Online media's 'Californian' adventure

The Bakersfield Californian behaves for all the world as though it has forgotten it is a daily newspaper company.

The Kern County, California daily has expanded its online core,, in a burst of Web and print product launches and software development that would stagger even the edgiest of New York City multimedia studios.

Online, the Californian puts out staff blogs, produces podcasts and fields reporters with camcorders to augment its robust array of news stories, photographs and local guides. The hard-copy version just underwent a dramatic redesign with a strong use of color and graphics that bucks current newspaper design trends.

But just in the past two years, the parent company has also kicked community-driven online development into overdrive. It

  • launched three new citizen-journalism-fed community newspapers with strong online counterparts
  • developed text-messaging products
  • started selling licenses for Bakomatic, a social-networking/citizen-journalism software platform, which is now pulling 400,000 page views a month, and
  • spread the umbrella of a new division called Mercado Nuevo over all of it.

The company plans to use the new bases of users and advertisers developed by these “outside” products to explore even more new business opportunities.

In short, the Californian has transformed itself into something that many American newspapers are barely struggling to conceive: A post-dot-com information company fueled by an active, engaged and fast-growing audience.

For more than a decade now, online newspapers have been struggling for legitimacy, mindshare, usability and that most elusive of values — audience stickiness. A number of factors have hastened the almost logarithmic slide of print audience: The proliferation of social-networking media and practices and the rise of blogging and cable TV plus YouTube and other on-demand multimedia have eroded mindshare for media audiences, prompting people to spend less time and money on newspaper content.

The Californian has taken that trend as a road map toward future stability rather than a harbinger of the paper’s demise:

“I think that newspapers … have the best shot at success as anyone in this new digital realm,” said Mary Lou Fulton, the Californian’s Vice President of Audience Development. We have the audience, we have a trusted local brand, we have a relationship between our readers and advertisers. Our problem is we’re afraid to use those building blocks in so many ways: We’re afraid we’re going to cannibalize our business, we’re afraid somebody’s going to say something in our Web sites that we don’t approve of or agree with – and you know what? They will, I promise you that. We have to get comfortable with trying things that may not always be successful.”

Unlike many more-traditional newspapers’ attempts at digital-age retooling, the Californian’s drive to experiment came from the top: Publisher Ginger Moorhouse has been encouraging innovation for quite some time, beginning in 1995 with the formation of an “online committee” and followed a few years later by founding of “Area 51,” the paper’s ongoing innovation group.

Area 51 was launched with funding, a mandate to innovate and white monogrammed lab coats worn proudly by its staff. Over the years, Area 51 members have devised hardware solutions such as wireless newsbox monitors for detecting low-newspaper levels, and early text-messaging products for the mobile market.

Fulton, who had served several years on the paper’s board of directors after working in online editorial development for the Washington Post and AOL, said that Moorhouse asked her about two years ago to look into launching a community newspaper that would serve the fast-growing, upwardly-mobile northwest area of Bakersfield saying, “Because if we don’t, someone else will come along and do it.”

They began talking about inviting readers to contribute content — an idea that had been tried before, though not quite successfully. “My feeling was — worst-case scenario — we know how to make a traditional newspaper, we can do that,” Fulton recalls. “Best case — what if we can really create a critical mass of people to write their newspaper — how cool would that be? How awesome would that be?”

Thus was born the Northwest Voice — a biweekly tabloid and online paper driven today almost entirely by contributions from unpaid users.

Fulton and her team spent three or four months evangelizing for the paper — inviting school sports teams, church groups and community organizations to see and use the Northwest Voice as their place to speak and share information. To date, about 25 semi-regulars and a host of less-frequent contributors are submitting about 200 items a month.

After launching in May, 2004, they began developing a suite of Web tools that would allow contributors easy access to upload photos and text to the site — a content-management and social-networking application that eventually evolved into “Bakomatic.”

In January, 2005 came the launch of — a social-networking site much like MySpace that lets users post their profiles, photos, event listings and classified ads, among other things. The site features “Bakotunes Radio,” a slick Flash-based podcast jukebox featuring songs uploaded by Bakersfield musicians that’s sponsored by one of the city’s largest music-gear retailers.

Users can now post blogs of their own, send each other messages, sign guestbooks, browse topic-keyword “clouds” showing the most popular topics, browse profiles by “interests” and add each other to their rosters of “friends.”

In August, 2005 came the launch of Más, a bilingual, weekly glossy-covered newsprint tabloid on the streets and a robust site online delivered weekly for, and written by some of, Bakersfield’s 42 percent Latino population.

Just last April, the Californian launched the Southwest Voice, which mirrors the behavior of the Northwest Voice with its own region’s audience-generated content, and it took off like a shot, Fulton recalls. Submissions are already up to about 100 a month, and eight contributors have become regulars.

“Within days, we had dozens of articles and pictures, because people had already heard of Northwest Voice,” she said. “They understood that this was participation, and they welcomed it. They were eager. You don’t hear people asking for new newspapers every day of the week. We like that.”

Meanwhile, in February, the team had launched two other new sites:, for the resort town’s weekly, and, an online guide for newcomers.

NewtoBakersfield is packed with more-static content — guides to everything from restaurants and movie theaters to dog parks and farmers’ markets — but right up front is the key to the Californian‘s strategy, the same interface found on its other sites: three big, friendly buttons that invite users to register, sign in and post their own profiles and content.

“Citizen journalism” is the buzzword addling the heads of many a newspaper new-media director these days, but that’s not quite Mercado Nuevo’s focus, Fulton said.

“It’s really about participation, and participatory media. Participation is at the heart of the Internet. The Internet is a social medium, primarily,” she said. “It’s not really a question of whether newspapers can figure out citizen journalism, it’s more that newspapers have to learn how to participate, because people on the Internet already know how to do that.”

As the social-networking sites began to gain traction, the Mercado Nuevo team began retooling the newspaper’s own site,, rebuilding its registration system to allow easier collection of demographic information, adding 15 staff blogs and launching the Bakomatic profile for the site’s users. Blog capabilities are soon to be added for all users there, as well.

In the course of its growth, the Californian last year brought on Howard Owens, the former director of media at the Ventura County (Calif.) Star, which won the Online Journalism Awards for General Excellence among small sites in 2004, to be Vice President of Interactive in charge of

But Owens left the Californian May 31, after a little more than 10 months’ service, and was replaced by Logan Molen, the paper’s managing editor.

Neither Owens nor Fulton would comment about his departure but Owens points to a post on his personal blog which details some of his accomplishments in Bakersfield, including the redesign and the push for making site registration into a social network.

Meanwhile, the past two years have seen the newspaper bump its own internal online staff to five, make the Web director a department head and begin a series of brown-bag lunches to train newsroom staffers how to produce multimedia. Fifty-two of the paper’s 75 news staffers have now participated in or helped to produce a multimedia package for, Molen said.

Molen said the staff is turning out at least two video packages and an audio package a day, and already has more than 500 multimedia packages in the archive, he said.

“There was some initial resistance, and there still is some,” Molen said. “But I think that in the last year we’ve come a long way … It really sent a strong message that we’re serious about the Web, and we’re going to give it time and attention.”

While Mercado Nuevo is still running in the red, there’s a strong corporate-development strategy behind it, bolstering the paper’s goal of making it profitable within two to three years.

That strategy goes deeper than simply building an audience and selling it effectively to advertisers, Pacheco said: The Californian is building communities of interest, gathering data from registration and cookies and loading it into a central database that can be used, without compromising users’ privacy, to let advertisers narrowcast their messages to specific audience sectors.

If users are the first to adopt the Bakomatic philosophy, and advertisers among the later adopters, there’s plenty of room for exploration and innovation, he said.

“I would love to see advertisers deal with the truly interactive stuff in a social way,” Pacheco said. “Right now, I can have my friends on my profile in Bakotopia, why not have my favorite business? I’m now advertising them, I’m now recommending them to others, advertisers will pay for that as well, if they can. It’s something we’re talking about.”

As Pacheco walks through some of the other current and future Bakotopia features — instant-blogging buttons, future text-messaging products and the decidedly unconventional vision of one Bakomatic user’s profile icon — an animation expert eating a baby’s head — he summed up the potential of what seems on the surface to be rampant experimentation:

“It’s as far away from newspapering as you can get. [But] we have increased page views by 30 percent from these six separately-branded products. Bakotopia is now getting about 400,000 page views a month, which for a town of 330,000 people is pretty dang good.”

* * *

Additional reading: You can find a presentation by publisher Ginger Moorhouse outlining the Californian’s product- and audience-development strategy, dated March 1, 2006, here.

About Mack Reed

I am a veteran print journalist (including Phila. Inquirer '87-'90 and L.A. Times '90-'97) and a wounded veteran of the dot-bomb era (4 years building and running web portals for the now-defunct Cox Interactive Media).

My new-media and design consultancy is at

I'm creator and publisher of


  1. I applaud this trend of citizen participation in creating content to online media. It’s taking back the news from the gatekeepers. Perhaps editors will change to conversation leaders.

    I recently attended the BlogHer ’06 conference, with some 700+ women bloggers and learned about a new type of syndication for blog content to online major media outlets. I wonder if you would consider doing an analysis piece on it? Have you already done so? I don’t know what to make of it. Media is changing fast. The company is called Pluck, out of Austin, Texas, and their product is called BlogBurst.

  2. Teri — check out Syndicate this! Linking old media to new from March 2006 here on OJR.

  3. Hello, my name is Erin Teeling, and I work with The Bivings Group, a Washington-DC based online public affairs company. Our team at The Bivings Group recently completed a study that analyzes how American newspapers are using Web technologies on their websites. We noticed that your website contains a lot of interesting articles about newspapers and the media, so I figured I’d give you a heads up.

    Below are some highlights:

    *80 of the nation’s top 100 newspapers offered reporter blogs. On 63 of
    these blogs, readers could comment on posts written by reporters.

    *76 of the nation’s top 100 newspapers offer RSS feeds on their websites. All of these feeds are partial feeds, and none included ads.

    *Only 31 of the papers offered podcasts.

    You can view the full study here:

    Let me know if you have any questions.

    Erin Teeling
    [email protected]