Today’s digital community news publisher-editors are increasingly likely not to have had experience working for traditional journalism outlets. But that hasn’t prevented them from making their mark — even when they’re competing against platforms that have strong print resources.
That’s the case for Todd Gill and Dustin Bartholomew, co-founders of the seven-year-old independent Fayetteville (Ark.) Flyer. In this Q & A, Gill tells how he and Bartholomew achieved success in a market with a major print and digital daily newspaper.
You and your partner started in advertising. Why did you leave to start the Flyer?
I was an interactive art director and Dustin was a production manager at CJRW, one of the larger advertising agencies in Arkansas. We actually launched the Flyer while still working in advertising, just for fun (late 2007). As traffic increased, we started getting requests for our rate card from local advertisers. We didn’t want to sell ads, mostly because we had full-time jobs and had never imagined owning a business. The more requests we got, the more intriguing the idea became.
We didn’t think banner ad sales would support two salaries, so we started brainstorming ideas for other revenue sources. We began sketching out a basic framework for a local business directory that would give every local business a free web “page” that they could pay to upgrade with photos, news, deals, etc. This was all before Facebook had Pages and Google had Places. A few weeks in, we discovered that the World Co.’s software division, Mediaphormedia, already had a similar product available called Ellington Marketplace. It was cheaper to use their platform than build our own, so we put together a business plan, got a loan, and quit our jobs (mid-2008).
From whom did you get your start-up loan, and how much was it for?
We borrowed $35,000 from a family member, which was enough to last us six months. We’d asked several banks for twice that amount, but they all turned us down. It turned out to be for the best, because it forced us to become sustainable much quicker than we’d planned. It was a stressful time, but we made it through.
The Flyer started out covering music primarily, right?
Our intention was to write about the local music scene, but the Flyer quickly became more of a broad topic, blog-style publication about Fayetteville. It was mostly aggregation of local news, since we still had full-time jobs. Back then, there were two newspapers and no paywalls, so it was easy to find news we could point to.
When did you add general news, and what drove that decision?
Once the business was up and running, we started selling ads on the Flyer. Our readers were excited for us, and our traffic increased quite a bit from all the buzz.
Some of the local journalists were not too thrilled. Their frustrations were not unlike what you’ve heard time and again from the traditional news industry — blogs are parasites, bloggers are not journalists. You know, all the cliches. That really got under my skin. I knew we were providing a more convenient format than the outdated websites the newspapers used. I also knew we were relying on those organizations to provide us with news topics. Dustin had become our ad salesman, and I had no idea how to be a first-hand journalist, so I felt stuck.
Finally, after reading a particularly harsh local newspaper editorial that was trying to convince people not to trust local bloggers because “you’ll never see a blogger sitting through a City Council meeting,” I’d had enough. I took it as a dare, and decided we’d do our own reporting. For the first 18 months, we paid a recently graduated journalism student to cover City Council meetings. When she left, I took over (mid-2010).
How do you and your partner split responsibilities?
Dustin’s primary job is ad sales. I handle the editorial and technical side. We split the writing duties, with Dustin focusing on soft news while I report on local government issues.
You’ve been quoted in Columbia Journalism Review that you found journalism “terrifying” at first. How did you get over that and comfortable covering, like, City Council meetings?
I was mostly terrified at the idea of being a journalist. I have a journalism degree from the University of Arkansas, but that’s only because the Advertising and Public Relations classes are part of the Journalism Department. When I took over City Council reporting, I started simple. I basically served as a third-party clerk. I wrote a brief post each morning before the meetings that listed each agenda item, with a brief description and a link to a PDF with all the agenda information the City Council members receive each week. During the meetings, I would list which aldermen were absent, how each item was voted, who voted against and what their reasoning was. I still use the same format today, but I typically also write a more traditional story the following day.
Do you emphasize “soft” news, built around culture and the fact Fayetteville is home to the University of Arkansas?
We do. Partially because Fayetteville is a college town with built-in audience for cultural coverage. But also because I don’t think we could get readers interested in an article about a governance change at the city-partnered performing arts center if we didn’t also write about events at that arts center. We think soft news and hard news go hand-in-hand. I don’t think we could focus on just one and still be successful.
The state paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, includes Fayetteville in coverage through its Arkansas Online platform. What’s the state of the competition between the Flyer and Arkansas Online?
A few years ago, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette merged with The Morning News. Both had been serving as regional outlets with no city-specific coverage. Soon after the merger, they put up a paywall. For us, it was great. Besides being the only Fayetteville-specific publication, we also became the only free news source. They are a gigantic company with tons of resources, but our backgrounds in marketing taught us to work very hard behind the scenes to stay in front. We have a “first or best” approach when our coverage overlaps that of the newspaper to ensure we aren’t squashed if the paywall goes away. We keep our ad rates low enough so they’re sustainable for a small organization, but useless to a bigger company. It’s nothing profound, as far as business is concerned, but a non-journalism background has helped us tremendously.
How big is your editorial staff?
It’s just myself and Dustin. We currently have one regular freelancer, but his only topic is the local craft beer scene. Craft beer is exploding here. Seven breweries have opened in the last couple of years and we want to own that coverage when it’s really blossoming. We handle the rest pretty well.
What’s your advertising strategy?
Our business directory was our only sustainable revenue source, so when Facebook and Google began experimenting with free pages for businesses, we developed a replacement revenue source and eventually did away with Ellington Marketplace. We emphasize annual contacts with our local advertisers, which is a tricky sell, but we make sure the value is unparalleled. Our full-time advertisers receive both static and fluid ads, which means we can provide continuous brand exposure combined with timely and relevant messaging.
What’s your content management system, and do you use community contributions?
We use WordPress. We don’t invite anyone to contribute articles. Aside from one freelance story each week, Dustin and I create all the content on the Flyer. Combined, we produce about 100 posts per month between the two of us.
What’s your social strategy with platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
We use social platforms for direct and indirect marketing. We promote our stories, ask questions, answer questions, post photos, and try to be a real part of the community. Getting traffic from Twitter and Facebook can be tricky. It requires an understanding of your audience’s habits to make sure you aren’t posting the wrong type of story at a certain time of day. You also have to write new headlines that are equally as interesting as all the other things your audience is scrolling through, without being so click-baity that you let them down.
What are your monthly unique visitors and page views?
We’re currently at about 73,000 UVs per month, with 221,760 PVs.
Are you profitable? What is your ad revenue range?
We are profitable. In ad revenue, we are not quite at $200,000. We’re hoping to hit that number in the next year or so.
Metro Fayetteville is close to a half million people. Do you plan to add sites in Bentonville and other cities in the region?
We’re looking at a couple of options for expanding our coverage toward Bentonville, but it’s been a slow process. We don’t have any solid plans, but that is a goal.
In your ad days you were a part-time musician as well. Does publishing a community site beat playing a guitar?
I still play guitar, just not as much as before starting the Flyer. That’s mostly because I own a small business now, but also because I have a 2-year-old daughter. It’s hard to balance everything, but that’s not a unique story. Running a community site is very rewarding, though. I get to stay plugged into the community I love while spreading information that, hopefully, helps people make better decisions. That’s good for us all.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.