All quiet on the western front? Not quite.

German regional publisher WAZ just launched its new flagship website, Der Westen. New features include geotagging, blogs and keyword filtering, monitored from a futuristic-looking newsroom. Martin Stabe has the details.

The concept, writes Der Spiegel, is to let users choose the centre of their world, their perspective on news. Der Westen then provides content around it.

The FAZ today has an interview of blogger-turned-editor-in-chief Katharina Borchert. Numerous online ventures have been playing on regional papers’ turf, from local advertisers flocking to AdSense to local radios breaking news more rapidly, she says. To compete, paper brands must regain their offline roles as community leaders by enhancing the news hole with social features, Facebook-style.

Concerning marketing, the size of web audiences requires looking beyond the traditional paper reader. WAZ offline subscribers currently account for half its websites visitors. They aim at bringing this figure to 10%.

As Bas Timmers wrote, such a shift in scope will come at the expense of traditional brand names. Der Westen already serves as an online window for five dailies.

Economies of scale, in terms of brand familiarity for users and editors, offer an incentive to develop a single frame covering several segments, be they geographic or demographic. The extent of content personalisation within such sites then allow for finer targeting.

In Quebec, regional leader Quebecor aggregated its brand under the single Canoë portal in the late 1990s. According to Jeff Mignon, it’s a financial success story. In France, regional giant Ouest-France built a template for all its papers, maville.com. It just signed a deal with about every other regional publisher to blanket France with maville websites. Time Warner went cross-media in brand-mixing with its portal CNN Money in early 2006.

However, such efforts hardly put traditional publishers back in the Bundesliga of web2.0. Amid the flow of blogopraise, Robert Basic only offers Der Westen the ‘Prize of conservative innovation’. The site lacks a Craigslist-style marketplace, a Twitter feed and state-of-the-art photo features, he says.

Publishers surely are making steps in the right direction with such moves. But the giant leap they need to take to survive online has yet to arrive.

This article was written by Nicolas Kayser-Bril, one of the Online Journalism Blog’s Virtual Interns

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