Boston Newspaper Blurs the Line Between Web and Print

For most newspapers, there’s a clear line of demarcation between their print and Web operations. Although that line gets fuzzier and fuzzier every day, nowhere has it gotten fuzzier than at BostonNow.

BostonNow, a free newspaper handed out around Boston to some 85,000 commuters five days a week, publishes blog items beside its news stories as well as offline links to online comment threads for its stories. It even webcasts its daily editorial meetings.

The driving idea behind BostonNow‘s approach to newspapering is community, according to publisher Russel Pergament. “We’re trying to create a real opportunity for reader self-expression and community,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’re opening up our Web site, as well as our newspaper, to citizen inputs.

“I don’t think any newspaper is making the kind of commitment we have to allow readers to get their content in front of so many people,” he added.

Blog to Print

One of BostonNow‘s more controversial moves is the republishing of blog content in the newspaper. Although the action has proven to be a media magnet for the journal in the short term, its longer-term value has puzzled some observers.

“Doing a free tabloid to hand out to commuters is a pretty good business,” Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, told TechNewsWorld. “It’s not a dumb thing to do by any means. But free tabs handed out to commuters aren’t the sort of thing that will drive people to your Web site, which is one of the things that BostonNow is hoping to do.

“It’s interesting that they’re going to try to put blogger content in the paper,” he added.

“A lot of it is pretty good and probably a lot more interesting than what they put in Metro,” he continued, referring to BostonNow‘s chief competitor for commuter eyeballs.

“At a certain point, though, it just starts to look like they’re just trying to load up the paper with free content,” he observed.

Problematic Policy

The free content issue,” Kennedy argued, could bite the newspaper down the road.

“It’s always problematic when you’re running a for-profit newspaper — whether you’re making a profit right now or not — and you go around telling people we’d like you to write for us but we’re not going to pay you,” he said.

Although a compensation scheme hasn’t been worked out for bloggers, the newspaper is reportedly considering “rewards packages” in lieu of cash for the writers. Those packages could include press passes for sporting and entertainment events.

Building Audiences

Eventually, they’ll have to start paying writers, predicted Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association.

“There’s a simple reason for that,” he said. “If you have any success building an audience for no pay for BostonNow, then you’re going to get other opportunities that do pay for someone else.”

Even without compensation, he noted, BostonNow‘s approach will still have appeal for some bloggers.

“If I have a way to reach a new audience that doesn’t really cost me anything, I’m going to be interested in that,” he reasoned.

In that case, he continued, the writer’s payment is placement at a high-traffic site, which, in turn, will build traffic to his or her blog, traffic that can monetized through Google ads or other online advertising.

A Work in Progress

The business model underlying BostonNow is a work in development, noted Cox.

The cost base for publishing online can be very low, he explained, but “once you get into printing, you’ve got all the headaches of any print publication — production, distribution, marketing — and that gets kind of expensive.”

More kinds of newspaper mashups like BostonNow can be expected in the future as the industry struggles to reshape itself, according to Kennedy of Northeastern.

“The idea of any news organization trying to find ways to work with citizen journalists is not a fad,” he said. “It’s an important new development, and I think we’re going to see various experiments in ways to do that.

“What I’m watching out for is, are news organizations trying to offer something new and different and interesting, or are they just trying to load up on free content?” he added.

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