THE NEWS LAST WEEK that a gang of young men in Siberia reportedly stole four billion Internet passwords and user identifications felt like a personal affront. We’re about to update our website, www.columbiapaper.com, and it suddenly seemed as if we should hold off on the changes until the digital dust settles.
This reaction was emotional rather than technical. We don’t store readers’ personal data, and so far, the online economy hasn’t paused for anything, including cyber-theft. So we’ll proceed with some modest improvements to our site, like making it easier to read us on mobile devices, which are rapidly becoming the primary way people get their news.
The idea is to expand online before Google, Facebook and Amazon merge into a single company that feeds us, walks our virtual dogs and fills out our election ballots. To accomplish that we’ll need to encourage old, inefficient habits, like regularly visiting local news websites when you could be watching corporate sponsored cute kittens.
Over the last 30 days Google tells us that our website had 6,466 “unique visitors” and 25,367 pageviews, not including our Facebook traffic. Compared to sites like The New York Times or Amazon, our traffic amounts to a tiny fraction-of-a-second’s worth of what they receive every day. But in Columbia County with its population of 63,096 people living in 25,906 households (2012 census), the numbers suggest that our website could be reaching as many as a quarter of the households in the county every month. That’s an optimistic assumption, but it underscores the observation that people want information about their community even though the way they get it is changing fast.
Advertisers don’t want just “people,” they yearn for an audience demographic between the ages of 18 and 34. The census says that only about 15% of the county’s population is in that age bracket. But Google reports that over 60% of our online visitors fall into that cherished category. Hard to believe we’re so cool.
To no one’s surprise, we’re really not cool in a way people 18 to 34 years old might define the term (though they probably wouldn’t use it). Our approach is simply to put the contents of the printed newspaper where young people direct their eyeballs. After all, if you’re 18 years old, you were born in 1996. Your parents may have brought a newspaper home now and then, but they also used floppy discs to store computer files. By the time today’s 18-year-olds started kindergarten it was the 21st century and 40 million Americans had already purchased something online.
Newspapers of all types have had an especially difficult time figuring out how to make what we do online and in print pay the bills. Our website, like that of most publications, has display ads near the news stories. But the revenue from those ads amounts to only a fraction of what we derive from ads in print.
Partly that’s because many local advertisers still prefer print advertising, and for good reason, particularly if their customers are generally older than 34. The older people are, the more likely they’ll be to read a newspaper. And trust it.
Trust has always been a part of the survival strategy for news organizations. Readers seldom like everything a newspaper reports, but any newspaper worth reading will have a policy of relying on facts and accurate reporting to tell a story. If we get the facts wrong, we print a correction. With small papers, that’s part of the compact with the community. We live here too.
That may explain some of the difficulty newspapers have had adapting to the online economy. The boundaries of the community haven’t just changed, they have disappeared. Readers search around the globe for their news. But the stories we cover are unique to this physical place.
Both The Columbia Paper and columbiapaper.com have room to grow and strong prospects for doing so. We’ll make changes as we need and can afford them. But for all the attention paid to the web these days, think about this: If you add up the total number of pages in the papers we sell each month, it comes to almost 250,000 monthly “pageviews” of the print edition, 10 times the number website pageviews.
We’ll move ahead with our new web platform over next few weeks. Please bear with us if there are a few glitches. As usual, we welcome feedback. We’re keeping up as best we can with the technology. We trust the content to do the rest.