Boston Chain: HyperLocal and Regional

Community papers really don’t do much online, especially when they’re operating on the fringes of a giant metro. Such has been the case with South of Boston Media Group, a Quincy, MA-based chain of two small to medium-sized dailies (The Enterprise and The Patriot Ledger) and 25 weeklies operating in the shadow of the mighty Boston Globe, and its website, Boston.com.

But the chain sees a way around Boston.com — hyper-local content that Boston.com can’t begin to pick at, and a regional aggregation of classifieds that would theoretically satisfy every user.

To get there, the chain recruited interactive leader Bob Kempf from Ottaway Newspapers. The goal has been to replace what Kempf calls “a tear down project” of a site with something that would be more state-of-the-art and sustaining. The initial results can be seen in Wicked Local Plymouth, the first of a series of hyper-local sites featuring blogs from The Wicked Local Girl, various forums, and regular features such as local photos and high school sports. (Wicked is a New England expression for “great”).

On the commerce side, the site features a regional aggregation of classifieds not only from its own papers, but from Craig’s List, The Boston Herald, The Boston Globe and others. “If you offer search, you have to mean it,” Kempf noted. The site is powered by Planet Discover.

Kempf has two sales persons, and hopes to see Wicked Local build awareness via print ads, low-cost cable TV buys, and SEM. Ultimately, his goal is to sell diverse print and online packages, including search, directory and other online-oriented components. “I can go Face-to-Face with local advertisers, create a package, with print, keywords, sponsorships and SEM, and give it all to them for $495 for six months,” he said.

If South of Boston can assess 20 percent of the package value for online, that will surpass its short-term goals, since fewer than ten percent of the readers come from online today. “I can’t rival the Google search experience. Or eBay,” acknowledged Kempf. “But by focusing on granular local content, I can sell cars, furniture” and other local products. He added that Website traffic has climbed 25 percent in the three weeks since Wicked Local has launched.

No doubt about it, community papers in a metro area have had a hard slog. With fewer resources to spend, and outgunned on hard news, they are outpaced by metros, and almost always earn fewer dollars per reader.

When they focus on adding content, they tend to drown. And when they focus on sales, they tend to lose readers. Generally, they are slated for extinction.

But maybe that has begun to change. As Kempf has illustrated, the ability to use local staff to produce blogs, and leverage and aggregate existing ads on an automated basis might change the economics just enough to make it work. To really prosper, I suspect the chain will need to partner across media channels with TV stations and directories. But for now, it can afford to wait-and-see.