For me, the Washington Post Express is a staple of my morning commute.  Its "light" version of the news is great for getting an overview of the day's events, while the entertaining style, opinion, and pop culture commentary helps distract me from the inevitable annoyances that come with riding the bus every day.  Oh, and did I mention the Express is free and available on every corner of DC?

Not only has the Express positioned itself as a premiere free paper in DC, but it also has quite an ambitious, although somewhat unappreciated, online program.  I think that larger papers could learn a lot from the Express' online program, so I'd like to take a few minutes to point out some of the site's best features.

5 Reasons the Express has got the Right Idea:

  1. Blog Based Approach.  All of the articles on the Express are laid out in blog format. with functions for commenting, trackbacks, and tags.  This is a far cry from most newspaper websites, which often display their articles in flat or stagnant formats.
  2. Integration of Print and Online Editions.  Not only can you find the Express' print content on the Web, but the Express is one of the only publications I've seen that uses online responses to build content for the print version of the paper.  The back page of the Express is dedicated to publishing reader comments about Express articles or current events issues.  I think this is a great way to encourage discussion and participation around the news. 
  3. Focus on Localized, Niche Content.  TBG writers have often mentioned the importance of offering hyper-local/niche content online in order to attract audiences (See Todd's post) .  The Express does this really well, allowing online readers to filter its already localized articles by state, city, or neighborhood.  For example, readers can view the news articles that are specific to DC, Maryland, or Virginia.  Online poll results can be viewed according to metro line or metro stop.  Finally, the Metro Links section of the site allows users to find restaurants, theaters, and other establishments according to their metro stop. Users can even use Google maps on the site to read articles about specific neighborhoods in DC/MD/VA.  What I think is especially interesting about this website is that the Express doesn't even bother to publish national news online.  I guess the editors recognize the value of their local content and realize the redundancy of publishing national/international news on the paper's website when, let's face it, The Post Express is definitely not going to compete with big national news providers (think CNN, NYT), for general interest readers.
  4. Design.  The Post Express is definitely not a hotbed of creative design techniques.  The site is plain, simple, and consists of a lot of white space.  Some might even say that the Express site is boring.  But you know what, it works.  It works because the pages aren't cluttered with huge lists of articles or big banner ads.  Interactive content is highlighted up front instead of buried behind subscription or registration walls, and most importantly, I don't get a headache when I look at the page for more than 30 seconds.  So while the design and layout aren't anything to write home about, they certainly are an improvement upon even some of the nation's top newspaper websites, which descriptors like "cluttered" or "chaotic" are most appropriate (See, for example, the Baltimore Sun and the San Diego Union-Tribune).
  5. Digestibility. One thing that's great about the Express' content is that it is all quick and easy to read, which makes the articles perfect content for blog entries.  While you wouldn't use the Express as your primary news source, it's great for getting a taste of the day's headlines.  Similarly, the website is full of interesting local tidbits that can all be read rather quickly.  I think this is key for online newspapers.  Quick, interesting blurbs are likely to travel around the web via discussion and comments, while longer articles may tend to get lost in cyberspace.

With these things in mind, I can't help but ask the question, if the Express is doing all these things right, why is there so little activity on the paper's website?  Most articles on the site don't elicit comments from readers, which is sort of a key part of the Express' online strategy.  

I would guess that the reason for the little activity on the website is that the Express' main audience is most likely still in its free printed paper.  Every day, I see lots of people flipping through the pages of the free paper, only to toss it out when they get to a trash can.  It's probably a safe bet to say that while lots of Washingtonians read the Express every day, very few follow up and visit the website.

In order to remedy this problem, I think it would be useful for the Post Express to cement the link between its print and online editions.  It already allows access to its great classifieds section online.  Why not sponsor a blogging contest or other promotion to drive traffic?  The paper could also have readers suggest topics for special articles or commentary, or pose their own poll questions to other Post Express readers.  I think the possibilities here are endless, and while the paper has laid the basic framework to building a successful online newspaper, it needs to go several steps further in order to create a community.