Are search engines the friends of weekly and small daily community newspapers? For those that are willing to change with the times, the answer is an unqualified yes! For those that want to keep things the way they are or were, well, the picture probably isn't as good.
Unlike the large regional, national or international daily newspapers who compete even harder now that the news they provide travels around the globe in a fraction of a second, most weekly and small daily community newspapers currently have a strong grip on the local news they provide. There's no one else collecting it at the level of the community newspaper, at least for now and the near term future.
The search engines provide a new form of news "distribution" to a huge market at no cost to content producer by bringing readers to newspaper websites if they contain information the readers are looking for. If you're a large daily providing much of the same news as the other large dailies, this doesn't really help much. In fact, as the large dailies began to put their content on the web, a kind of war developed between the dailies themselves. News now is put on the newspaper websites as soon as possible to beat the competition, large editorial staffs put content online through out the day, and no one can really expect to charge enough for access to web news to cover their costs. Not being an expert on the large daily newspaper websites, I don't know the full story about how web advertising is working out for them. It does seem to be working to some degree but at a high cost at least in terms of the investment required in systems, training and time.
A "unique" advantage for the weeklies
It's a different story for the weeklies and small dailies that have unique content. The fact is the largest search engines remove "duplicate" content from their indexes. All but one copy of a story from the Associated Press on hundreds of newspaper websites are suppressed from "Web" search results and even search engine "News" search results show only a few copies. That doesn't happen to typical community news.
The archive advantage
The model that is prevalent among the large dailies keeps the "current" news updated on a minute to minute basis in some cases and gives away a week or two of the "current" news. Then they charge to access articles older than that. Again, I'm not an expert in large daily newspaper websites and don't really know how much money they get for their archives but no one is bragging about it. I believe this model is a legacy that should be abandoned. The large databases like Lexus/Nexus pay many content providers for their content but their contracts impose the restriction that the general public can't access the content for free in electronic form.
Weeklies don't have any legacy to shackle them to poorly working models. For those of our customer's that want to charge for access to their website, we provide an option that allows them to charge for the "current" news but leaves the archives open. The reasons why this works at least as well as the daily model in terms of percentage of readers of the print edition subscribing to the online edition are:
- It protects the newspaper's print edition's newsstand and subscription sales because readers can't get the "new" news for free on the website. They either have to subscribe to the online and/or print edition, pick the paper up at the newsstand or wait until it's no longer new.
- No or very little traffic is lost when implemented. There is no loss in the value to online advertisers.
The archives are, in fact, the major source of traffic from the search engines for community newspapers that have followed the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Most newspapers come up on the search engines when the name of the newspaper is entered. For our customers, virtually every article is listed in the major search engines. When the name of the mayor or school superintendent is entered, several of their articles usually come up.
If publishers care, they will come
Many community newspapers that have implemented a website on their own and those that use our competitor's ASP systems haven't seemed to do much research into Search Engine Optimization. A major study we did of one of the largest of our competitors found that about 5% of their visitors are directed to their websites by the search engines. About 25% of the visitors to our customer's sites are from search engines. Furthermore, by one measure, only between 10% to 20% of their customer's articles are listed on Google vs. virtually 100% of our customers' articles. I've looked at hundreds of websites implemented by newspaper's themselves and many only have a few articles listed on the search engines.
An analysis of the websites that have poor traffic indicates that they either put very little content online or, in most cases, they have not followed the basic rules of Search Engine Optimization. Do they think it is expensive or is the reason they just don't care? These techniques are not hard or costly to implement. I'd be glad to let any publisher that is doing it themselves know where they stand on the search engines and how they might improve. No charge, just contact me at 315-294-5735 or email me at email@example.com.
Value of search engine traffic
Most of our weekly community newspaper customers have paid circulation that ranges from about 2,000 to 12,000. Our free newspaper customers have larger circulation but serve the same size communities. It turns out that, on average, our customer's websites generate enough revenues to exceed their total costs for their websites from just print and online subscriptions, orders for classified ads taken from the website and revenues from Google AdSense (the best source for third party ads that we've found).
We believe the reason this is true is because of the search engines and the Search Engine Optimization we've done for them. Because people that have an interest in the content our customers generate are constantly finding the paper on the search engines, over time they eventually either click an AdSense ad, take out a subscription or place a classified ad.
By the way, our model encourages the publishers to put all content online because, unlike the ASP model our competitors use, we act as a service bureau and convert our customer's news and ads from the files they use to print the paper to the web. In the ASP model, the papers have to cut and paste their content into the system in most cases. This discourages the amount of content placed online.
Profits from online display ads
The search engines are also helping our customers provide value to their display advertisers by actually indexing the online display ads themselves. Our system and method for handling display ads allows search engine users to find the ads based on the words that appear in the ad. This enhances the traffic to the full size display ads, which already get a click through rate (CTR) of 1.6% from the newspaper website previews that are shown along with the news articles. Typical web banner ads get a 0.5% CTR.
Don't let scare tactics frighten you about the future
Those that point to the search engines saying they are stealing content from newspaper websites and making money on it are way off track. The search engines are helping community newspapers reach new markets. Copyright laws will protect publisher's content, although there may be skirmishes over "fair use" someday between newspapers and search engines. I believe newspapers will lose this battle as I think what most search engines are doing is fair use (but then again, I'm not a lawyer).
Publishers shouldn't leave a content vacuum in the web for issues they cover in their newspapers as someone else may fill it. But do it wisely, there is no reason to panic, just don't ignore the web. Publisher's content production abilities and relationships with local advertisers will allow them to capture and dominate a niche market on the World Wide Web for a long time.
About the author
Stephen Larson is the president and CEO of Our Hometown, Inc, an Internet service that specializes in turnkey websites and revenue solutions for community newspapers. The service provides a balanced approach that minimizes effort and expense required of the newspaper and maximizes reader experience, advertiser value and revenue opportunities.