Mike Shapiro, who left his legal career to start The Alternative Press, a community news website in his hometown in suburban New Jersey, is marking the site’s fourth anniversary. TAP has grown to 18 separate hyperlocal publications, including licensees, and Shapiro is preparing for another major expansion. How does Shapiro do what some news industry experts have said is next to impossible for independent community sites like his? Street Fight caught up with him recently to find out.
How did you celebrate your anniversary – four candles on a cake?
We’re celebrating with four new initiatives for TAP for 2012-2013: Redesigning the sites, expanding licensing beyond New Jersey, introducing video, and introducing deals on TAP. For good luck, we added the fifth candle, which was the birth of our daughter Layla on Sept. 7. She’ll make a fine editor one day.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had as publisher/editor?
The biggest surprise has been that, particularly in a down economy, the slogan “Think Local” has really been embraced. Residents in our TAP towns know that in order to have a healthy and vibrant downtown, they need to patronize local merchants and family-owned and operated businesses. Just about every day, I hear great stories about people who love to stroll downtown and run into familiar faces and feel a part of a community. Our advertisers and columnists and readers love that we are don’t just talk the local talk, but that we walk local too, and they support us in return.
What are the top three things a community-based site needs to do in order to succeed?
1) Provide high quality, objective local news on a consistent basis. 2) Provide excellent customer service to everyone who comes in contact with TAP. 3) Be passionate and really care about your community and how you can help your community through your hyperlocal.
You started TAP with $250,000 of your own capital. Is that about how much an entrepreneur needs today to start a community website?
With our new licensing concept, which we launched in January, now an entrepreneur can start a hyperlocal with a fraction of that capital because the infrastructure is already in place. That’s why we decided to license TAP – to enable people who want to start a hyperlocal as their own business to do so without the significant cash outlay and learning curve that starting a hyperlocal from scratch entailed. We now have nine licensed sites up and running and many more on the way.
Advertisers, we’re told by some experts, don’t like to be next to local news? Is that true, and if it is, how do you get around that attitude to attract ads? Are price points critical?
I don’t agree with that at all. Local advertisers want to be next to local news. It shows they are a part of the community, and an important part at that. I do think price points are important for local businesses. We never want to price local businesses out of advertising with us so we offer many affordable options.
Some of the most successful independent hyperlocal sites seem to owe their success to being a creature of the community passions of their founders — and are thus hard to replicate. How did you get around that?
I agree to some extent – community passion and community knowledge are important to the success of a hyperlocal. That’s how we came up with the licensing concept – find people who have that passion for their community and give them all the tools they need to start their own hyperlocal. I call it creating incubators of entrepreneurship. One of our missions is to ensure that the licensee is ingrained in his or her community but also objective and non-biased. We are all about community-building, not dividing, and so that’s why you will never see anonymous postings in any of our sites. It keeps the conversations real.
In your presentation in New York City last year, you said you would be $100,000 profitable by 2013 – are you still on track to do that? Any new details on revenues and expenses and where they are headed? Any outside investment for expansion?
We are about to go out to investors to enable us to expand our licensing model throughout New Jersey and beyond. People who might be interested can contact me directly. Regarding the financials, we are on track regarding those figures for 2013. Ad sales continue to increase and revenue from licensees will start to become material in 2013, so we’re very excited about where TAP is right now and our plan for the future.
What’s the role of the community in TAP content? How engaged is it with each of your sites? Can you give an example or two?
The community is an integral part of TAP’s content. All content from the community is reviewed before it is published to ensure our site’s credibility is maintained. More importantly, the community helps provide us with story ideas. For example, a few months ago, a teacher and her second graders asked us to publish a letter to the editor about their attempts to save a fire truck in Summit. We did a story about it that prompted Coldwell Banker Realtors to match the donations made, and now those second graders are well on the way to saving the fire truck!
What’s next in your expansion?
The capital we raise will allow us to expand our licensing concept throughout New Jersey and beyond. We have a model that works and when you think about it, there has got to be someone who would like to start their own hyperlocal in pretty much every town in the country. We need to find those people, provide them with the training and tools they will need to be successful. Then we will mentor them to ensure they grow and thrive. I envision a few years from now we have 1,000 licensees throughout the country. Licensees who work for themselves, doing what they love, enjoying a great local quality of life, and helping their community, all at the same time.
What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs who want to do start a community site – three “do’s” and at least one “don’t”?
1) Cover local news objectively and well – and don’t have an agenda; 2) develop meaningful relationships with business owners and other community members; and 3) dig in and get involved in the community – don’t just talk about it.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.