How much should we give away on-line?

Editor's note: Although written for the community newspaper industry, this article provides useful insight and guidance for any publisher trying to decide how to balance print and web.

by Gary Sosniecki

I cringed when I saw a publisher friend's new Web site.

That's because my friend is giving away his entire newspaper, page by page, on the Internet.

Why would anyone pay 50 cents for his newspaper when every word can be read online?

Metro newspapers have closed in Denver and Seattle, others are in bankruptcy, and part of the blame rests with Internet strategies that removed the incentive for readers to buy their print editions.

Every newspaper needs its own Web site if for no other reason than to protect its franchise as the community's purveyor of news and advertising. And until the masses are willing to pay for online content, which won't happen anytime soon, access to the Web site needs to be free.

But giving away all the content of your core product is foolhardy if you still want readers to buy that core product.

What's the solution?

Community newspapers should strive for a balance between print and online. Your Web site should have enough content that you can sell advertising to support it and, hopefully, make a profit. But it should complement your newspaper, not compete with it.

Yes, some content will be duplicated. A community newspaper's Web site should include a couple of stories from your front page, an editorial, obits and some local sports. But don't give away too much.

Instead, post content that you don't have room for in your newspaper: Extra photos from your school coverage. Columns from your legislators. Full text of speeches. Church sermons. Consumer tips from your university's extension service. Reader-submitted photos.

Remember to post online updates between your print editions: Death notices. Sports scores. Boil orders. School closings. Candidate filings. A few paragraphs of breaking news after a fire, traffic accident or school board meeting, always promoting that a full report can be found in your next print edition.

Learn how to post video clips. It doesn't take much expertise or fancy equipment to upload highlights from a football game, city-council meeting or news conference to your Web site.

In effect, make your Web site a separate product from your newspaper while creating reader and advertiser demand for both.

If, as my publisher friend did, you choose to do an e-edition - posting full-page pdfs of your newspaper online - make sure that it's password protected so readers can't access it without a subscription.

Otherwise, the only readers your print edition will have are those without Internet access.

And that number shrinks every day.

Gary Sosniecki is a regional sales manager for Townnews.com specializing in weekly newspapers. He owned three weekly newspapers and published a small daily in Missouri during a 34-year newspaper career. He may be reached at gsosniecki@townnews.com.