My former publisher at The Carthage Press Jim Farley always said the Joplin Globe was vulnerable to a challenge from a feisty weekly. At one point, he even had me draw up a blueprint for such a weekly, though we never followed through with the idea.
When the news of the Joplin Daily's Jan. 1, 2006 launch leaked, it appeared that publication might finally be the challenger that could put a dent into the Globe. The concept was novel- a website with a weekly newspaper designed to direct readers to the website rather than the other way around.
The folks at GateHouse Media did some things right:
-The hiring of John Hacker, the area's best reporter, indicated GateHouse was preparing to launch a serious challenge.
-A strong emphasis on school coverage and a reporter, Kaylea Hutson, with experience in that area.
-An early blitz of publicity, including radio, television, and billboards.
Unfortunately, that was about it. GateHouse never made a serious attempt at creating a viable alternative to the Joplin Globe. And once a challenger fails, and fails miserably, it makes it that much more difficult for another challenger to succeed.
The Daily had its moments, many provided by Hacker, who put in his usual 100 percent effort, but you can't beat a solidly-entrenched newspaper with a journalism-as-usual approach. People are not going to go to a new newspaper just to read a different version of a city council meeting or to catch breaking news 15 minutes before it appears on the Globe website.
What went wrong with the Joplin Daily?
1. GateHouse officials promoted the first issue heavily, but then failed to get copies of the print edition to much of Joplin, and the same areas were never adequately sampled (many were never sampled at all). There are Joplin residents who will never mourn the passing of the newspaper, because they never knew it existed.
2. Except for positive news reporting, the paper never demonstrated any major differences between its brand of reporting and the brand employed by the Globe.
3. The Daily had few, if any, stories that would create the kind of water cooler buzz that would steer readers in its direction. Hacker and his staff did their jobs well, but never had the kind of major scoops that could put the Daily on the map. A lot of that was due to the pressures placed on what was essentially a three-person staff to put out a daily publication, something that is virtually impossible if you plan to adequately cover a town of 40,000 plus.
4. Promotion for the Daily was non-existent after the first few weeks. GateHouse never gave it a chance.
5. The Daily never had even one full-time ad salesperson and never had anyone who made a concentrated sales pitch for the web product.
The Joplin Daily should never have existed if GateHouse didn't plan to give it a fighting chance to succeed. Sadly, it could have succeeded, and would have had at least a ray of hope if the following steps had been taken:
1. The website should have been easier to navigate instead of being one of GateHouse's cookie-cutter sites. A greater emphasis on comments and discussion could have kept readers coming back to the website every day.
2. The minute the decision was made to make the website and not the print edition the focus, GateHouse should have emphasized links, links, and more links. Links should have been offered to anything remotely connected with Joplin, the school systems, city offices, the public library, businesses. If people want to know what is going on in Joplin, this would have given them a one-stop site, which would make it far more attractive to potential advertisers.
3. Make up for the lack of manpower by using links to increase coverage of Joplin news. The Daily could have offered links to legislation sponsored by Joplin's representatives and senator, legislation that affected Joplin residents or businesses, on the state or national level. Provide links to newspaper stories about Roy Blunt, Kit Bond, Claire McCaskill, Matt Blunt, other statewide officials. When people or businesses with connections to Joplin are in the news provide links to the stories. Links could have been done quickly and could have greatly expanded the coverage provided by the Daily.
4. Take major issues that hit the city and featurize them. Keep providing the nuts-and-bolts coverage, but blanket the website with information and features. Show how the major news stories affect the readers. Scan or link to documents that provide background. Obviously, a small staff does not have the capability to take on the Globe on every story, but by picking and choosing the right battles and offering far more coverage on those stories, the Daily could have staked out a claim to readership. Alternative publications thrive in many areas across the United States.
5. Build a stable of columnists that people actually want to read. One failure of the Daily is that it never had regular columnists that people want to come back to read every day or every week. In a town where the Globe's Mike Pound is the only daily columnist, the target would not have to be set too high. Unfortunately, the Daily took the advertising department approach to lining up columnists. In other words, let's find a columnist who represents the Chamber, let's find one that covers this niche or that niche, the Humane Society or some museum. Forget about that nonsense. Find people who can write, and who are willing to share their opinions, and give them a forum. Find people who can tell a story.
6. Find things that are not being covered by the Globe and cover them well. The positive news about schools was a step in the right direction, but there are other areas that could also be effective. Media coverage, comings and goings at the radio and television stations and offer coverage of the trials and travails of the Joplin Globe itself. You certainly are not going to read about those in the Globe. The New York tabloids and the Village Voice constantly make hay by writing about problems at the New York Times.
7. Find a voice. The Daily never did. A competitor needs to be feisty and deliver stories with attitude and a little bit of a swagger. If the Globe is the voice of big business, then the Daily should have been the voice of the little guy.
Even a publication that employs the above strategies faces an uphill battle, but taking a different approach guarantees that your readers will be a part of the battle, and if you fail, at least you will leave something that will be remembered for a long time to come, something that unfortunately, will not be the fate of the Joplin Daily.