In 1995, my friend Steve Saint and I launched East County Online. Steve was publisher of six community newspaper serving eastern San Diego County. At the time, only two other weekly newspapers had Web sites. We tried to build community around the site, creating a club, had online-only classifieds, invited online-only contributions from members of the community and tried to be an online portal into everything related to East County on the Web. Unfortunately, only about 20 or 30 percent of the local residents had internet access. We didn’t get a lot of traction.
Now community Web sites are all the rage, and Steve is back at it. He’s free-lancing for a new community Web site: HighPlainsMessenger.com.
The site seems to have some economic support, is getting some banner advertising, and has a stable of contributors. I don’t see much in the way of citizen-contributed content (except for comments), but at least its an attempt to create geo-based community online.
Interestingly, the site is openly pursuing FSBO advertising.
I’m not sure how much of a threat sites like this are to established newspapers, but in a market already fragmented by a multitude of advertising choices, new competitors are less than welcome. The advantages to newspapers remain the resources to build more robust classified sites, relationships with advertisers, stronger marketing vehicles, the money to buy technology for things like search and strong multimedia, and the ability to produce deep content. The MESS site (it’s preferred short-hand name, it seems), sort of highlights these advantages with its shortcomings.
This all reminds me of a conversation I had with some fellow journalists at the SPJ convention in 1996 — the biggest threat newspapers will face on the Web isn’t from a Microsoft, but from some guy working in his back bedroom. Craig Newmark has already shown how one-man efforts can take a bite out of newspaper revenue — more and more sites such as the MESS are coming, and some of them will be very successful.
Most newspaper sites are still woefully unprepared to deal with the threat.