Within hours after the owner of the Maine Mall announced last week that it had filed for bankruptcy protection, southern Maine news Web sites were all over the story. Most of them either quoted reports from national news organizations or had wire service stories online within six or eight hours of the 3 a.m. press release.

But only one of them was first with a local story, shortly after 8 a.m.: The Forecaster.

Besides the good work by reporter Randy Billings, who jumped on the announcement by General Growth Properties while most other reporters were still asleep, we had another advantage: Only 24 hours earlier we had relaunched our Web site, theforecaster.net, and in the process relaunched the way we do news.

We’ve spent the last five months learning, trouble-shooting, embracing and, admittedly, wrestling with the software that now allows us to turn a big page in The Forecaster’s history. What has been a reliable, but sleepy, one-update-a-week Web site is now a dynamic, 24-hour local news site that we can update whenever necessary.

Instead of sometimes sitting on stories for days until our next print deadline, our reporters now have the ability to file reports online as soon they’re ready. Our readers won’t have to wait until Wednesday, Thursday or Friday to find out what happened at Monday night council or school board meetings. We’ll often have the most important information on the Web site the next day, if not sooner, followed by complete roundups later in the week and in the print edition.

When high school football teams clash on Friday nights, you can expect our sports editor, Michael Hoffer, to let you know what happened by Saturday. (This week, by the way, we’ve got Hoffer’s widely anticipated High School Spring Sports Previews, with expanded content on the Web site.)  

If we have a good news or feature photo, we’ll post it on the Web as soon as we get it, and run it later in print.

If you send a letter to the editor, we’ll try to put it online regardless of when it gets here – Monday deadlines will only apply to the print editions. And if you register on the Web site, you can post your comments online immediately.

In the near future, we’ll also be adding blogs, video and audio. We have several local bloggers lined up to join us, but if you already blog about local issues and interests or have been thinking about it, send me an e-mail. We’re eager to add members of the community to the roster of contributors on theforecaster.net.

If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool reader of one or more of our print editions, consider this an invitation to get a jump on the news by checking out theforecaster.net earlier in the week and more frequently. The new Web site isn’t a threat to your weekly habit; there are no plans to discontinue or shrink our four weekly print editions. The site is a way to deliver more news online in a more timely, efficient and user-friendly way than we ever could have before.

If you’re reading this on the Web, you’ve probably already poked around the new site. If you’re holding a print edition and haven’t seen the new site, please take a look. Either way, we’d like to hear from you at [email protected]. Let us know what you like or dislike about the site, and if there’s anything you would add or change. If you’re a Twitter user, you can also follow us @the_forecaster and provide feedback there.  

One thing we’ve learned over the last five months, while the news business itself has been swirling in a sea of change, is that there’s no such thing as a “finished” Web site. Ours remains a work in progress, with tweaks, fixes and revisions – some subtle, some not – yet to come. And when those are done, there will be others that follow.

We know we won’t always be first with stories, as we were last week, but that’s really not our goal. Sure, we love it when we beat the competition (which, I’m proud to say, happens frequently). But The Forecaster’s mission has always been, simply, to provide our readers with the local, hometown news they can’t find elsewhere. With the relaunch of theforecaster.net, we’re making that news a little easier to find.

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mehlsak-mugshot-op.jpgMo Mehlsak is editor of The Forecaster. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or [email protected]. You can also follow him on Twitter.