http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2008/09/26/the-weekly-express-and-the-future-of-local-journalism


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 26, 2008

The Weekly, 'Express' and the future of local journalism

by Bill Johnson

Hardly a day passes when someone doesn't ask me about the future of newspapers, and about how the Weekly is doing in the midst of the upheaval going on in our industry.

With our implementation of two big changes this week, it seemed like a good opportunity to address some of these questions.

Thankfully, the Weekly has been profitable and financially stable for 27 consecutive years, an achievement of which we are very proud. Last year was the second best year in our history, but only because we took steps to reduce costs in the face of increasing evidence of a growing local business slump in addition to unprecedented increases in the cost of newsprint.

The state of the economy is affecting all media, as many advertisers cut ad spending to reduce their expenses. While counter to sound economic theory, which argues for increasing advertising in a slow economy, many businesses simply don't have the money. They are hunkering down just to survive, and newspapers, magazines and other publications dependent on advertising are all feeling the impact.

One need look no further than the San Jose Mercury News to witness what is happening throughout the country to previously healthy and robust daily newspapers.

But we've been through economic downturns before and that isn't what is really threatening the future of newspapers.

The real threat is in failing to understand and respond to the changing way people are getting their news and information.

I have vowed not to let that happen at the Weekly or the five other newspapers we publish throughout the Bay Area.

We have been acutely aware of these trends and for several years have been pouring resources into turning our newspaper company into a true multimedia organization. Those efforts are paying off, as our online visitors and advertising are steadily growing and we are generating significant profits from this portion of our business.

This week, just as we get ready to begin our 30th year, we are making two important changes that we believe respond to the needs of our readers and advertisers and that will continue us on a path toward a new model for successful community journalism.

First, as we announced more than a month ago, we are combining our two editions into a single weekly edition — just as we were until 1993 when we added a second edition after the closure of the Peninsula Times Tribune.

Second, on Monday, we launched "Express," a daily electronic edition that is being distributed by e-mail every morning to more than 10,000 local residents and business owners.

These two initiatives, along with the many innovations we have launched on our website, Palo Alto Online, reflect the fact that residents of our community are getting their news and information in vastly different ways than they did even 10 years ago.

Marketing studies that we conducted last year show that while residents over age 45 continue to rely on the print version of the Weekly more than any other source for local news and information, a majority of those under 45 were regular visitors to Palo Alto Online and preferred getting their news online. The younger the respondent the stronger the preference for online over print.

Our web statistics bear this out. We've had enormous increases in visitors and page views on Palo Alto Online over the last few years, with monthly unique visitors now exceeding 120,000, a phenomenal number considering the population of the Palo Alto area.

Last year's marketing study, conducted of random local households, also provided valuable guidance about how Palo Alto residents view printed newspapers.

While our print readership has held steady (73 percent of area households describe themselves as regular readers of the Weekly, more than double the San Jose Mercury News and three times the Daily News) residents also say they are busy and are looking for ways to get their local news and advertising more efficiently and with less environmental impact.

When asked directly if they would prefer receiving the Palo Alto Weekly twice a week, three times a week or once a week, a clear majority preferred once a week, as long as Palo Alto Online provided dependable daily news coverage.

So the changes we are implementing this week stem directly from community input.

With the launch of Express, we will provide residents with a quick-read daily e-mail digest of local news, sports scores and our editors' "hot picks" for local events coming up.

Express includes links to full stories and other information on Palo Alto Online, where residents can find up-to-the-minute news, our Town Square forums, our sports, real estate and Fogster classified websites, restaurant and movie information and much more whenever they want.

And the new combined edition of the Weekly will continue to provide thoughtful, in-depth and analytical coverage of community issues.

Local newspapers all over the country are trying to design answers to these trends, but as with so many other things, being in the heart of Silicon Valley we are at the forefront of change and without many guideposts.

We will undoubtedly make a few stumbles as we continue our journey toward creating new ways for residents to stay informed and engage each other, and for businesses to connect with their prospective customers. I know you will let us know when you disagree or feel we are off track — after all, this is Palo Alto.

There hasn't been a more exciting (or challenging) time to be in the media business, and we are looking forward to crafting a community publishing model that lives up to or exceeds your expectations.

Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson can be e-mailed at bjohnson@paweekly.com.

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