Go out the front door of your newspaper and turn either right or left. Either way, you likely will find businesses interested in online advertising. But for some reason, they're not buying. Or is the problem: You're not selling?

Although 61 percent of small and mid-size businesses believe that the Internet is a significant advertising medium, only 14 percent of local advertisers have purchased online ads in the last year. This information came from a recent report by The Kelsey Group, a market research firm in Princeton, N.J.

Your online newspaper is most likely the No. 1 most-visited Internet site in your trade area. Your local community is increasingly aware of the need to advertise on the Internet. Advertising demand and excellent product should be a great marriage — but there remains a disconnect in many markets.

Almost two-thirds of local small and mid-size businesses are interested in advertising on the Internet. You run the best local Internet advertising site.

So why are only 14 percent buying ads?

Is it the customers' fault? Or is it the fault of the publisher, the ad manager and the newspaper advertising sales staff?

Are you even trying to sell online advertising? Or are you trying to make up for declining retail sales by adding more special sections?

Are you raising print ad rates every year, even though paid circulation is declining? Or are you talking to your local merchants about how many more eyeballs the newspaper is reaching thanks to ongoing growth of the online newspaper?

Are you competing against radio advertising with the same, tired old arguments? Or are you explaining to the community and advertisers that the newspaper's online product often has a bigger audience than the local radio station?

Are you understanding the great strengths of your online newspaper — such as immediacy, reach to younger and more affluent audiences — or are you still hoping the Internet is just a fad?

I think the Kelsey Group report — 61 percent are interested in online advertising, but 14 percent are buying — shows that most newspapers don't know how — or don't want — to sell online advertising.

There are no online rate cards. There is no training, no understanding of online advertising. Ad reps fear online, so they don't sell it — even though they represent the best online product in the trade area.

Merchants in many downtowns are struggling. They face challenges from malls, box stores and online competitors. These merchants are in dire need of help. They want to know how to deal with the changing world.

That's why almost two-thirds of them are interested in online advertising. They want someone to help them survive in the new Interactive Age.

Newspapers have had the historic role of helping local merchants advertise and market their products. Now, more than ever, local merchants need help if they are to survive.

That gap between 61 wanting and 14 percent buying hurts both the small businesses and the local newspaper.

Newspapers need to rise to the challenge. Local ad sales representatives need to be able to talk with confidence and intelligence about online advertising.

Those newspapers that rise to the challenge will survive — because they will help their local businesses survive.

(Marc Wilson is ceo of TownNews.com and president of the Job Network.)