Small Staff Can Make A Big Web Presence

Self photo in bathroom during kid’s tub-time. Kat Powers said that maybe the steam from the hot water would make her have fewer wrinkles.
Self photo in bathroom during kid’s tub-time. Kat Powers said that maybe the steam from the hot water would make her have fewer wrinkles.

Kat Powers rules. First off, she’s got a great name.

Second, she’s got this candor and style that make her instantly likeable.

Third, she’s a very effective weekly newspaper editor in Somerville, MA. And, she has found a way to drive audience to her Web site with a Web first mentality and just 3-1/2 staffers including herself. Check out her site at www.wickedlocal.com/somerville.

When Kat took the hot seat recently as the guest speaker of an SNA Foundation sponsored conference call, over 130 peers from throughout the U.S. and Canada had a chance to interact with her on the topic of how she is managing to publish a darn good weekly and a 24/7 Web site with such a small staff. (An MP3 recording of the 60 minute conference call that featured Kat is yours by clicking here.)

The lessons were many and herewith are some of the key takeaways:

1. Her staff consists of herself (Editor), an Assistant Editor, 1/2 of a crime reporter (shared by sister newspaper), 1/2 of an office manager (also shared) and a 15 hour per week sports reporter. Every single one of these folks shoot videos, take photos, write like the wind and “put stuff online.”

2. Everyone can log on at home and everyone is armed with a camera. So, if they stumble upon something noteworthy — they can shoot it and log on remotely to post.

3. COMPETITIVE SPIRIT RULES. Her paper is a 6,500 circulation paid weekly in Somerville, MA — a community of about 80,000 just north of Boston. They compete with the “big guys” in Boston, other local papers and local bloggers (who also are armed with camera and video). They see themselves as there to beat the Boston Globe. “If Boston.com (the Globe’s site) has something posted 15 seconds before us, shame on us because we’re probably physically closer to the story than they are,” says Powers.

4. She started Web work with “weekly dump” of print content. Began evolution to more dynamic content with blogging. Kat was solo blogger at the beginning. “learned on the fly…I posted once a day…slow to pick up steam” but it eventually did. Began getting feedback, comments.

5. Initially wondered if she should break news on the Web site. Slowly, after breaking one or two stories on their site, they caught the competitive fever. Realized they could attract audience to site and follow up in print as they deem fit.

6. Obits now get posted as soon as they get them. Can now give notice of funeral arrangements instead of past tense reporting. Rewrite and still include in print.

7. In the beginning stages when she didn’t have a clue how to use a video camera, she adopted the mindset that learning how to use software and camera equipment was personal development. Stopped thinking ‘I don’t have time for this stuff’. Used personal time to learn how to use ‘this stuff’ and having this attitude helped her learn. Also, credits wonderful industry where she’s surrounded by a lot of digital natives that she can learn from. “I can teach them how to frame a photo and how to use a tripod” and “they can teach me what the abbreviations in texting are and what’s acceptable on MySpace,” says Powers.

8. Uses YouTube to post videos to her Web site. Load video to YouTube (for free) and then paste their ‘embed code’ into her Web site.

9. Work hours flex. Knowing that people have different peak performance times, she goes with their flow instead of forcing some outdated 9-5 schedule on them. She doesn’t expect someone who works well at night to be in the office at 8am.

10. Has a ton of user generated copy. “I would be nothing without these folks.” Used user-submitted photo as a page one shot recently. There are plenty of local experts on different topics — why not use them, as long as you state their bias. Solicit content in different ways — work the phones, send specific e-mails, post photos on line and ask for other submissions, etc.

11. Goal is to update site from 6am to 10pm, 5 days a week. “Most humans are going to be awake” during these hours. Sees huge spike in traffic around 8am, another around Noon, another around 4:30. “I want to be sure I have fresh content for these times.” Pushes to have a good feature story for the weekend.

12. Staff buy in? Get some buzz going. Just start posting and before you know it you start to get some feedback and that is motivating. Not everyone will buy in — a little coaxing goes a long way.

13. Did she offer training as they began their transition to a Web first approach? “I didn’t know what I needed them to be.” A lot of experimentation was the general training tactic. If your first video is “craptacular” then maybe the next one will be less crappy. “It’s OK to fail.”

14. One staffer said the new approach “isn’t working for me” — be honest. She offered a good reference for him on his next job.

15. “I make everyone teach me what they’re learning.”

16. Depart traditional reporting ? Yes, we did have to rethink how we do things. For instance, they still cover town meetings but now the reporter is live blogging from the meeting — “makes it much more interesting.” Readily admits that she’s willing to forgo some things, i.e. “we’re not getting anything out of the school committee and it’s already covered on local cable access so we skip it.”

17. Training for blogging? Is self-editing an issue? Kat would watch from home and edit remotely. Found the experience of live blogging from meetings to be exhilarating because readers would live-comment and suggest questions for the reporter to ask. Then, take the best of posts and edit into story for paper.

18. Managing work week? How do you balance covering something for the Web vs. depth & analysis for print? “As a reporter myself, I remember there was a lot of messing around time when covering meetings,” says Powers. “Now that time is spent writing. Need to have people rethink how they’re gonna be working.”

19. Guiding Web first philosophy — post a story online if you have three true sentences. “There is a fire on Main Street. The fire company has responded. The fire is under control.” Post it. Follow up with deeper story a few hours later when you have it. Morph this into more in-depth for paper if appropriate.

20. If you focus so much on Web first, will that hurt the paper’s readership? Where does newspaper fit in? The Web site would be nothing without paper behind it. “Paper gives us legitimacy.” Must have interesting stories in paper. With declining ad pages, there’s smaller news hole so online component gives them the outlet for lots of great stories, pics, videos. “I firmly believe that people who read newspapers will continue to read newspapers. We’ve found that people comment on our Web site but still subscribe.”

21. Having immediacy of online posting has helped with copy flow. What used to come in all at once for the weekly deadline now comes to her over the course of the week.

22. Do you staff on weekends? “Yes, usually me.” Sometimes rely on freelancers. Have to juggle. Sometimes you assign a staffer and say’ don’t come in on Monday because I want you to cover this event on Sunday.’

23. A year ago a local school fire broke out on the weekend. They posted a brief news report and some photos on that Sunday. Almost immediately, students were leaving comments with lots of questions. This forced officials to respond in real time instead of guarded comments in press conference 3 days later. The whole experience opened eyes about the power of their Web site as a community gathering place.

24. On changing mindset in newsroom, any tips? Two things — look for heroes. Anybody who shows an interest — set up a blog for him and give him some equipment. #2. Editor can’t put everything on line by themselves — get everyone involved.

25. What blog topics are most popular? Blogs are for the offbeat, personal, how I see things. What usually gets the most is when I’m writing about me — “like hey, I’m finally off deadline and I’m gonna write a haiku about today’s news stories.” A big amount of hits recently came from a toe job… “I slipped out of the office for a pedicure and posted pics of my feet online. Got lots of comments.”

26. Comment monitoring? Blog commentors often police each other and report to her if there’s something that isn’t right. “Just take them down if comments go too far.” Require registration. Be willing to ban people who abuse the privilege of commenting. ” Am banning my first person today in fact.” Look for news tips in comment. “You can always get some great news tips out of comments if you keep your eye on them.”

27. View Web as compliment not a replacement to the newspaper.


Need some inspiration for developing your Web site? Take the self guided, free e-learning course entitled Build & Engage Local Audiences Online.

The course was developed by the Poynter Institutes’s NewsU in conjunction with the SNA Foundation, thanks to a grant from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation. Built by community newspaper journalists for community newspaper journalists, the course is on point and already boasts over 1,000 students since its launch in August 2008.