I read in my old weekly newspaper last week that the school board is talking to the owner of the town’s only computer store about designing a new Web site for the school.
What really got my attention was that he’s talking about including photo galleries and news feeds on the site.
“I would like to see the district do as much as possible with the Web site,” the designer told the school board.
Even though my wife and I sold that town’s newspaper, news that the school is discussing a major upgrade to its Web site was chilling.
Our old school district is talking about going into competition with our old newspaper. The next thing you know, the designer will recommend selling advertising for the Web site to pay his fees.
Fortunately, my old newspaper has a Web site, not the same one my wife and I had, but a good Web site nonetheless. My old newspaper has a four-year head start on whatever new Web site the school produces. Before I left town, our newspaper’s Web site averaged nearly 500 readers a day in a town of 2,400 and generated a profit comparable to two extra grocery inserts. If the school accepts the designer’s proposal, the newspaper could gain a new competitor, but it won’t lose its franchise as the community’s No. 1 source of news and advertising.
But what if this happened in a town where the newspaper doesn’t have a Web site?
Hundreds of small U.S. newspapers - maybe more than 1,000 - still don’t have Web sites. And they run the risk of someone beating them to the punch in their own towns, someone who could compete with the newspaper for news and advertising.
I have a publisher friend who woke up one morning to discover that a disgruntled ex-employee had started a news-and-information Web site in her town. My publisher friend was vulnerable because she didn’t have a Web site yet.
I have another publisher friend who just found out that a new resident of that town is starting a news-and-information Web site with the support of a prominent person in the business district. This publisher friend, who doesn’t have a Web site yet, also is vulnerable.
The Chamber of Commerce in my old town has begun sending a photographer to community events and posting them to photo galleries on the chamber’s Web site, just like the photo galleries we had on our Web site. That’s competition for the newspaper.
Have you looked at radio-station Web sites lately? Some of them, even in small towns, do a good job of mimicking newspaper Web sites, including newspaper-like photographs of local events as well as daily updates of news, sports and obituaries. The ads look just like the ads on newspaper Web sites, which means those ad dollars are not going to the newspaper.
I hate to admit that we were slow in getting our Web site up after my wife and I bought our last newspaper. There was so much to do, a Web site kept getting pushed down our “to-do” list.
The wake-up call came when our city government began talking about giving away free business links on the city Web site. That would have made it more difficult for us to sell ads on our Web site. We announced plans for our site in a hurry, and the city, fortunately, dropped its proposal.
The fact is that anyone can start a Web site these days for a few hundred bucks, and those newspapers procrastinating about the Internet need to get their own sites up before someone else does, be it a radio station, a chamber of commerce, a tourism group, a high-school journalism class, the computer whiz down the street or some guy you’ve ticked off with a news story.
Your newspaper owns the franchise for news and advertising in your community and probably has done so for 100-150 years. To protect that franchise, you need to provide that news and advertising to consumers by whatever means they want it. And a growing number, especially young consumers, want it on the Web.
You can make money from it, too. But that’s a subject for another day.