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January 8, 2008

On Media: Kentucky Post dies, only to live on in a new frontier

When The Kentucky Post printed its last newspaper on New Year’s Eve, much was made of its demise by those in the journalism business. Woe is the industry, some said, when one of America’s last two-newspaper towns loses its afternoon paper. The Post is owned by the E.W. Scripps Co., which also operates a local television station serving the Cincinnati market, WCPO-TV. The idea of continuing The Post’s presence in Kentucky as an online operation seems a sensible concept. Of course, there are all sorts of online-only sites practicing solid journalism. One of the pioneers is Slate.com, which began operations more than a decade ago and regularly wins national journalism awards and has dozens of staffers. It’s supported by advertising.In Minneapolis, the non-profit MinnPost.com provides a local journalistic alternative to mainstream media there. It raised more than $1 million and has a full staff of journalists.But the online operation in northern Kentucky isn’t putting the resources forward that those operations are. It is a far cry from the fully functioning newspaper consumers found on their front porches last year. It’s not a case of simply running the newspaper online. Most of the costs of operating a newspaper involve the printing and distribution of it. So it makes sense to simply eliminate the distribution costs, build online advertising revenue and produce quality journalism. Online-only newspapers are gaining ground around the country, and the folks behind KyPost.com believe the time is right for their venture. Last fall, one expert predicted the demise of the printed newspaper and was quoted in a way reminiscent of a certain former Louisville football coach. “Newspapers will cease to exist on paper over time. The question’s not, is it going to happen — it’s when.”Those were the words of Chuck Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, an independent non-profit journalism organization. He also said, in an interview at NewAssignment.net, that while there are a lot of online-only sites, many aren’t much more than headline-packaging services with little substance. The folks running KyPost.com are attempting to bridge that gap, offering hyper-local content like high school sports and obituaries while satisfying reader needs for comprehensive content with info culled from other sources. It will be challenging at The Post, to say the least. There’s a skeleton staff, for one. Most of the content will come from other sources, like WCPO-TV, the Scripps news service or the AP wire. Content that is exclusive to KyPost.com is likely to have been produced by amateurs (i.e. someone who’s not getting paid). I spoke with Kerry Duke, a 24-year veteran of the paper, who seems to be the only member of The Post’s editorial staff who still has a job with the newspaper/web operation.“It’s really a startup website,” he said. “We have a brand name to use and the tradition. We’ll focus on local news, high school sports. We can do some interesting things with the web.”Duke will have at his disposal one full-time reporter (or content producer), a freelance budget and content from a Kentucky-focused TV reporter at WCPO-TV. There will be a focus on the popular idea called “citizen journalism” that is really nothing more than convincing regular folks and public officials to write something for the enterprise for free.Featured on the website the first week in January is a piece on the death penalty written by Kentucky Public Advocate Ernie Lewis, a Scripps-Howard news service story on selling your home, and a puff piece written by the mayor of Florence.Duke said Scripps is making a significant investment in the operation, but it seems more like dipping a toe in the online water. Duke’s salary may be the primary expense associated with the project.“It’s a low-cost approach, but if you want to maintain the presence, it’s probably the only alternative,” said John Morton, an independent newspaper industry analyst, quoted in an online trade article. “It’s better than going out completely, and clearly there is opportunity there.”It is most certainly an experiment, and the enterprise must survive by luring advertisers. That’s the test Scripps’ corporate managers will use to determine the site’s viability.Here’s what the new KyPost.com really is — a startup online news organization. Now, it has some advantages over something you or I might crank up in our garage. First, there’s a significant brand name. There’s a corporate owner willing to spend, well, at least a few dollars to make it successful. The industry will watch closely; KyPost.com may be among the first newspaper brands in the country to go online-only, but it won’t be the last. Rick Redding, Louisville’s Media Critic, writes frequently about news and media on his blog, http://thevillevoice.com

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