Longtime readers may know this, but if you’re relatively new to our websites you may not: We’re among a relatively small, but growing roster of independently owned community news websites that are transforming the way communities get and share information. And this week, I’m in Chicago for the 3rd annual Block by Block Community News Summit, this year on the theme “from surviving to thriving.”
That’s where we’re all trying to move. We include small community sites around the country, from your local favorites CorneliusNews.net and DavidsonNews.net to similar sites in nearly every major city as well as much smaller places in states from New York to California, Florida to Washington State and New Jersey to Tennessee.
We’re typically newsroom veterans who bring journalistic skills and standards to our cities and towns. We deliver news and information to our communities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if necessary. We chronicle local events, put the spotlight on worthy citizens, keep local officials honest, highlight new businesses, and even help reunite lost pets with their owners. We’re locally owned, not part of some giant Wall Street-backed chain. (See a manifesto on this theme at AuthenticallyLocal.com.)
Most smaller communities and big city neighborhoods have never had anything like this – an “always on” news source. We also let you join in, by posting comments on stories, submitting photos, or conversing with reporters and editors who are your neighbors – not outsiders who drops in from an office elsewhere.
After nearly six years of doing this in Davidson and Cornelius, N.C., I am proud to say local news and information on the web is a big hit with readers. Traffic on sites like ours has multiplied over the years. In our case, we reach 50,000 to 60,000 people every month (according to Google Analytics; in Webspeak, you’re called a “unique visitor” – someone who visits a site at least once during the month).
BUILDING A BUSINESS
When I started this in 2006, it was admittedly an experiment. Could I use the format of a “blog” to share information with my neighbors. It pretty quickly evolved into a business. We incorporated (as an LLC) and we began trying to figure out how to generate revenue from what we were doing.
Let me stop right here and say that I think the only way sites like ours will survive in the long run is if readers share the cost every day. Not just a few readers, who get what we’re doing and feel a responsibility to help, but ALL readers. That means eventually charging for access to our sites. Not all my colleagues in this business agree with me, and that’s something we’re sure to talk about in Chicago this week. I’d implore my readers to think hard about this: It’s not reasonable in 2012 to expect someone to provide a valuable product or service to you free. Would you expect the coffee shop down the street to hand you that latte every morning for free? How about the gas station – filler up without swiping a card? No way. (And I’d invite you to swipe your card right now and help us out. See our “Support Us” page.)
For now, we are trying to pay for this with a combination of voluntary subscription payments (see above) and advertising. Our Classifieds page is one of the most-visited pages on our sites, with listings for everything from pet sitting and yard sales, to local help wanted and real estate sales and rentals. And our banner ads – those colorful squares or rectangles in between our stories – are a way for local businesses to reach an audience most likely to shop in their stores or eat their restaurants – folks who live nearby. [Our readership stretches throughout the Lake Norman area, and at 50,000 to 60,000 per month, reaches big portion of the region's population of 120,000 or so.]
The other key to survival is to structure ourselves as a business. You can’t do this as a hobby and expect someone to swoop in and pay for it. We have expenses – from telephones and computers to web hosting and offices. We need employees for tasks beyond newsgathering: Our operation includes a business manager who also designs ads, a bookkeeper, several free-lance reporters, and several ad sales representatives. And you need experts to call on when needed – we have a payroll and tax accountant, a tech consultant, and a lawyer – make that TWO lawyers.
The long-range health of community news on the web will be assured when more of us figure out how to mix our passion for journalism with newly acquired skills of the entrepreneur. I never would’ve said this five years ago, but … we need to think the same way the guy setting up the yogurt shop in the shopping center does: developing a business plan, calculating business opportunities and investments, and at the end of every week, making sure the revenue number is higher than the expense number.
[There's another school of thought about this: That we should operate as non-profits. But that model has yet to be proven, and relying on grants can be a frustrating and uneven proposition. Furthermore, the IRS has raised questions in recent years about whether news qualifies for nonprofit status. In my case, I consider what we're doing to be an essentially entrepreneurial activity, so I chose the small business model.]
HELP AND MENTORING
I’ve been fortunate over the past year to have help as I pursue that model. A year ago, I was among a dozen community news publishers invited to attend a news entrepreneur “Super Camp” in Chicago. We worked on business plans, talked about marketing and got lessons on sales – something utterly outside my experience and most of my colleagues. The Patterson Foundation in partnership with the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, provided not only an intensive weekend of training, but also a year of mentoring.
This has helped us think more like businesses. For me, it has helped me balance the urge to write one more story or post one more photograph with the need to check financial spreadsheets, develop marketing campaigns and help track down potential advertisers.
At the Block by Block conference, I’ll be on a panel Friday morning about turning your passion into a business. I’m excited to be attending my third conference, and eager to help other publishers learn what I’ve learned. And since I’m still a relative rookie at running a business, I’ll be looking for tips as well.
Also this week in Chicago, we’ll be completing the formation and signing up members for our first national association, called LION Publishers (for Local Independent Online News Publishers). Again, the goal is to “Foster the viability and excellence of locally focused independent online news organizations and cultivate their connections to their communities through education and action.” I’m proud to join the group and to help promote the health and culture of independent local news on the web.
I invite readers to join me in thinking about the big goal: How to make sure sites like ours are financially sustainable and maintain high standards. Would you be willing to pay for local news on the web? Can we show you how local advertising on the Web is a good investment, at a time when newspaper readership is dwindling? When I’m back in town, I’d be happy to grab coffee and share thoughts with you.
David Boraks has been a journalist for 35 years and an entrepreneur for just a few. A Davidson resident since 1993, he founded Davidson News LLC in 2006. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.