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Rolled-up Modesto Bee Courier-Mail masthead

Newspapers and readers swap ideas

Two newspapers, the Modesto Bee in California and the Brisbane Courier-Mail in Australia, have developed truly inter-active websites, making it easy for staff writers and readers to exchange ideas. Let's hope they're blazing the trail for other publications. Perhaps they're giving us a glimpse into the future look of newspapers everywhere.

A reader of the oddly-named Modesto Bee could send this stinging rebuke to the editor merely by ticking a few boxes on an online form and adding a name, address and phone number:

Dear Cretin - In regard to your offensive flight of fancy of April 1, on my kid's school, I would like to complain, thumb my nose at you, hurl invectives.

In closing, I demand an explanation, an apology.

Sit on it.

On the other hand, if readers were pleased with a story, they could send the following effusive and more polite message just as easily, by ticking even fewer boxes:

Dear Editor - In regard to your excellent column of April 1, on my favorite TV show, I would like to applaud.

Sincerely,

This message appeared recently on the newspaper's attractive website:

We stink -- er, we meant 'what you think'
By DAN DAY
BEE MANAGING EDITOR

All of us at The Modesto Bee want to make your newspaper as open and approachable as possible.

So we take your phone calls, answer your e-mails, post comments on blogs and speak to community groups.

Yet on any given day, we have direct contact with only a small portion of our readers, who are busy with the hectic pace of modern life.

We've come up with a way to make it easier for you to let us know what you're thinking.

We logged and analyzed hundreds of calls, letters and e-mails from readers and stashed them in a database. We extracted the most common topics of concern, enabling us to produce this convenient feedback form.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Day is the managing editor of The Bee. He can be reached at 578-2332 ddayATmodbee.com. Or use the form below.

Modesto Bee form letter

Wouldn't it be great if all newspaper editors followed Dan's lead, and made it just as easy for us to vent our spleen or (perhaps very occasionally) our pleasure?

Dan posts a friendly blog on the Bee's website (can a bee spin a web as well as a yarn?) several times a week.

A tragic early-morning fatality proved the value to the community of an efficient inter-active newspaper website. Managing editor Day wrote:

There's a lot more to The Modesto Bee than The Modesto Bee.

This is a new era for newspapers. We're no longer confined to the printed page and no longer held hostage by production cycles. Thanks to the Internet, we can bring you the news as it happens.

I can't point to a more dramatic example than Friday, when we covered the tragic shooting death of California Highway Patrol officer Earl Scott.

Scott was ambushed during a traffic stop on Highway 99 near Ripon at 4:40 a.m. that day, a time when our newsroom usually is closed. But reporter Chris Togneri and photographer Bart Ah You found out about the shooting and rushed to the scene from their homes.

While thousands of commuters were stuck in colossal traffic jams because investigators had closed northbound Highway 99, Togneri was piecing together details of what happened. Ah You was snapping pictures. Editors called in for early duty began planning our coverage and writing our first story. We posted it on Modbee.com at 7:40 a.m.

It would be the first of many updates we would file to the Web that day. Not only did we file stories, we posted several photographs and audio clips from a news conference.

There was another dimension to our coverage on the Web: enabling our readers to share their feelings.

We set up a forum on Modbee.com where several people left comments expressing their horror and sadness at the killing (and at least one vented frustrations about being stuck in the resulting traffic).

We also established a "guest book" where people could leave their remembrances of Earl Scott and offer condolences to his family. Dozens of people from all over California and from several states had posted comments within a few hours of the shooting.

You can expect more of this round-the-clock, interactive coverage from The Modesto Bee and Modbee.com.

Our normal pattern is to post all stories from the newspaper to Modbee.com early each morning. But we don't stop there.

On most weekdays of late, we've been posting two or three fresh stories to the Web site during the day and evening. For example, we broke the news Tuesday on Modbee.com that a Green Beret from Turlock had been killed in Afghanistan. We followed up with new developments, then put everything together in a comprehensive report for Wednesday's newspaper.

We're looking ahead to the day when we'll be posting video from valley events to Modbee.com.

We encourage you to pick up The Bee every day to get the full complement of news, features, sports and advertising. And we want you to turn to Modbee.com at all hours for the latest breaking news.

Either way, we'll keep you posted.

Bee Managing Editor Dan Day can be reached at 578-2332 or ddayATmodbee.

The Modesto Bee's innovative approach may well serve as a model for many other newspapers in the next few years.

Brisbane Courier-Mail front page
Front page of The Courier-Mail
on Friday, March 17, 2006

On March 13 the Brisbane Courier-Mail, the only daily published in Australia's third-largest city, reduced the size of its broadsheet pages to the more compact Berliner format, following a trend adopted by many of the world's newspapers, notably in London and the US.

At the same time, editor David Fagan revamped the newspaper's website, making it the most reader-friendly of any in this country. It now resembles the Modesto Bee's website in many ways, presenting all the day's news and features, plus breezy blogs from the editor and several staff members, who invite readers to add their comments.

There's even a page of photos linked to autobiographies of its news editors and staff, so readers feel they know the person behind the byline.

Disclosure of interest:
I was a young reporter on the Courier-Mail when, shortly before the beginning of World War II in 1939, it made an equally radical change. Abandoning the customary broadsheet practice of filling the front page with dull, single-column advertisements, it astonished its readers by moving the most important news items from the inside pages to a vastly different (and much brighter) Page One.

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Story first posted April 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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