more complex than just putting video on the Web site," Miller says.