A small Illinois paper makes its play for a bigger Web audience

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story originally misstated the first name of editor Autumn Phillips.

The digital editor of The Southern Illinoisan, the daily newspaper in Carbondale, a city of 26,000 that sits about an hour from the Kentucky border, was ecstatic. The paper’s website had the “perfect storm” of traffic one recent weekend, Alee Quick told staff in an email roundup, excitedly writing about an “INCREDIBLE Friday” and “wonderful Saturday” when the site broke its goal of 100,000 pageviews on each day.

In fact, on that Friday, May 8, the Southern’s website had more than 250,000 pageviews from nearly 32,000 unique visitors, driven by a multimedia feature looking back at a devastating super derecho in 2009, breaking news about a much-anticipated Illinois Supreme Court ruling overturning a landmark pension law, a story on coal miners getting laid off, and the announcement that Trace Adkins and Colt Ford were headlining at the Du Quoin State Fair later this summer.

In the vast sea of web traffic, of course, that’s still just a speck. The Southern Illinoisan, with a daily print circulation around 21,000 and a staff of 21, had about 2.3 million monthly pageviews as of December. That’s a fraction of what large metropolitan dailies claim (54 million for The Denver Post, 109 million at the Minneapolis Star Tribune), let alone what the true digital giants see.

Still, for the paper, those daily figures are significant—as is the new internal discussion around them.

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At larger newspapers, the debate over how to navigate the transition from print to Web is by now so long-running that even the term “digital-first” can feel outdated. But that is not necessarily the case for the smaller publications that still constitute the majority of America’s newsrooms, or the professional conversation that surrounds them. Lonnie Hinton, president of the Southern Illinois Editorial Association, said most publishers and editors in the region remain focused on print subscribers. “I push my print edition a lot harder than I do the online edition,” said Hinton, editor of the weekly Vienna Times, a 2,000-circulation paper with about 100 digital subscribers. William Freivogel, professor and former director of the journalism school at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, applauds the Southern’s online initiatives but added that in his view, digital media is not central to the continued success of community journalism, which has a different relationship with readers. “It isn’t necessarily helped or hindered by it,” he said.

In that context, the Southern’s focus on building online readership stands out. Though nothing the paper is doing is likely to upend the broader industry discussion about building a digital business model, the moves are notable because they represent a conviction that sustainability depends on substantially growing the online audience, even for local publications.

“My message to the newsroom is simple,” said editor Autumn Phillips, who joined the paper in December from another Lee Enterprises publication, the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. “Pageviews buy us the time and breathing room to do great journalism, and great journalism is our ultimate goal. Not clicks. We don’t get distracted by clicks, but we also want to keep doing what we love. No one gets cynical about creating a slideshow or a top 10 list if it buys us the freedom to write that 200-inch public service investigation.”

Since arriving, Phillips has restructured the staff, converting a reporter position to hire an opinion page editor to strengthen the paper’s voice and moving an editorial assistant to the digital team to help create interactive content. Digital strategies are discussed in meetings, and a site redesign introduced a “scrolling, river-of-news approach,” instead of breaking up content by subject areas on the home page.

The editor has also set some collective targets. Earlier this year, she announced a goal for the staff: Hit 90,000 pageviews on 10 separate days, and she would invite everyone to her house for a barbecue. The staff met the goal in about 2½ weeks; earlier this month, Phillips fired up the grill. She then set a new goal: 10 days with 100,000 pageviews each. The emphasis is on sitewide growth—there are no financial incentives or individual rewards, and reporters don’t get individual reports on their own metrics. (In terms of its paywall strategy, the Southern allows online readers 10 free stories every 30 days. The paper ended the practice of separate subscriptions for print and online in September, part of a chain-wide move at Lee.)

The moves mean that The Southern Illinoisan is setting pageview goals even as larger players in the industry seek out different metrics for online readership. “It’s not all about pageviews, but that’s where we are starting from,” said Quick, the digital editor, who started in October. “It’s a metric that is pretty easy to measure.” She pays attention to unique visitors, time on site, and other analytics, though she doesn’t share them with the entire newsroom.

As it has elsewhere, the focus on growing digital audience has meant new responsibilities for the newsroom. “We are asking more of the staff to keep the web alive,” Quick said. “We’re expecting more from everyone in the newsroom. They also have to manage social media accounts and do two web-onlys a week and videos and interactive. That’s hard.”

Molly Parker, who joined the paper in August primarily to cover courts and crime, said she knows the importance of social media, understands that readers find her stories on the paper’s Facebook page, and does what she can to help promote her work and her colleague’s work.

“We should be thinking every day about the best platforms to tell a story,” she added. “It depends on the content, and on the audience, and on the newsroom resources available. If you’re at a crime scene, it may be quick hits on Twitter and Facebook, followed by a shorter story online, followed by a more in-depth, day-two piece the following day: in print and online.”

But some days, there’s only so much she can do, Parker said. “I’m so busy, and we’re so small that by the time I go home, I’m so exhausted.”

Parker is appreciative, she said, that her editor is trying to rally the newsroom. She went to the barbecue, and heard there might be another cook-out or maybe a trip to see the local minor league baseball team in the plans.

“I want our paper to survive,” she said. “And I’m willing to do or try just about anything to see it happen.”

Quick acknowledged that some of the site’s biggest hits, like lists of fix-uppers and expensive homes in the area, are lighter features. “Some of the most viral things on the internet are fun,” she said. “News outlets have to adapt to that.”

But more substantially reported stories can also be big among online readers, including a May 19 piece by Parker probing the “historic” nature of a drug bust touted by local authorities. “That was huge,” Quick said. “It was a good story, good reporting.” As of June 5, the story had 32,016 pageviews.

In Phillips’ view, the challenge in building a digital audience is also an opportunity to tell a more positive story about the news business.

“Newspapers have done a great job of spreading the word that our industry is dying instead of sharing the message that our audience is growing,” she said. “I see more people come to our site every day, staying longer, and reading more stories.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.