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Guest Post: Gargoyle's lessons learned since going online-only

Editor’s Note: I asked Brian Thompson to share about the experiences of the news outfit he advises. Here’s his guest post.

By Brian Thompson
Adviser, Flagler College Gargoyle

To the big guys: don’t laugh. Yes, our visitor stats are small potatoes when compared to large university newspaper sites. But, hey, a milestone is a milestone. And sometime in November our small, online-only newspaper, the Flagler College Gargoyle, will mark 100,000 visits for 2012.

That will be the first time we’ve notched that many visits in a single year.

For us, a small online publication at a small, young college in northeast Florida, that’s a lot. It¹s also an indication that going online-only in 2010 was a good move for us.

Not that it didn’t come with its share of grumbling, hiccups and hurdles. But we’ve been more successful than we expected and doubled traffic from our days of print when we were only seeing 49,500 visits to the site a year.

So what have been the biggest lessons we’ve learned since diving into the Web-only world?

Lesson 1: Technology doesn’t have to trump journalism.

That’s one of the biggest concerns people voice to me when I mention we’re an online-only publication: that going online might make us tech-focused, but journalism-light. But we’ve actually found the opposite to be true. In fact, back in the days of print, my top editors spent more time trying to lay out a print newspaper than working on their own stories.

Only, the ease of the Web actually gives us the time to focus more on in-depth, issue-based stories. Proof might just be in the awards. For example, The Gargoyle had only ever won two regional Society of Professional Journalists awards before moving online-only. But in the last two years, we’ve won nine SPJ awards – including best independent online publication in 2011.

Lesson 2: The Web allows you to think bigger, not smaller.

This was another thing I found. In print, we wrote stories about issues on campus that didn’t always affect a large number of people. They were small in scope and had little reach. But the Web opened up new avenues to attract readers beyond our St. Augustine campus. We do more coverage of the local community, and have seen readership grow as we do more stories and opinion localizing larger issues with more wide-reaching themes. Not only that, it gives our students better clips for awards, as well as internship and job applications.

We had a story last semester about a basketball student who went on a religious fast in the middle of basketball season. It was picked up by a site that focuses on religious issues and had more than 7,300 pageviews – one of our most popular stories ever. That energized the staff to keep looking for local stories that would connect with larger audiences.

Lesson 3: Find ways to build enthusiasm for the Web.

Maybe this is the most important lesson. Crazy as it sounds, most college journalists still have a print-centric mindset, even though few of them still get news from print newspapers. For whatever reason, they’re so attached to the idea getting published in newsprint themselves.

But if you get them excited about the possibilities and opportunities online, they will embrace the Web. Getting 7,300 sets of eyes on your story doesn’t hurt. Neither does winning awards, and that fires up others who want to follow in their footsteps.

We also set goals for awards and growing Web site traffic, then we celebrate those accomplishments. We talk about how news media are looking for these skills in future employees, and play up the successes of newspaper alums who are now working in the industry. It has created a culture of enthusiasm that is critical.

Sure, we’re still small potatoes compared to a lot of others, but for a publication our size, it’s all cause for excitement.