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Local Interactive Strategies

Taking stock

Well, today (April 30) is my last day at MaineToday. To be honest, Dan Dinsmore has been running the show since March 3, and I’ve been just helping in the background. But today I turn in my badge.

I’ve been thinking of what to write here on this day. It occurs to me that the best thing I can do is record for posterity the cool things that the people at MaineToday did over the years, things that are fairly common now but at the time were “out there.” We didn’t intend to be “out there” — they just seemed like the right things to do. I’m happy to say that MaineToday is still, and will continue to be, out there. So consider this simply taking stock up till now.

I’m not going to attach individuals’ names to these things, because if you know my “circle of life” drawing, you know that we’re all in it together. On the other hand, comments are open on this blog, and I hope current and former MTers will feel free to take or give credit, or to add items I forgot about.

This is going to sound like bragging, but it’s not. I’m the longest-serving person here, so I feel an obligation to write this down before it’s all forgotten.

So here goes.

It starts with the whole idea of (what later became called) MaineToday.com in 1995, which really was a couple of questions: “What does this community need? and What could a website be if it had the assets of a newspaper to start with?” Those assets being, for example: a wide range of content, superb photography, connections to the community, an existing wide readership, a broad advertiser base, creative people, and more. The answer was a site that started with some newspaper content, but aimed beyond. In 1995, and well into the next century, most newspaper companies focused on getting better at “putting the newspaper online.” The folks at MaineToday.com did that, but mostly focused on what else people might want or need. We didn’t invent anything unique (that I’m aware of) but we often tried to find examples to work from, and instead found ourselves making it up as we went. Some examples:

  • What now are called “citizen media” and blogs: We started a niche site in 1995 called “BayNet” later renamed “Casco Bay Online” that was almost entirely content contributed by ordinary people. My favorite piece was “A Day on The Bay,” a brief item written by various captains on the Casco Bay island ferries, capturing some event or observation of that day. He’d write it on paper, fax it over to us, and someone would type it onto the site every day. I’ll never forget the item describing a clear sunset, and in the distance, a deer swimming toward the mainland. That kind of outreach became standard across the MaineToday network, whether in Business, Sports, reader comments on news, and of course it’s now common on sites around the country.
  • Multimedia, video, audio: We had a lot of fun trying out different types of media early on. In Casco Bay Online, we had video of Portland Head Light from the air, underwater fish in the Gulf of Maine, and historic footage of a boat race. Elsewhere, I recall a story about a gospel singer, written for the Maine Sunday Telegram in 1997, and the reporter had the foresight to take a tape recorder. The resulting package showed me a new way of storytelling.
  • Ad formats: It’s almost funny to say now, but early on, it was controversial to put ads on web pages, as an offense to the “web community.” But we experimented anyway, and first came up with a “tile” ad, the dimensions of which I believe we copied from the Houston Chronicle site. (Those units are all standardized now) Before long, we came up with “web margins” which everyone now calls skyscrapers, and discovered the power of a large space to tell an ad story. One very cool tool was a way for an advertiser to update the text of their ad easily and immediately, from a form on a web page. That was a breakthrough.
  • High School Sports: The idea of capturing results from every game, in every sport, with every player, at every high school in Maine, was pretty outrageous. But we gave it a shot in 1999, and it became one of the biggest traffic drivers on the site. The system is still in use today, and now powers both the printed newspapers and the websites.
  • Events calendars: OK, this one we invented. Newspapers run events calendars for their communities, and they’ve always been simply long strips of text, both in the way they are input, how they are saved in the publishing system, and how they are output for print. Which didn’t work very well online. We had the crazy idea of capturing the events in a structured database — as they were input — so they’d be easily searchable and sortable online, but also easier to edit and output for print. In 1996 there was no such thing, so we built it. The system is still in use today to produce the calendars for the printed Press Herald, as well as the online searchable calendars.
  • Low-cost ad programs: There’s always been a challenge meeting the needs of small advertisers, those who can’t afford and don’t need a skyscraper. Hey, we developed microsites, a yellow-pages product, ecommerce, real-estate agent pages, text ads, who knows what else. All gone now, but not without a good try. The good news is all that learning is informing the next generation of products like the new MaineYellowPages.com.
  • Classified “verticals”: This was radical at the time, but in 1998 we split the online “classifieds” into four sections for autos, homes, jobs, and “other stuff.” It immediately became clear that this approach spoke more clearly to both consumers and advertisers, and allowed us to develop content and technology to serve each category’s unique needs. This didn’t solve the real problems in these challenging categories, of course, but simply acknowledging them as unique categories was an important first step.

I’m going to stop at that and let others add more in the comments below. Or maybe I’ll think of more and add some.  I tend not to look back much, so I probably forgot something.

I said I wouldn’t attach names, but I’m going to mention three anyway, who deserve recognition and my personal thanks:

Jim Shaffer was CEO of Guy Gannett Communications, a traditional media company with newspapers and TV stations, when he had the vision in 1994 to start trying to figure out what was coming, and how to respond. Few in his position even suspected something was coming, let alone dedicating resources to try figuring it out. Jim’s leadership led to the creation of the “skunkworks” division that became MaineToday.com, and it would not have happened otherwise.

Lou Ureneck was executive editor of the Portland Press Herald, where I was city editor at the time, when in 1995 he decided the newsroom needed to get involved in the initiative that Jim Shaffer had set in motion. Things were already in motion, and let’s just say it was a bumpy transition. But the direction would have been much different had Lou not injected the newsroom — and me along with it — into the mix.

Chuck Cochrane took over as CEO when the Seattle Times Company bought Guy Gannett in 1998 and created Blethen Maine Newspapers. Chuck was new in town, and didn’t know me except by reputation. It took a big leap of faith to put the title of “president” on a guy who had no real business background, and I can only hope Chuck hasn’t regretted that decision.

Lots of other people deserve my thanks, all the current and former employees of MaineToday and Blethen Maine Newspapers that I’ve worked with — hundreds probably, if you include all my peers around the country who I’ve leaned on and learned from other the years. If you’re one of those, thank you.

April 30, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Can this model be saved?

My friend Steve Outing is part of a new initiative called Reinventing Classifieds, which aims to “revive newspaper classifieds by finding a new business model that’s relevant in the Internet age.” Sounds like a noble cause, and it has some new technology behind it, and we can always use some new thinking, so it’s worth checking out.

Steve’s kickoff blog post is titled “Can newspaper classifieds really be saved?” — which sure sounds like a dare to me, so here goes.

“Classifieds” is one of those funny words that we all understand to mean a whole lot of things. It’s like a big tangle of string, and you can’t tell where it starts or ends, or how many pieces are really in there.

Is it somebody selling their couch, like in the local Penny Saver?  or on Craigslist? Is it a car dealer who buys a full-page newspaper ad because his competitor did, and he can’t risk being second fiddle? Is it a real-estate agent buying a newspaper ad because the seller demands it? Is it a hospital offering a bounty to employees who recruit a new nurse? Is it cars.com? Is it eBay?

I don’t know, but all those behaviors and products and technologies are wound up in that tangle of string, and only a few of us call that tangle “classifieds.”

Allow me to reach in and tug at a thread. Hospitals are having a horrible time hiring enough doctors and nurses. What are some possible solutions, and how many of those solutions can the newspaper help with? Can the newspaper really make much of a difference by making their “classifieds” the best they can possibly be, in print, online, on mobile? Probably not: those solutions will only reach the nurses and doctors who are in the market for a new job, and that’s not the problem. OK, so what is the newspaper able and willing to help with? This is where creative folks need to get involved, climb outside the box that says “classifieds,” talk to the hospital about what works and what doesn’t, and invent some solutions. I expect the ideas would push a lot of boundaries, and some would pose ethical issues. Sadly, many wouldn’t fly because of newspaper cultural issues, not ethics.

All of which is a long way around to Steve’s question “Can newspaper classifieds really be saved?” My fear is that by defining the challenge as “saving classifieds” rather than “figuring out how to help employers/realtors/auto dealers solve problems” we could be missing opportunities to redefine newspapers’ role of bringing people together to do business.

Which is what we used to call “classifieds.”

April 23, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

   

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