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Bright Ideas
20 Online Relationship Database Building Features 
A firework of bright applications that leaves readers with a good feeling - and you with their email-adresses and more.

by Nancy Malitz, General Director Internet Project, The Detroit News (USA)

Nancy Malitz is Assistant Managing Editor at The Detroit News, where she is General Director of the newspaper’s Internet Project. The Detroit News Online launched suddenly, from within what was essentially a research and development department, on Day 1 of the Detroit Newspaper strike, July 13, 1995. Since then, the online newspaper has never missed a day of publication, and there are currently more than 50,000 pages on the World Wide Web at

Malitz’ first newspaper job was as a free-lance writer in classical music for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1974, while she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Throughout her journalistic career, which included time spent at the Cincinnati Enquirer and as a European cultural correspondent, she expanded her role to include reporting and commentary on sociological, political and technological issues affecting American culture. She was a cover story writer on the start-up team at USA Today and has served in various capacities at The Detroit News since 1983.

Articles by Malitz have appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New York Times Arts and Leisure section and other national publications. She also writes frequently about video games and multi-media software, and she reports on high-tech developments for Michigan radio stations.

20 tips

1. Look for old content. At the Detroit News an old cartoon was used to set up a contest in which the audience can enter lines for the last cartoon. Strangely enough, the cheaper the prize, the more people enter the contest.

2. Be friends with your foto department. Detnews uses funny pictures in a caption contest. The best captions are kept on the site, and readers develop a habit to enter funy lines and read each other's entries.

3. Ask people for their views within a story, which they can express their views by clicking a button. This also results in many more e-mail letters to the paper as readers wish to explain their opinions.

4. Your readers want to talk back. They want to barge right into the middle of news events, to make connections with other readers, and to tell you all about themselves. Offer a "talk back" option at a central place.

5. Let readers create their own content. A large number of people like to lurk in the letters to the paper section.

6. Answer all e-mail, even though this is time consuming. Hire a local writer or on of your columnists to do this

7. Buy content. Headbone for instance produces interactive content for the youth/children section

8. Interactive surveys can generate interesting content to the readers. offers polls like that.

9.  Develop databases. An example is the paper that started profiling different families in its community. Also  pictures of neighbourhoods turned out to be very populatr.

10. Profiling a different town every week.  Compare your own community to the rest of the country, ongoing interest.

11 Special projects can be of special value for the on-line papers. A special like that can be treated as a website of itself, and entered it as such in the search engines. More traffic and a longer life span for the content.

12. Statistics are interesting, and can be combined with questionnaires that generate new information.
Government databases are an enormously interesting source of content, and dry data can be packaged into interesting graphics.

13. Forgotten fortunes, unclaimed money data combined into a searchable database on the web.

14. Do not neglect the opportunity to have some kind of postcard service on your site. The recipient comes to the site to see the card, and generates traffic. Have people use them to come and visit, change cards regularly.
Graphic departments are full of talented people, give them time to dablle in this.

15. Sports sites should always have contests running. Sport fans are fanatics, they love stats and like the make predictions. Score your teams, compare with others, return to see how you are doing.

16. Rockmaill has a trivial challenge, and all these contests are combined. Readers can enter questions and report errors as well. More content propelled by readers.

17. The newspaper process pieces are perfect for the web. For instance, the mandala created by Tibetan monks for the Houston Chronicle generated large reader interest. Same for a process like the moving of a whole house, or the changing sunlight over the cityscape. People will actually come back to follow the progress made.

18. Newspapers can sell merchandise, such as pictures from the archives that can be sold for 10$ each. Another example is the sale of front pages tied to anniversaries and birthdays, printed on bags, shirts, plates, hats, etc.

19. We get 300 email a day asking for questions. Why not make a section called Homework Help, where teachers are willing to offer response. Build up relationship with teachers in your community.

20. The web-o-matic process: there should be an easy way to add content to the site, in an automated and non techie way. An example is "PetNet" where people can post pictures of of their deceised pets, without knowing HTML. Non-profit organisations were allowed in this way to put up gift sites for Christmas. It is a wonderful community service and generates goodwill.

21. Scout for elaborate homepages in your community made by true fans and hobbysist and make them part of your offer.

22. Exchange content with other content providers, link to each other sites.

23. Augusta Chronicle, which has a small staff, but has a dedicated golf site linked to their tournament. Anpother example to bring together information about one subject like the new James Bond movie and put it all toghether
Pioneerplanet made a sepcial Rolling Stone section.

24. Netly News or I Cringely are filled with (random) links, it becomes addictive to follow them up.

25. Happypuppy.comis a site with game tips, but they also promote their email letter. The email letter of the Wall Street Journal is a "must read" because it is not on a schedule; it is only sent out when there is urgent news.

26. Newspapers over the last years have lost their narrowcasting section, the bridge column, the fishing column. Some of this information is now distributed via Audiotex. The people who write those columns might still be there, there is room for them on the site.

Newspaper online departments tend to be very lean and production-oriented, devoted primarily to the task of processing their 200 or more daily stories into a coherent, navigable field of information. Yet these teams are finding ways to build relationships with their readers through participatory news, letters and surveys; captions, comic strips, contests and collectibles; even non-linear ways of telling a story. And they are discovering new power in the stuff that seemed dusty just five years ago -- agate listings, library clip files, homework help, answer books, photo archives and ask-the-expert columns.

Here are 20 do-able projects and products -- created by, or in cooperation with, conventional online news sites. These projects will help you learn a great deal about your readers and satisfy their demand for participation, while helping your own staff master fundamental interactive tools.

Florida Today
@ugusta chronicle (Georgia)
Cedar Rapids Gazette (Iowa)
Minneapolis Star Tribune (Minnesota)
St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)
Nando Times (North Carolina)
Houston Chronicle (Texas)
Kansas City Star (Kansas)
New Jersey Online
Detroit News Online (Michigan)
USA Today
Chicago Tribune
Los Angeles Times
Philadelphia Online
Providence Journal-Bulletin (Rhode Island)
PBS Online

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