John Wilpers – BostonNOW

Posted on 15. Sep, 2007 by in Citizen Network, Hyperlocal

Introduction and Narrative: BostonNOW, a free metro paper, launched in April of 2007 after Russell Pergament, most recently from AM New York, hooked up with Dagsbrun, an Icelandic media company, for financial backing. John Wilpers, former editor of the Washington Examiner, was brought on board to help shape the emerging free metro as its editor.

Wilpers had the idea of running excerpts from local Boston blogs on both the website and in the actual print newspaper at a Media Giraffe conference. Slowly Wilpers began to introduce himself to local bloggers in Boston and eventually organized two open meetings. The first gathering was somewhat confrontational, filled with critical and suspicious questions: “Will you edit us? Will you pay us?” etc., but by the second meeting bloggers brought constructive ideas and began to give suggestions for the young paper, says Wilpers.

BostonNOW has become the first US print paper to run content from local bloggers, making the paper “fun, intriguing and reflective of the Boston community,” says Wilpers. The first blog post appeared in the paper May 1st, a few weeks after the initial launch. Since then BostonNOW has registered over 500 Boston bloggers to appear on their website and their paper.

Main Goal of BostonNOW: The goal of the company, as a free daily newspaper, is to grab a healthy market share of readers. BostonNOW, like other free metro papers, serves the market of people that want to consume the important news of the day, but can only spare 20 minutes during their daily commute.

But BostonNOW is also a laboratory to test how a community can be involved in the creation of a print product. That includes everything from the articles that the paper runs to the daily news meetings, which BostonNOW webcasts. “If we don’t involve the community in the direction of the paper, print journalism will become less and less relevant,” says Wilpers.

Notable Achievements: With no advertising or marketing BostonNOW has registered over 500 bloggers in 12 weeks. Today the paper is “out in the community” hosting events and aggressively looking for more bloggers. Wilpers attributes their success in part to the structure of BostonNOW’s homepage, which dedicates a third of its space to publishing the work of bloggers in the community. Posts are ordered chronologically, guaranteeing everyone some time on the homepage.

A Surprising Realization: Wilpers was very surprised by the enthusiasm of bloggers for a product that is not typical to their demographic. Most of the bloggers for BostonNOW are 20-30-years-old and readily admit that they don’t read a paper.

It’s a tough sell at first, said Wilpers. But their enthusiasm mimics the moment when a television camera points to a crowd and everyone begins to scream uncontrollably. “There is some magic from being in a paper that is seen by 100,000 people,” says Wilpers. Tech savvy folks find it an attractive proposition — the print industry becomes a kind of flyer or promotional vehicle for work they are doing on their own websites.

Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: Early on, BostonNOW excerpted a post from the Bostonist, giving full credit to the authors but taking the post without first asking permission. Wilpers called to apologies after complaints had been received and created a working relationship between the Bostonists and BostonNOW that lasted throughout his time at the news organization.

But the initial lesson had been learned. Even though the author of the Bostonist was excited to appear in the paper, she felt as if her work had been stolen. Not all bloggers will throw themselves at the paper, especially when they already have readers that number in the thousands.

In the aftermath and with the right conflict management, the Bostonist has become a supporter of BostonNOW. “We took someone who had no interest in daily newspapers, got all of her news on the web, and all of the sudden she was proselytizing for a print product,” says Wilpers.

Another more practical lesson learned: BostonNOW launched the paper before the website was up. As a result, no bloggers were included in the first issue. As the BostonNOW model expands to other cities, Wilpers says the company will not make the same mistake. The key is to do the proper spade work to garner a blogging community before the release of its first edition.

Money: For the Paper: The business model is based solely on advertising, there are no paid subscribers.

“People love free stuff if it’s a quality product,” says Wilpers. Free papers have proven they can stay afloat and the Metro brand has shown it can be a successful model. BostonNOW hopes the inclusion of bloggers will make the difference and draw more readers and advertising revenue.

For the bloggers: In the initial 3-6 months BostonNOW has not paid bloggers, but does drive traffic back to their websites. The company does recognize that when they excerpt a blog it is a value judgment on their part, an editorial decision. That value is not overlooked and the company does want to create a method of compensation for bloggers. BostonNOW is currently in talks with the national writer’s union to figure out a system of contracts that would fairly pay bloggers for their work.

Future Goals: BostonNOW’s next goal is to take this idea on the road to other papers around the United States. The company hopes to expand to 10 newspapers over the next three years. We should be seeing number two sometime this fall. The city has yet to be announced.

Wilpers has left BostonNOW and is currently “out there on my own pushing mainstream media into accepting and embracing the new world of the Smart Web, consumer involvement (online and in print), and the building of sustainable (exclusive) communities on their turf.”

What Are you Hoping to Get from other People at the News Innovation Conference?

“I want to find out what other people are doing that I haven’t though of yet — how they have gotten members of the community involved in what they are doing, I want to complement them by stealing ideas.”

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