EUGENE, OREGON — When publisher Kelly Asay and his business partner Jeff Tunnell, the two co-owners of the Eugene Daily News, launched the site in February 2011, they had no journalism experience. The entrepreneurs and video game developers thought their expertise with the Internet and digital media would help them avoid the difficulties that some print, radio, and television news outlets have struggled with when branching out online.
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“They’ve tried to bring traditional media to digital, which does not work,” says Asay. He adds, “We know how to build teams from thin air and we knew there are a lot of writers here in town who want to be heard.” The site’s core volunteers are local bloggers recruited via Twitter and e-mail; they’ve also placed an ad on Craigslist seeking writers.
Asay is the only full-time staffer–and the only paid employee, for that matter. The writers are all freelancers. “We pay for stories,” he says; the rate varies between $25 and $75 per story. Almost all of the editing, in contrast, is done by volunteers. Among the more than thirty freelance writers and volunteers are six regular editors, one fact checker, and one copywriter.
If a new writer doesn’t have a journalism background, he says, “We put them in the hands of our style and grammar person and some of our journalists.” The informal program consists of giving writers style guidelines to read and study and having them work closely with an editor on their first several stories. The style rules for the site are based “heavily on AP,” says Asay, and copy edited by one of the regular volunteers, a journalism major at the University of Oregon.
Asay says a goal for EDN is to publish one feature, one column, and two to three incidental news stories–which he describes as a news story they find via tip or announcement, not something covered on a regular beat–per day. He admits that it has so far proved difficult to reach that goal. “You’ll notice there’s a lot of wine and a lot of sports at the moment,” he says. He concedes it’s easier to get writers to follow their interests than it is to send them out on hard news stories.
Attracting readers and getting them to return to the site has been a challenge. Currently the site has about 9,000 unique viewers a month, says Asay. (A quick view on Quantcast shows a steady rise in monthly traffic since the February launch.)
Many of the ways EDN builds readership have come through old-fashioned trial and error. Asay noticed that consistent output gets readers returning and many of the site’s readers first check in early in the day. That’s why he makes sure to have aggregated headlines up by 6:00 a.m. local time. A self-described geek, he’s devised seventeen logs to analyze what works and what doesn’t in attracting readers.
“I do writer profiles, story-type profiles, by-tag profiles. I want to know what’s happening with our stuff and how we tailor it to do a better job,” says Asay. For example, he says mobile phone readers are more likely to read a story from start to finish if the story has key sentences and paragraphs in a bold typeface. A flat font means a higher bounce rate.
Asay uses Google Analytics and Quantcast to find most insights into the readership. If he wants to know something outside of Google or Quantcast’s reach, such as data on where EDN is sending traffic or when RSS settings change on the aggregated stories, he writes a specific log that can perform the task.
Asay says when he added daily weather reports from popular local former television meteorologist Tim Chuey, he saw a bump in readership that has held. As a result, Asay is reaching out to more local former television reporters to see whether they’ll contribute.
Story-wise, EDN wants to expand its original reporting operation–which is currently sporadic outside of sports and lifestyle features. Asay says he has several projects in the reporting phase but is looking for an editor or advisor who can help write from information that’s been collected. EDN has published stories on the city’s bicycling expansion plans and will continue to do so as the plans move forward (The site is building a series on cycling).
With the site’s content evolving, Asay has turned his attention to advertising and EDN’s longevity. Before the February launch, Asay and Tunnell bought billboards and spent money on promotion to get the site’s name into the public lexicon. In the past month, Asay has been focusing on advertising to build revenue. He declines to discuss specific revenue figures, but describes the site’s finances as “revenue positive but not in the black yet.” He expects to break even in December and turn a profit by the end of January.
Asay would like to eventually broker advertising content for other site’s in the region, handling both the sales and tech side of ad placement for these sites. As an early step towards this, he’s currently reaching out to local blogs that don’t carry advertising and asking them to run ads promoting EDN in exchange for a link back from EDN to their site.
The first year with EDN has been a challenge, says Asay, but a good one. “It’s fun watching how things change quickly and try to adapt.”
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