By Gary Sosniecki
Every Friday night during the school year, the visits to our weekly newspaper’s Web site would spike between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.
The kids at our local high school were getting home from their post-game trips to Dairy Queen or Pizza Hut, they were booting up their computers, and they were checking our Web site to see whose picture we had posted on the home page.
Like thousands of other small-town weekly-newspaper editors and publishers, my wife and I spent every Friday night covering the sport of the season at our high school.
In the fall, we were on the sidelines of the football field. In winter, I was in the bleachers keeping score of the basketball game while my wife was courtside shooting photos.
We returned to our office after every game to download and back up our photos. We picked the best photos, then decided which would go on the Web site and which would be saved for the next week’s newspaper.
Then I’d write a cutline describing the action and a two- or three-paragraph story summarizing the game. The last sentence of every story read: “For a full report, see Wednesday’s Vandalia Leader.”
I posted the photo and story, and we went home.
In the morning, I would check our Web stats. It never ceased to amaze me how much traffic came to our Web site late on a Friday night – after I posted a photo and story from the game.
My stats didn’t tell me this, but my gut feeling was that most of that late-night traffic came from the kids who had been to the game, and, in a small community, that’s just about every kid in town. By posting a photo and short story from the big event of their weekend, our newspaper – through its Web site – was connecting with the kids.
My wife and I also spent a lot of time at the school taking photos that didn’t involve sports. Concerts, awards ceremonies, spelling bees, FFA banquets, classroom projects – we didn’t miss very much. Usually we came back with more nice shots than we could use in the newspaper. One of those pictures would go online with a cutline reminding the reader to see a full report, or more pictures, in our next print edition.
Those non-sports pictures, online as well as in print, also helped our newspaper connect with the kids in town.
Last year, we added video to our Web site in time for the start of school. The closest we had to a video camera was a 4-year-old Canon PowerShot G3, our backup news camera, which had a video function.
I took two cameras to football games, our Canon EOS Digital Rebel for still shots, and the old PowerShot for video. My plan was to shoot four video clips at each game: one series of downs (our team on offense) in each half, the pep band performing one number at halftime and the cheerleaders performing one cheer. If I was lucky enough to be shooting video for a touchdown, even better.
By the second week, I was setting the scene verbally at the start of the clips: “Van-Far ball, first down on the North Callaway 35, 3:38 to go in the first quarter, North Callaway leading 7-0.” Al Michaels had nothing to worry about, but it worked.
We didn’t know how to edit video, so I posted the clips raw. And they were an instant hit, driving even more future readers traffic to our Web site. My gut again told me that young people were responsible for much of that traffic.
(We used video for non-school news, too, including shooting clips of a street being paved. You almost could smell the hot asphalt! With video, we began the first stage of competing directly with TV. When our customers viewed our videos the perception of our overall product changed.)
Expanding coverage of school events on our Web site enabled us to turn our hoped-for future readers into today’s readers.
If young people indeed are turning to the Internet for the news that’s important to them, it doesn’t take much effort for a small newspaper to provide some of that news to them.
Gary Sosniecki is a regional sales manager for Townnews.com specializing in weekly newspapers. He has owned three weekly newspapers and published a small daily in Missouri during a 34-year newspaper career. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.