Metro Washington, D.C., with 80-some identfiable communities, most of them in strong sub-markets, is hyperlocal heaven. But the competition can be hellish, and nowhere is it hotter than where hyperlocal publishing entrepreneur Scott Brodbeck has planted his two flags: Arlington in Northern Virginia and Bethesda in suburban Maryland.
Arlington is an inner core, mostly affluent suburb that has gone from demographically “white bread” to richly diverse in 20 years. Brodbeck’s first venture, three-and-a-half-year-old ARLNow, has five competitors in this fully urbanized county. Two rivals are powerful legacy publishers, the Washington Post and Gannett, whose WUSA Ch. 9 TV station operates one of its 63 community websites in Arlington. Digital pure-play Patch is in Arlington too. Across the Potomac River, Brodbeck’s upstart BethesdaNow – launched just under a year ago – competes against the Post’s long-established Gazette Newspapers, which has free weekly print and daily digital editions in Bethesda (and about 50 other communities in the Maryland suburbs). Bethesda, while still mostly white, has a nearly 10% Asian-American population. Ch. 9 and Patch are in the mostly affluent, rapidly urbanizing community too.
How, amidst so much heavyweight competition, did Brodbeck manage to take ARLNow to profitability in three years and get what looks like a firm cross-river foothold with BethesdaNow (which also carries news about adjacent and more typically suburban Potomac). To find out, I put these questions to him:
What distinguishes your news model from your competitors’, and what’s your “secret sauce” for the high level of engagement exemplified by multiple user comments on articles?
The “secret sauce” isn’t so secret — it’s just consistent, timely coverage of every interesting and/or important local story we know of in Arlington and Bethesda. Cover the community like crazy, then give readers a place to engage with your coverage. They will.
In Bethesda, you are the new kid on the block against the long-established, Washington Post-owned Bethesda Gazette, which also sends free weekly print editions to households. The Gazette has a strong editorial reputation. What do you do better or differently?
We have a better-designed website that focuses exclusively on Bethesda, not upon all the rest of the Maryland suburbs. You don’t have to click on a below-the-fold link to only see Bethesda news. Additionally, since we’re not writing for print our reporting has more immediacy, and we report on “local-local” issues — restaurant and store openings, real estate, etc. — that the Gazette seems to address only sparingly. I think we’re providing a great alternative to the Gazette online.
What are some of your progress numbers?
A. ARLNow is solidly profitable. Unique visitors have reached 200,000 monthly and ad revenue is up more than 225% year over year for first six months. BethesdaNow page views have surpassed 100,000 monthly — up more than 250% Y/o/Y.
Are ARLNow and BethesdaNow performing better than your competitors’ digital sites in user traffic and advertising?
It’s hard to compare apples to apples with the Post and the TV stations, but I certainly think we’re well ahead of all Arlington-focused publications in terms of traffic and digital advertising.
What added value does the BlankSlate platform deliver to your real estate section? Do you use other such services to stay on top of digital publishing technology, especially as it affects revenue, editorial content and user engagement?
BlankSlate provides a great turnkey real estate section for the site. Users love its exclusive Arlington focus and it provides some nice supplemental revenue for us. They handle all the sales and tech, there’s virtually no additional work for us. I wish there were more turnkey, revenue-producing solutions like it — but this is a nascent corner of the market and there just aren’t many vendors out there with attractive offerings for small local publishers.
One other company I work with is Broadstreet, which has a fantastic solution for allowing advertisers to update the text of their ads on the fly. It’s a value-added option for our advertisers, and those who have used it have enjoyed really impressive click rates.
What role do social networks play in the success of your sites, especially in user traffic and engagement?
Users like getting instant headlines via their Facebook and Twitter accounts. While we do engage with users on both, and receive lots of good tips and photos for stories, we realize that the reason people follow us is to get headlines. We don’t over-think the use of social media, we just use it in a way that seems natural for a local news organization. No consultants necessary.
As for traffic to ARLnow.com, Twitter provides 6.6% of visits, Facebook provides 6.1%, Reddit provides 1.3% and our daily email newsletter (digest of headlines and links) provides 8.9%.
What’s been the most revealing thing you’ve learned about hyperlocal news and community based on your experience in both Arlington and Bethesda? Is there a lesson that could be applied to present and future hyperlocal news sites anywhere else in the U.S.?
The fact that Patch hasn’t gotten much traction in Arlington shows that quality matters when it comes to content. Print media types may hear “quality” and think “in-depth, investigative reporting” — but that’s not necessarily what I mean. At the moment, I believe that breadth is more important than depth in local. But too much or too little of each can hurt. Striking a good balance in terms of shorter and longer articles, and publishing those articles at semi-regular intervals throughout the day, encourages repeat readership.
I think it also shows the importance of building and maintaining an engaged user base. Patch launched after us in Arlington and I think the fact that we already had a robust commenter base added a mental “switching cost” for users. We launched after Patch in Bethesda and as such it’s been more of an uphill battle to attract readership — but I think the tide has turned in our favor.
Could ARL-BethesdaNow grow to cover other communities in metro Washington? Based on your experience on both sides of the Potomac River, how feasible does such growth look?
We have more journalistic firepower focused exclusively on Arlington than anyone else right now: a full-time editor, a full-time reporter, a part-time contributor and a summer intern. Ultimately, that’s what I want for every community we’re in. It might not sound like much compared to a big metro newsroom, but it’s allowing us to provide more coverage of Arlington than our competitors.
I’m still focused on bolstering news coverage in Arlington and growing our readership in Bethesda. Once we “get it right” in Bethesda — and once we have that engaged user base and solid advertiser base – I would consider trying a third site somewhere in the D.C. region.
You’re going head to head against three corporations — the Washington Post, AOL and Gannett — that have a combined worth of more than $12 billion? Does that ever scare you?
I definitely worry about how deep the pockets are of some of my competitors. But being small in our case is a major advantage — we’re incredibly nimble, have relatively low overhead, and we can try stuff out without having to turn the cogs in a big corporate bureaucracy. I wouldn’t trade places with them when it comes to making hyperlocal news work.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.