Gannett layoffs accelerated demise of InJersey hyperlocal news sites

When Ted Mann started Gannett’s InJersey hyperlocal news sites two years ago, he wanted them to become a nexus of community conversation. He envisioned that about half of the sites’ content would come from Gannett staffers and half would come from local community members.

That didn’t happen, though; there were not enough community contributions or enough Gannett staffers to keep the sites going.

Just a week after Gannett’s latest round of layoffs, Mann announced on Wednesday that he had decided to close the sites.

“The layoffs were the straw that broke the camel’s back … and they accelerated the decision to do this,” said Mann, digital development director at Gannett New Jersey and founder of InJersey.com. “Sooner or later we were going to have to do this unless all of a sudden I had a great deal of funding and I could really staff up on these sites and rethink the platform.”

The site’s demise demonstrates the challenges of sustaining a hyperlocal news site. In a phone interview, Mann told me more about the difficulties InJersey faced and what he learned from the experience.

Losing staff to layoffs

InJersey.com launched in seven towns across the state in June 2009, with six full-time reporters. The reporters served as editors of their town’s InJersey microsite while also working full-time for the Gannett papers in those towns.

InJersey.com gradually expanded to cover 17 towns, and in several cases, one person maintained multiple towns.

“I was always a strong advocate of having one editor for each town,” Mann said by phone. “In those towns where we did that — Freehold, Woodbridge, East Brunswick, Plainfield — the whole operation worked much better.”

Having reporters who split their time between InJersey.com and the paper they worked for proved to be difficult. Though they tried to juggle both, their work for the paper often took precedence. Mann said another drawback was that the staffers didn’t live in the towns they covered, making it harder for them to fully immerse themselves in the community.

Colleen Curry, who covered the town of Freehold for InJersey.com and Gannett’s Asbury Park Press, acknowledged that it was a struggle. Six months ago, she began covering Freehold full-time for the Asbury Park Press in addition to editing the Freehold InJersey.com site.

“When I took over the print beat full-time, the hyperlocal began to take a back seat,” Curry said. “I tried to use it to tease the stories I was working on for print, and sometimes I would rewrite them or write them differently for both properties, but you can only write so many full news stories a day, and so in the end, I was just posting the same story in both places.”

Around the same time that Curry started the print beat full-time, a Freehold Patch site also launched.

Difficulty generating local ad revenue

Selling advertising for the InJersey sites proved challenging because the sites didn’t have their own advertising staffs. The sales staff from the New Jersey Gannett papers were in charge of InJersey’s advertising, but many of these staffers were laid off.

“The sales staff are already stretched thin across the company,” Curry said by phone. “And we didn’t sell enough local advertising to pay for staffers for the site.”

While Freehold InJersey’s site peaked at about 65,000 views a month, there were other InJersey sites that only got a couple thousand page views a month. Because the sales staff were used to selling ads for the Gannett newspaper sites, which generated a lot more traffic, “it was hard for them to get past the page view mentality,” Mann said. “The reps who sold it successfully played up the engagement with the community, and in several cases the advertisers came to us asking to support the site in some way.”

Mann said he’s convinced after his experience with InJersey that display advertising isn’t profitable enough for hyperlocal sites.

“From what I’ve seen on our sites, and several others, I don’t see how display advertising is going to be enough to support a hyperlocal,” Mann said. “But I do think there are a lot of other revenue streams that hyperlocals can build — running events, sponsoring things, selling merchandise.”

Not all hyperlocal sites have difficulty with advertising. Howard Owens, who started the hyperlocal site The Batavian, said in a recent Poynter.org chat that taking ads only from locally owned businesses, and giving businesses 100 percent of the impressions for their ad slot, has worked well for the site.

By giving them 100 percent of the impressions, Owens said, “they get sufficient traffic to their sites to be pleased with the results. The click-through rate may only be .02 percent, but that might be 60 clicks, and that’s 60 visitors to their site they wouldn’t have gotten without the ad, and they’re very happy with that traffic in a small market like this.”

A lack of contributions from community members

One of Mann’s goals was to give local residents a platform for publishing blog posts and photos that captured their community. He wanted 50 percent of the content on each of the InJersey sites to come from community members, but none of the sites met this goal. Only 10 percent of FreeholdInJersey.com’s content, for instance, was from the community.

When Mann designed the InJersey sites on WordPress, he made it easy for people to post content to the site. After registering, users could publish their own stories without having to run them by an editor. The sites’ editors would then give the contributors feedback and help them cultivate other story ideas.

To get community members on board, InJersey.com staffers worked with the Citizens Campaign and held training sessions for local community members who had expressed interest in contributing. They eventually teamed up to help form the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association. Still, the citizen journalist workshops didn’t generate the results Mann had hoped they would.

“If you got 10 people to the session and got one of those people to turn into a regular contributor, you were happy,” he said. “I don’t have a good explanation as to why it was so hard. I guess it’s that the will to contribute wasn’t quite there.”

Curry also created a coffeehouse newsroom last year to find story ideas and be a more visible presence in the community. (The editor of Patch’s Freehold site also works out of coffee shops.)

“The goal there was to boost the community contributions,” said Curry, who regularly used social media to let people know she was at the shop. “I hoped people would come in and converse with me and blog with me, but logistically it didn’t work out. People in the towns where we were aren’t sitting in coffee shops from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.” She changed her hours at the shop to see if that made a difference, but it didn’t.

Nonetheless, her efforts to reach out to the community weren’t in vain.

“I think the one thing that kept us going for as long as we did was how supportive the community was of the blog,” said Curry, who got several notes from community members who didn’t want to see the site shut down. “We had an active community that relied on us for news. By going out and meeting people in the community at the coffee shop and at tweetups I held, and just really making those personal connections — that kept readers coming back.”

Challenges hyperlocals face, tips for success

Curry said editors of hyperlocal sites have to figure out how to take advantage of social media. She found that instead of contributing to Freehold InJersey, readers often posted photos and notes about their community on Facebook and Twitter.

“A lot of our conversation shifted halfway through from lively comment discussion on my blog to lively discussion on Facebook,” Curry said. “That’s fewer eyeballs on our page to see how the discussion is evolving.”

In a two-part series about hyperlocals, Slate Media Critic Jack Shafer said earlier this week that social networking sites already give readers a lot of the hyperlocal news they’re looking for: “For users who tune their Facebook accounts to include neighbors, schools, curmudgeons, and other sources, they get a stream of hyperlocal news in addition to the usual social news they desire.”

Shafer pointed out that there’s a “hyperlocal cemetery — where Bayosphere; The Washington Post’s LoudounExtra; Allbritton’s TBD; Backfence; and The New York Times’ New Jersey experiment, “The Local” are taking the dirt nap.” (The Times redirected traffic from “The Local” to Baristanet, another hyperlocal site in New Jersey.)

In hindsight, it’s not terribly surprising that InJersey.com couldn’t sustain itself. The factors that contributed to InJersey’s demise suggest some valuable lessons for hyperlocals.

Acknowledge the time commitment of an effort like this.
A hyperlocal site needs staffers who are dedicated to the operation full-time. “Timewise, you shouldn’t get into this unless you’re willing to spend at least the first couple of years working essentially around the clock,” Owens said in our live chat.

Recruit staffers who live in the community. Carll Tucker, who founded Main Street Connect, a collection of community news sites, emphasized this in a recent StreetFightMag.com interview:

“You have to have an organic connection to your community. You have to live there, or somebody has to live there, so you are in touch with the community. This is the problem that I think that the newspaper companies have had with community news in general. And then they have a compounded problem when you get to community news online. It’s that they sent people who didn’t live in the community. They spelled the name of the mayor wrong. They didn’t go to Rotary. They didn’t go to Little League games. They weren’t invested in the community. And so they ended up vulnerable franchises.”

Know the value that your site can bring to local advertisers. There’s a tendency to want to focus on page views, but that’s just one small part of a hyperlocal site’s value to advertisers. In a blog post last fall, Owens wrote that small local business owners want to know that their ads will be part of a site that a lot of locals visit:

“In order for your site to be a must-be advertising spot for local business owners, it must be the news site that generates all of the buzz and conversation in your community. You need people talking about your content so that business owners hear their customers talking about your stories … You can line up all the metrics you like, but if you don’t have buzz, you won’t sell ads. Once you have buzz, metrics don’t matter.”

Figure out what motivates your community to contribute. Offering training to community members who want to contribute is a great step toward getting user-generated content. But to get quality contributions on a regular basis, you have to understand what motivates people.

Getting exposure, being edited, having an opportunity for self-expression, having your work featured on a nicely designed site, being part of an online community and getting paid are just some examples of motivators. It also helps to “master the art of the prompt.”

“The prompts, ‘Hey, what do you think?,’ or ‘Tell us something cool,’ emphatically don’t work,” Robin Sloan said last year at the Online News Association conference. “Instead, it’s these slightly more specific and slightly more constraining prompts that do.” You want to make the prompt “something that anyone, in theory, might have something to say about.”

As InJersey.com proves, not all hyperlocal sites are going to reach the goals they set out to accomplish. The key for others looking to start a hyperlocal site is to develop content and advertising strategies that will prevent them from making some of the same mistakes.

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  • Anonymous

    having been born and raised in NJ, I can not agree with this more. NJ is a unique area in many ways and needs to be approached in a unique way as well, especially culturally.

  • http://evorapetsite.com/ Doinsonil smith

    Yes mostly in the construction and building sectors and in banking and finance. These are their ways of preparing for the next up turn in the economy and also to build up a clean balance sheet.Or transforming their companies.http://evorapetsite.com/

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JEWD5DZW227XZOESL66JC4TBJI Mia Kline

    I paid $32.67 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Toshiba laptop for $94.83 being delivered to our house tomorrow by FedEX. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores. I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $52.78 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff, LiveCent.com

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    If you go to his site, though, you see crude summaries of routine fire calls and vehicle accidents. There is some wild art of wild growth.

    Is this really a “content strategy?” I know — we HAVE to do things in a different way! After all, the places providing actual news are failing. So people must want crude summaries of fire calls instead.

    I realize that merely questioning how these fluff items qualify as “news” will lead to all sorts of side claims, mischaracterizations, etc. Bring it. If people are seriously claiming this garbage is the future of news, then I’d enjoy hearing (and laughing at) the subsequent explanations. 

  • http://maxcleansefacts.com/ Harolastro smith

    Another is that they get too complicated to administer, particularly if communications are slow. http://maxcleansefacts.com/

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    Your story has been inspiring to me Howard — as have those of Lisa, Tracy, and countless other brave entrepreneurs in this space. 

    But coming from Gatehouse, I know you have a special understanding of the challenges of trying to build a community site like this within a legacy media operation. 

    Truthfully, I’m not sure anyone was looking for us to fail, but those cultural and institutional hurdles (the ad/edit wall; pay-for-performace; etc) are sometimes simply too tall to get over. Tried to side-step them as best I could. 

    Who knows, maybe one day I’ll man up, follow your lead, and create my own TheBatavian.com for Haddonfield, NJ. ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

    Thanks, Ted and thanks for the response.  Much of what you describe here and else where is classic “innovator’s dilemma” and why newspapers will probably never properly disrupt themselves.  The people who blocked your best thinking on the topic had a vested interest in seeing you fail.  

    Also, newspaper sites fail at local online advertising because A) they have the wrong ad model; B) they have the wrong people doing the selling.

    Certainly, you’ve learned a lot of good lessons out of this and you are a very clear thinker, and have thought through thoroughly, all of the issues surrounding InJersey.  That bodes well for your next project being successful.  Good luck.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Ted, thank you for taking the time to respond to all the comments. It adds important insights into what made InJersey similar and different from some of the other sites described in the piece and in the comments. And thanks to @facebook-668002396:disqus @michelemclellan:disqus @twitter-852241:disqus @twitter-10475492:disqus @tishgrier:disqus @facebook-1572197036:disqus  for the great conversation here, and to @twitter-7956142:disqus  for the provocative story. –Julie

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    As I said in the StreetFight piece, we operated InJersey on a shoestring budget, and the decision to shutter it wasn’t one born of financial difficulties or “big corporate overhead.” It was simply because we weren’t creating the kind of community hub that we set out to build. Technically, we were profitable, though that’s mainly because we didn’t absorb the cost of the salaries of our site editors.

    Yes, the layoffs at the newspapers accelerated things, and maybe if we’d had more time we could have found new folks to inherit the sites, but decision had a lot to do with lack of engagement and contribution to the sites than it did on dollars and cents. 

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    Howard, I’m so glad you responded, and you’re 100% right: We weren’t doing it right. Especially on the sales side. At various points over the course of the last two years, I lobbied hard for different approaches. At first was the idea of having our reporters become full-time, fully-vested owners of the sites they managed. That is to say, we would give them an ownership stake of around 50% in the sites. They would be paid exclusively based on the revenue the sites generated. We (the Gannett NJ group) would handle the hosting and site upkeep, and they would be responsible for writing, editing, working with freelancers and contributors, and even selling advertising. Basically, it would be the same as backing an entrepreneurial operation such as Thebatavian.com or redbankgreen.com, except they wouldn’t have to deal with the technology piece, and they would get lots of promotion via app.com, the newspaper, etc. I floated this proposal to a room full of publishers back in 2009, and I may as well have just laid a giant fart. The response was swift and dismissive. There was no way we were going to move those reporters over to hyperlocal full time, and there was no way we were going to breach the church/state divide. (I’m sorry to say, nearly all of those folks are no longer with the company, as Gannett has since eliminated many publisher posts.)A year or so later, I tried going down this road again, only to discover it was even more riddled with landmines. This time, I simply proposed that the site editors accompany sales reps on calls to advertisers. Just tag along. The reason being that the reps, who I worked with constantly, simply weren’t acquainted enough with the sites. You’re right: The editors should live in the town, the sales folks should live in the town. But most of all: They all need to live and breath the site. Unfortunately, the reps — even the digital specialists, who I helped train — were never as acquainted with our hyperlocals as they needed to be. Only a handful read them regularly.When I proposed having the editors and reps join one another on sales blitzes, this time I was challenged by not only the publishers, but also the newspaper editors and the site editors (who I’d thought were on board). It was rough. I tucked my tail between my legs and went back to imploring the reps to sell Freehold InJersey and Woodbridge InJersey again. Which they did, in fits and starts. But it was never enough. As for the “false rumor” that there isn’t enough revenue in local display advertising, I hope I’m wrong. But I believe this to be true for our regional newspaper websites as well; it’s a big part of the reason I’ve worked so hard to launch Groupon clones, er, Daily Deal sites. Beyond that, I believe that our revenue stream should consist of other things — events, classes, conference, and maybe even espressos. Bottom line: I agree with you. Your model works. Maybe not the easiest to copy, and probably still room for improvement, but clearly one of the great shining rays of hyperlocal hope.

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    I like the way you put this, Howard. Truthfully, we didn’t have a “hyperlocal approach to advertising” at all. Not sure given the structure of things in newspaper-land we ever could. 

    Some other hyperlocal ventures have taken an almost Groupon-ish approach to advertising with call centers in distant locales. Pretty sure this is the opposite of a “hyperlocal approach.” Still, I gather it too is working better than what we tried. 

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    Darren, while I’m not thrilled with the “corporate” label (nothing about our sites were corporate in the slightest), I see your point. And I agree that a small operation that lives in a town and handles all aspects of their site — edit and ad — is going to have an inherent advantage. 

    As for the point about the weeklies, I think the question is more: Why does hyperlocal online not sell as well as hyperlocal in print? 

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    65k pv/mo for Freehold.InJersey.com. 47k uniques/mo for that same site in the same time period. Just one site, not the whole network. But yes, that was our most successful town, and Colleen Curry, the site editor, busted her but for 2 years to build a loyal following. Freehold Township has a population of 31k. Honestly, I think she kicked ass. 
    Your point about the expectation that citizens would contribute huge chunks of content is totally fair. We were wrong. Early on, I spoke to the folks behind the NY Times’s “The Local,” and learned that they were getting some 50% of their posts from the community. I later learned just how laborious and time-consuming (and ultimately unsustainable) it was to keep that up.  
    It’s easy to paint our effort as some “corporate effort,” but anyone who was involved will tell you it was anything but. We may work for Gannett, but the company had very little involvement in what we were doing (other than watching it from a distance wit a curious eye). Yes, we set out to cover several towns at one, and yes we built a template for them to share, but really, does that make us any different from efforts like Baristanet and The Alternative Press (which now have multiple towns)? 

    More to the point: Our stories were just as authentically local as anyone else’s. I’d be happy to point you to turkey crossings that Colleen posted to Freehold.InJersey.com or crime investigations posted to Collingswood.InJersey.com or political debates on Woodbridge.InJersey.com. 

    Who cares about the template of a site if the news there is fresh, original, and breaking?

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    Lisa, I tried to break off the sites as stand-alone operations, with the site editors at each becoming part owners, and responsible for everything from writing to editing to selling. It was, to put it mildly, not well received:
    http://streetfightmag.com/2011/07/01/hyperlocal-post-mortem-lessons-learned-from-injersey/#comment-240300624

    I agree that there weren’t many benefits of running them as a conglomerate. Being able to share the hosting, development, and promotion with the newspapers was probably the best side benefit. 

    For the record: None of our site editors were full time on InJersey, and nobody lost their jobs as a result of this. The other way around: We lost the sites as a result of the writers getting laid off from the newspapers. 

    No people or animals were harmed in the making (and unmaking) of these hyperlocal blogs. 

  • http://twitter.com/turkeymonkey Ted Mann

    Well said, Michele. I have a short presentation about hyperlocal journalism that I would occasionally trot out to j-schools and the final slide was a quote by Robert Niles, of the Online Journalism Review:

    “Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing.” 

    True then, and even more so in 2011.

  • Anonymous

    There are a few things going on in New Jersey that some of the commenters don’t know about, and could have had a huge impact on InJersey:

    1.  Many New Jersey towns are bedroom communities where there is no town center.  There’s no locus for gathering, and hence there’s not the same sense of community that one might have in towns in other places.

    2.  Large immigrant populations.  New Jersey is multicultural like no place other than, say, New York or San Francisco.  More like San Francisco though, where you don’t have Thistown or Thattown, but everybody living around everybody else. 

    3.  Some towns have local businesses that are primarily immigrant owned.  Remember the rant about Oak Tree Road in Edison being “overrun” with Asian Indian stores?   In my old neighborhood the biggest grocery store is the H-Mart asian grocery.  What type of person is able to reach all these different groups?  It takes a lot of cultural finesse to navigate this world as a reporter and as an ad salesperson.

    4.  And what do you do when your “main street” is the shopping mall?  That’s one of the problems in Bridgewater, Edsion. East Brunswick, and many, many other towns in NJ.  You can’t sell advertising to Macy’s the way you might to the local hardware store (that isn’t Home Depot.)

    I feel really bad for this project–and the layoffs were the final nail in the coffin.  But it’s not just spread thin staffs.  It’s also a newspaper corporate culture that might not understand their dealing with a multi-cultural hyperlocal world that overlaps with a corporate run bedroom community world.  These are tough, tough nuts to crack in many ways,  and nobody talks about them.  All the talk seems to be in a way that makes it sound like these places are still Ozzy and Harriet Lands.  Understanding that they are not is part of the “problem” as much as the abstract notion of the inability to raise ad revenue.

    just my $.02…..

  • Anonymous

    There are a few things going on in New Jersey that some of the commenters don’t know about, and could have had a huge impact on InJersey:

    1.  Many New Jersey towns are bedroom communities where there is no town center.  There’s no locus for gathering, and hence there’s not the same sense of community that one might have in towns in other places.

    2.  Large immigrant populations.  New Jersey is multicultural like no place other than, say, New York or San Francisco.  More like San Francisco though, where you don’t have Thistown or Thattown, but everybody living around everybody else. 

    3.  Some towns have local businesses that are primarily immigrant owned.  Remember the rant about Oak Tree Road in Edison being “overrun” with Asian Indian stores?   In my old neighborhood the biggest grocery store is the H-Mart asian grocery.  What type of person is able to reach all these different groups?  It takes a lot of cultural finesse to navigate this world as a reporter and as an ad salesperson.

    4.  And what do you do when your “main street” is the shopping mall?  That’s one of the problems in Bridgewater, Edsion. East Brunswick, and many, many other towns in NJ.  You can’t sell advertising to Macy’s the way you might to the local hardware store (that isn’t Home Depot.)

    I feel really bad for this project–and the layoffs were the final nail in the coffin.  But it’s not just spread thin staffs.  It’s also a newspaper corporate culture that might not understand their dealing with a multi-cultural hyperlocal world that overlaps with a corporate run bedroom community world.  These are tough, tough nuts to crack in many ways,  and nobody talks about them.  All the talk seems to be in a way that makes it sound like these places are still Ozzy and Harriet Lands.  Understanding that they are not is part of the “problem” as much as the abstract notion of the inability to raise ad revenue.

    just my $.02…..

  • Anonymous

    Very smart advice about the business side, Howard. And, yes, I meant the community you’re serving, absolutely.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of community contributors, the wonderful Chattarati turns 3 today. One of many models emerging in a very diverse online local news landscape.
    http://chattarati.com/editorial/editors/2011/7/1/chattarati-turns-3-today/

  • http://www.facebook.com/darren.hillock Darren Hillock

    I think it’s interesting to consider why the corporate system kind of worked for weeklies, but falls flat for hyperlocal. Well there are many reasons, but I have to believe an important part of it is that people truly connected to the  community can now do a hyperlocal site whereas they never were going to become newspaper publishers due to the high cost of entry. So the out of town reporters were the best you were going to get. The community always grumbled about it, but whattya gonna do? As Howard and Tracy and others have argued better here, hyperlocal needs to be just that — hyperlocal in all aspects – editorial, advertising and business.

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    This is a great discussion, everyone. I just tweeted a link to the comments section of the story in hopes that others will read your comments and weigh in.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

    Michele, you can’t be just passionate about community. You have to be passionate about the community you’re covering/serving.  

    And that passion has to show.

    I think that’s one reason readers love my photography so much, because it shows a real love and appreciate for our area.

    The passion needs to show on both the editorial side and the sales side.  On the sales side, whomever is doing the sales can’t just be seen as somebody looking to collect a paycheck. It needs to be somebody who is an ally to the small business owner.

    I continue to be amazed at all the so-called hyperlocal efforts that think a “hyperlocal” strategy stops at the content side.  If you don’t have a “hyperlocal” approach to advertising, you will fail.

  • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

    To expand on what I said earlier, I’m reposting what I wrote earlier on Ted’s piece on Street Fight.

    But in respect, and this message for others as well, if you’re having trouble selling a sufficient amount of local retail advertising, you’re just not doing it right.  There is something wrong either on the sales side or the ad model side.Ted, you talk about not having full-time reporters. What about full-time sales staff?With GateHouse, we tried bringing in our highly-trained, well qualified online-only sales staff  and we got very little traction.  No fault of the staff, but the local business owners just didn’t warm up to them.  I started to get more traction when I started handling sales myself, but things didn’t really start to bloom until I owned the business.  Then the local owners really warmed up to me as one of them.Was your sales staff full-time, dedicated to only this product?  That could be a key factor in what you observed about advertising.I think else where you mentioned that one problem was that you didn’t have full-time reporters LIVING in the community they covered.  I think you’re right, that is a problem, and it is a necessity to have your editorial staff living in the communities they cover.But I would also argue that it’s a necessity to have your sales person LIVING in the community he or she is selling to.  One sales person per community living in that community.Hyperlocal sales (hate that word of course) is all about community, connections and relationships.The local restaurant owner needs to see the ad rep not just on sales calls, but for lunch and breakfast, too, and running into him or her at ball games and festivals, etc.  The sales person needs to be as much a part of the community as the editorial staff.Where you doing that?Edit
    Reply

  • http://twitter.com/lisawilliams Lisa Williams

    +1 to everything Michele says here.  The key is to judge these efforts — in particular, independent sites — as what they are: small businesses.  What would we expect from, say, someone who opened a neighborhood sandwich shop? Do we expect them to be booming and to have repaid all of their initial investment to start the business in under a year?  No, probably not.  3 years seems a good minimum.  
    If the sites in question are not independent small businesses, we have to ask, “why are they being operated as a conglomerate, and is it reasonable for them to make money that way?  Are there actual economies of scale to be gained by combining them, or not?”  And Michele makes another good point here, too:  people who did nothing wrong here will lose their jobs due to bad assumptions and bad decisions made by management, and that is really sad.  I hate to see people lose their jobs through no fault of their own and I wish everybody who worked on these sites well.

  • Anonymous

    It is sad to read this.
    Three lessons:
    1. It appears this endeavor made many mistakes that had already been made – like overestimating what the elusive “community” would contribute and underestimating the amount of work it would take to engage contributors. We knew this in 2009. Learn what’s already known before you make plans. (As an aside, I wonder if it’s harder for a corporate-owned entity to get free content from local contributors than for an indepedent nonprofit or bootstrap.)
    2. Two years is not generally going to be enough of a window to establish a successful site. I’d be interested in what Tracy and Howard think since they are actually doing local online news. I tend to think that it takes 3-5 years to establish a going, if not profitable, concern – that is to identify and really understand the market, engage with it, and develop smart revenue strategies.
    3. Passion matters. For all that journalists are passionate about journalism, many of the new news entrepreneurs (also journalists) are more passionate about community. I think that will prove a critical element in their success.
    Good luck everyone!

  • http://twitter.com/lisawilliams Lisa Williams

    I’m not sure if Howard or Tracy said this in response to the Slate piece, but one of you two pointed out that it’s not as hard to make money if you don’t have big corporate overhead to support.  

    I don’t really think that you can create efficiencies of scale by bundling up lots of local publications, whether they’re on paper or online.  (Warning, wonk alert) The Telecommunications Act of 1996 lifted limits on how many media outlets a single company could own, paving the way for radio behemoths like Clear Channel, and also for regional megachains of weeklies.  

    Very few of these weekly megachains worked out.  So what happened?  Well, that means that private equity investors put in a lot of money buying up small, local, profitable businesses and turning them into big, unprofitable chains.  Uh, #FAIL. 

    Not all businesses work well as regional or national chains, and businesses that don’t rarely excite the likes of Mr. Shafer (or venture capitalists) because they’re unlikely to yield the megabucks return of, say, Facebook or Google. 

    However, just because a venture (or a category of ventures) doesn’t yield 10x for some investor doesn’t make it a failure. 

  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    65,000 pageviews? Whatever they were doing, they clearly didn’t “get it,” because that is pathetic for a market that size. We set a traffic record in June – biggest month ever – without any traffic drivers like, oh, say, a snowstorm. 961,000 pageviews, in blog format (most stories don’t even jump, so you can get the latest news in one single pageview), with visits/uniques continuing to grow, too, in an area with a population around 80,000. And you cannot expect citizens to “contribute” huge chunks of your content, as these corporate efforts always seem to think you can. We get e-mailed crime reports, wildlife sightings, etc., but we do not live or die on them – and we would never put in an upload tool with no human attached and just expect people to use it. We hand-curate our events calendar, too. Yes, our readers use FB and Twitter – we have vibrant presences and sizable followings on both – and sometimes the conversation is there, more often it’s on our site. All goes to prove *you have to know who is out there* – what works in our community might not work in yours, etc., and these corporate templatized efforts don’t acknowledge or honor that at all. – Tracy @ WSB

  • http://twitter.com/mallarytenore Mallary Tenore

    No problem, Howard. I think you raised some insightful points in both the chat and the blog post I linked to. I especially like your point about the importance of creating an advertising strategy that’s as well conceived as your content strategy.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

    Thanks for including my quote to counter Mann’s assertion.  If a local news site has difficult selling advertising or generating money from advertising, the problem is with the advertising model the site is using or with execution, not with advertising.