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posted: 4/15/2012 5:00 AM

Naperville Rotary Club talk leads to digital angst

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I approached Bob Smith, our intrepid city editor, with an urgent request: Bob, I said, we have to find a way to make this work so I don't look like an idiot.

The occasion was a story about plans by Naperville developers Dwight and Ruth Yackley to build an addition that would almost double the square footage of their upscale downtown retail-office-condo center. No problem with the story, which appeared online Thursday; the mini crisis stemmed from a speaking engagement I had a day earlier, at which the Yackleys were present. There, I yammered for more than an hour about the brave new world we're trying to forge with our readers these days.

"The Daily Herald in the digital age" was the self-titled talk I delivered to the Naperville Rotary Club's afternoon group. The windup goes something like this: The invention of the Internet saw newspapers tripping over one another to take advantage of the new technology with its unlimited space and instant transmission of the news. One little miscalculation was that all our traditional advertisers would be thrilled to follow newspapers to the World Wide Web. The Great Recession certainly didn't help, but businesses, classified advertisers and other traditional print advertisers were quickly finding their own online niches. Newspaper revenue streams plummeted, and it soon dawned on everyone that we were essentially giving away our product online.

So, I told the Rotarians and their guests, the Daily Herald took the plunge last summer and became the first newspaper in the metropolitan area to charge for online content.

And here's our digital pitch: For only a buck a week more, subscribers, you can have the full Daily Herald package -- unrestricted access to plus the columnists, bloggers, photo galleries and other material reserved for members only; afternoon email blasts with direct links to the top stories we've produced during the day; phone and iPad apps and an e-edition of the paper; "Members Get More," an online assemblage of links taking readers to stories that have the most extras, such as videos, databases, related stories.

The challenge, I told my Rotary friends, is we're asking our most loyal customers to put down the paper and run to a computer to look for something we've told 'em is really interesting. (Smart phones, I hastened to add, are likely to soon make this much more practical and palatable.)

Last week, our digital consultant (of course we have one -- doesn't everyone?) trained several of us on the value of writing good "teasers" that will motivate someone to go from print to digital. He even gave us a rank-the-teaser test, taken from actual blurbs we've run in the paper. I gave the same quiz to the Rotarians. The great news is we newspaper types and newspaper-reader types seem to be on the same page. We decreed teasers to a database of elected officials' salaries and an online photo gallery of Stations of the Cross ceremonies were winners because of their reflection of the community, exclusivity and hot-button components; a teaser to "Super Bowl press conferences" was deemed something that could be found anywhere.

The other DH message for the Rotarians is that so far our paid content initiative is going well; the percentage of subscribers who have signed up for the digital package have exceeded industry projections. The sobering news is the extra $1 a week is not exactly a windfall.

Oh, yeah, the source of my digital angst.

I met with Dwight and Betty Yackley just before my Rotary Club talk, gave them a brief preview of what I was going to say. All but bragged that we'd have some online extras with our story on their new development.

But he cold hard reality was that the artist's drawings of Main Street Promenade East were items we easily could -- and should -- put in the paper as well as online. What are you going to do about this problem, Bob???

Bob Smith is a genius, you know, and he dug deep into our story archives and found a really nice profile we did on Dwight Yackley about 10 years ago. The only drawback is stories of that age forced us to do some other computer stuff that probably carved an extra half-hour out of our days. I told you this was a brave new world. But, just for your edification, I have links attached to the online version of this column that, God willing, will take you to Friday's news story and the archived stories. Problem solved.

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