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The Paper Chase

Newspapers hold the upper hand in the race for local Web dollars, but a new study reveals a small group of TV station sites that are not only holding their own against the established local papers, but are besting them in traffic. According to “What Local Media Web Sites Earn: 2008 Survey,” recently released by Borrell Associates, sites for stations such as WMUR Manchester, N.H., KTHV Little Rock and KSL Salt Lake City are dramatically outperforming their market's major newspaper sites in unique visitors.

To be sure, newspapers, despite massive layoffs, are winning the local online war. Borrell forecasts $13.1 billion in local online advertising this year, a big boost from the $8.7 billion spent last year. And Borrell projects newspapers will grab $3.7 billion of that, more than triple the $1.2 billion projected for broadcast sites. (The $1.2 billion is a substantial leap from the $772 million spent on station sites in 2007.)

But no fewer than 14 TV Websites are beating the largest local newspaper in traffic, according to The Media Audit, which Borrell tapped for the survey. While this doesn't always translate to a revenue advantage, the traffic gains show that some stations are successfully managing their Website as a standalone business. (More recent numbers from Nielsen NetRatings show that WKMG Orlando, WRAL Raleigh-Durham, KOAT Albuquerque and WLWT Cincinnati, among others, also beat their newspaper competition in traffic.)

The winning station sites offer a range of features, but a few common themes emerge, such as strong video offerings (WMUR offered loads of video from Sheila LaBarre's high-profile murder trial last week), forward-thinking interactivity and, perhaps most important, exhaustive weather coverage. Unlike the typical newspaper, stations have certified meteorologists on staff and feel they should own weather when it's breaking news. At Hearst-Argyle's WMUR, which the study says posted 343,600 monthly unique visitors in the fourth quarter of last year, compared to 165,300 at the Union Leader newspaper Website, weather is first on the nav bar. A click brings the user to a dedicated page featuring live radar, severe weather warnings and, as of last week, interactive radar that essentially lets the user play weatherman. The station also recently featured a sponsored microsite dedicated to spring flooding.

When tornadoes ripped through Little Rock this spring, shifted to wall-to-wall weather. “Very quickly, the face of our site was full-blown weather coverage,” says KTHV President/General Manager Larry Audas. “It's a vital lifeline here.”

As with WMUR's radar, the savvier stations are in general increasing their interactive Web offerings. Hubbard's KOB Albuquerque, which outdrew the Albuquerque Journal on the Web at a 136% clip, according to Borrell/Media Audit, added the citizen journalist platform YouNews last month to help cover the sprawling DMA.

Other stations are coming up with novel ways to extend their reach. KTHV has been using outdoor advertising to plug not just the station, but increasingly, Parent Gannett is pushing its “information center” initiative at all of its stations, which pools resources from the company's various local media entities. WMUR, which has an Internet Broadcasting managing editor in the newsroom, added a YouTube channel last summer and tapped viewers to submit videos centered around the state's primary in January. “We try to find many different ways to do new and unique content on the Web,” says General Manager Jeff Bartlett.

Of course, turning Web visitors into revenue remains a significant challenge. Bartlett says WMUR's Web revenue was 2% of total station revenue last year, and looks to be around 2½% this year. KOB Digital Media Director Kurt Christopher says brings in around $35,000 to $40,000 a month, which he hopes to double in a year. “Our sales staff has been selling TV for a hundred years,” he says. “We're still dealing with a learning curve.”

But the stations all reflect companies that appear to have embraced the potential of digital revenue. “There's a multi-screen mentality, station-wise and company-wise,” says Audas. “We're not just a TV station anymore.”