A few weeks ago, on a balmy Saturday night, much of Richland Source's tiny staff headed out to take photos of five homecomings happening around Richland, Ohio.
Last year, the for-profit news organization started making galleries from area homecomings. They'd already made them from proms and then added videos of songs from school Christmas concerts (each school gets one song.) Then, they went to an advertiser to see if they'd sponsor the photo galleries. Those sponsorships now go for $3,000 each and typically sell out early, said Jay Allred, Richland Source's president.
In two days, those galleries brought in 401,655 page views (which is more than 10 times higher than their average) doing something their community loved that helps pay for their daily journalism. This year's fancy dance season brought the site a total of 893,000 page views.
Larry Phillips, managing editor at Richland Source, shared the success story in a session at last week's LION Publishers annual conference. The session included big and small successes from local online news organizations. Here are a few of them:
Text people the weather
MPR News in Minnesota uses GroundSource to text people the weather each morning, GroundSource's Simon Galperin told the gathering.
"Using messaging, it's a really unique way to own the relationship with the audience," he said. "… I think that's a great way for local publishers to make themselves stand out and be really close and connected to our communities."
Fix it yourself (with the community)
Santa Barbara's downtown is in bad shape, NoozHawk's founder and publisher Bill Macfadyen told LION. Different groups are working to fix it, but they're working in silos, he said, and no one is asking people what they want.
"So we decided that it would be up to NoozHawk to take this project on and fix State Street ourselves," he said.
They launched a project that's already raised $80,000. The site's four-part series is underway now, and will look at other downtowns that are thriving. NoozHawk's also using Hearken and will turn a forum into a virtual town hall. Next year, they're hoping to raise $200,000 and focus on the priorities the community has decided.
Crowdsource what you can't cover
Hartford, Connecticut's CT News Junkie knows it's hard to get people information on candidates, business manager Doug Hardy told the crowd at LION. So the site created a place to crowdsource those profiles.
"In a state like Connecticut, there's 169 towns," Hardy said. "Each town will have 20, 30 different offices that are up for election, so you're talking about 5,000 people, and the state doesn't have a list of those people."
The site found the municipal races have brought lots of engagement, and they're reaching people in parts of the state that the site hasn't reached before.
Consider membership instead of advertising
Madison365, a local site that covers people of color in Madison, Wisconsin, has a small but valuable audience, Robert Chappell, associate publisher, told the conference. But selling ads wasn't working too well.
So the site changed their approach. Now they offer a membership program that includes ads, custom content and listing in the annual report.
"Our first year, with very little effort, we got about $75,000," he said.
Get your visuals ready
Heather Bryant, who later spoke at LION about her experience with journalism and class, told the session about working with local newsrooms to get them to take the time, a few times a year, to drive around the community and get photos of major businesses, city hall, the police department, hospitals and officials "so you always have a stockpile of imagery ready to go."
It's a simple idea that helps those newsrooms have visuals ready for their sites and for social. Bryant wrote about the process here.
Charlotte's Qcitymetro covers the African-American community. That city also has a legacy print publication and magazine, founder Glenn Burkins told LION's crowd, "and after eight or nine years of beating each other over the head as competitors, we decided we would tiptoe into collaboration just a little."
They've since launched a speakers series, Burkins said, and are looking into other ways to collaborate.
"… It's all about trying to better serve the community and make money," Burkins said. "And I will say this: When the three publications walk in, print, online and magazine, we get a reception from advertisers that we don't get when we walk in alone."
Oklahoma Watch, an investigative non-profit, knows "if you want donations, you need to establish relationships," executive editor David Fritze said at LION. So the site has started swapping ad displays and banner spots for tickets to galas sponsored by non-profits.
"The exchange provides much-needed exposure for small nonprofits and offers an opportunity for our staff to learn more about issues, develop contacts and talk to potential donors and funders at these events," Oklahoma Watch's Dena Drabek, chief operating officer, told Poynter. "We have worked with a number of organizations representing child advocacy, Native-American health care, homelessness, breast cancer and behavior health."
Get on the wall
Bklyner's Dina Rabiner told the audience at LION that the hyperlocal Brooklyn site reviews a lot of restaurants, but those reviews don't look great when you print out the online story. So the site is now working on a template for reviews that it can send out after those reviews are up.
"So it's another way for us to raise our profile offline," she said, "and for them to be proud of being written up."
Include pics of a cute dog
North Carolina Health News sends out a reader survey twice a year. This year, the non-profit site had someone special make the ask for responses – their chief morale officer, Marconi the dog.
"We had two-and-a-half times higher response rate to our survey because we included the dog," said Elizabeth Page, development director.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included the wrong link to BKLYNER. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.