September 12, 2008
New Columbian.Com Boosts Online Offerings
By COURTNEY SHERWOOD
includes more powerful interactive features.
By clicking "Real Estate,"
visitors can now create interactive maps showing homes for sale, open houses and foreclosures across Clark County.
The Columbian has overhauled its Web site and invested $800,000 in technology online and in the newsroom as part of a companywide effort to better respond to the challenges roiling the newspaper industry.
Initial changes to columbian.com bring a new look to mostly familiar content. But the redesign will eventually allow the newspaper to significantly expand its online offerings, enabling The Columbian to differentiate its print and Web-based products.
"The old Web site was great in its day, but we had to put more of our resources into maintenance than development," said Scott Campbell, Columbian publisher. "The new version of columbian.com is much more powerful and has the potential to offer much more interactive content."
Already, a handful of new features have been added to columbian.com:
An interactive map in the "Real Estate" section of the site allows visitors to look at foreclosures, homes for sale and open houses by neighborhood.
A section keyed to commuters includes gasoline price maps, the view from traffic cameras on major roads and traffic alert updates.
A wider range of Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, feeds will allow advanced Web surfers to better track updates to columbian.com.
"Print has always been a static form of information," said Lou Brancaccio, The Columbian's editor. "The Web brings immediacy, video, sound, and search and sorting abilities. This new Web site is extremely powerful. And there will be much more to come."
"With columbian.com, we'll really be asking ourselves what the people of Clark County want out of a Web site," said Jeff Bunch, Web editor. "Part of what they want is news, but there is a lot of other content we can present."
For example, a partnership with Vancouver-based MapWith.Us will eventually allow Web users to view the latest stories through a map of their neighborhood, Bunch said.
Visitors will also eventually be able to submit their own original photos and stories to the site. Comments will be allowed on stories, but with limits that hold people accountable for what they say online.
Before The Columbian rolls out more ambitious online offerings, however, there is still behind-the-scenes work to complete.
"As with any brand new product, we have found problems that we didn't know would be problems," Bunch said.
For example, blogs at the new columbian.com initially could not accept reader comments, typically a hallmark of blogging.
Some regulars of columbiantalk.com, the forum that has been taken offline, are disappointed that their Web hangout is gone.
"We are working to fix any glitches we find," Bunch said. "There will always be some people with complaints, but the majority of the people we have heard from appreciate the changes we have made."
Built with a content management system designed specifically for newspapers by Florida-based Saxotech, the new columbian.com is part of an $800,000 technology investment by The Columbian, Campbell said.
The Web component of that overhaul cost about $240,000. Other upgrades to newsroom technology will streamline production of the print newspaper, said John Hill, Columbian business analyst.
The Columbian's online overhaul comes as a financially struggling newspaper industry increasingly turns to the Web in search of revenue.
Subscriptions and advertising revenue at print newspapers across the country have been in decline for more than a decade, and the financial erosion has accelerated since the start of this year.
The Columbian does not release its financial data. Among those newspapers that do release their figures, revenue fell 9.4 percent in 2007, according to Alan D. Mutter, former newspaper employee and managing partner of Tapit Partners.
By most accounts, 2008 has been worse, leading to more than 10,000 layoffs and employee buyouts since Jan. 1, according to a tally kept by Missouri-based journalist Erika Smith. The Columbian eliminated 50 jobs this year through layoffs and early retirement offers, leaving 280 people on staff.
Advertising dollars provide the bulk of newspaper revenues, and advertisers are turning away from many traditional media - including newspapers, magazines and network television.
"Advertising has become diffused," said Dean Abbott, The Columbian's director of online sales. "That means revenues have been cut, but it also means we have opportunities to provide niche- oriented ads."
As a result of the Web overhaul, columbian.com advertisers can control who sees their ads, when the ads are displayed, and how many individual Web readers see each advertisement.
"J.C. Penney is opening a new store, and they wanted to advertise just to certain readers on certain days," Abbott said, giving one example. "The new site gives us the flexibility to allow that. The ad appears on the Lifestyles page, not elsewhere on the site, and only on the days they designate."
Some improvements to The Columbian's advertising offerings had already been made before the full overhaul of columbian.com, and for the past six months the newspaper has seen measurable gains in revenue from online ad sales, Abbott said.
But online ad dollars have not yet come close to making up for print revenue losses. Print still generates the bulk of revenue at nearly every newspaper in the U.S.
"The Web is an extremely important part of the future for any information business," Campbell said. "But advertisers are just beginning to appreciate its value. Two things have to develop hand in hand here, our online audience and advertising."
In the Vancouver-Portland area, The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, The Portland Mercury and the Portland Business Journal have all overhauled their Web sites this year.
Campbell envisions a future when the print and online editions of The Columbian may offer distinct but complementary content.
"Online is where you go for breaking news, for interactive features, or when you're looking for something specific," he said. "Print could become a more focused leisure read, where you go for depth."
This print and online partnership could be the future for many newspapers, but the idea has still not been fully tested in the marketplace.
And until the economy improves it may be hard to assess how well the overhaul to columbian.com is able to contribute to The Columbian's bottom line.
"A lot of the business fundamentals have not been figured out on the Web," Campbell said. "In this economic climate, many advertisers are being cautious. It's going to take some time."
Courtney Sherwood: 360-735-4553; firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published by COURTNEY SHERWOOD Columbian staff writer.
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