paidContent - Bakersfield Paper May Shutter Community Sites: 'They Never Made Us Money'

This story was written by David Kaplan.
The Bakersfield Californian has been something of a pioneer in spinning out community web sites from its main newspaper site. But now, as practically every newspaper is rushing to build up their social-media offerings, The Californian’s John Wells tells AIM Group’s Classified Intelligence Report (PDF only) that the paper’s thinking of shuttering local community events and classifieds site Bakotopia, and the Bakersfield Voice. The social networks have really never made us money,” said Wells, the paper’s ad, marketing, circ and operations VP. He added that, at times, Bakotopia appears close to profitability, “but never quite makes it.” We contacted Wells for elaboration; we’ve added his response, which came after we published, below.

When it created its social nets a few years ago, The Californian began selling its home-made social-networking software to other papers interested in creating their own niche sites. But apparently that business hasn’t taken off either. Instead of trying to find ways of drawing revenue from its sites, The Californian has turned its attention back to the print product. As part of a major redesign of the paper, the classifieds are being printed on the back page of the tabloid. Wells said he expects the redesign to result in an ad revenue increase of between $400,000 and $450,000 a year. Meanwhile, the paper is more reliant on citizen journalism and reprinting blog items, since layoffs reduced the newsroom staff by 40 percent. 

Staci adds: The other part of Wells’s comment to AIM may say a lot about how he views Bakotopia: “We have to decide how much eyeballs are really worth. If he equates value to “eyeballs”—reducing people to traffic stats—dropping the online community may make sense to him. But that kind of reductive thinking ignores the value of a committed, engaged community of members who spend their own resources—energy and time—not just a few seconds clicking on a page. I’d like to know the role that plays in a decision.

Update: Blame the recession: In an e-mail message to paidContent, Wells insisted he was talking about what the future might hold, as opposed to what’s happening in the near term. As for how the users’ value factors in, there won’t be any determination on the sites’ fate until the privately held paper’s executives start taking a closer look at the 2010 budget. Noting the region has been hit particularly hard by the real estate downturn, the paper’s executives are wrestling with the fact that although its user-gen sites are bringing in revenue, they still can’t cover their costs.

Wells: “So the question is what are the goals of these user-generated sites? They are all generating revenue, however, to date they are not covering all their costs. Yes, they have helped The Bakersfield Californian expand or hold their market footprint while the core product has declined. There are unique users of these non-paid daily products that do not read The Bakersfield Californian. I truly believe we would have gotten the products a lot closer to an acceptable profit level if this recession had not hit ... We have well over 20 niche products produced by The BakersfieldCalifornian staff and affiliates. Some we have discontinued, while we have others, like Bakersfield Life Magazine that are doing quite well.”

Another view?: There appears to be some divergence among executives at The Californian. While Wells definitely was addressing the profitability of the websites, Logan Molen, the paper’s COO/SVP (see his comment below), said in a blog post responding to this item and AIM’s that, “What is true is that were evaluating the ROI of the print editions… Both Bakotopia.com and BakersfieldVoice.com remain at the core of a strategy were set to launch in the coming weeks and months that will truly and finally—leverage the collective power of our local network of community sites and social connections.”

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By David Kaplan