Ten years ago, Newell Nussbaumer owned a shop in Buffalo, N.Y., selling everything from Mexican wrestling masks to leather goods made in New York City, plus locally made products. Then he decided to go into the community news business to tell the story of what he saw as a resurgent Buffalo. Initially, it was a tough sell because fleeing Buffalonians didn’t bother to turn off the lights when they went out the door. But today Buffalo is a prominent part of the New Urbanism that’s helping to revive many old cities, and Nussbaumer’s Buffalo Rising is doing very well chronicling the Queen City’s comeback, which the New York Times chronicled last year. Here, Nussbaumer tells Street Fight how he did it:
How hard was it to go from being a shop owner to community news publisher?
It all happened so quick. It was a natural transition. My boutique became my office for Buffalo Rising. Writers would stop in and talk to me about articles and content. Before I knew it I was paying more attention to the writers than the customers. I stopped going to trade shows, purchasing merch, and suddenly I realized that I had made a career change.
As a novice publisher-editor, what was your biggest crisis, and how did you meet it?
I wish that we had continued to grow in a grassroots way. We got an injection of cash and brought on paid writers and editors. But at the time we were not ready for that. So eventually, as funds began to dry up due to all of the added expenses, we could not sustain the growth. Eventually we began to let writers go, and I began to take over as editor and produce the content myself, with the help of a couple of integral contributors who had been there from the start or close to it. Its funny to think that two of our most prolific writers live in California and Chicago.
Many of your articles are keyed to how Buffalo is changing, and how people are coming back — for dining and entertainment, cultural and recreational activities, even to live. Buffalo Rising is not big on traditional “duty” coverage (fire, police, etc.), right?
Buffalo is changing before our eyes. Instead of just beating the drum, we are witnessing a renaissance. People are coming back, or simply moving here, partially because of all of the cultural resources that we have, along with the cost of living, and the four seasons.
When I was young, Bethlehem Steel constantly belched black smoke into the air. Today that site is home to windmills, and a solar farm is now on the way. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who love the weather here too. You can’t beat the four seasons. As for “duty” coverage, I could think of nothing more painful to cover. I’m a big fan of covering the environment and green issues, our incoming refugee population, bike culture, sustainability, urban farms, public art, and the community activists that have sprung up in every pocket of the city. I could have reported on a fire that took place on Elmwood Avenue the other day, but I’d rather talk about the type of infill that will replace what was burned out.
You write a lot of articles yourself, under the transparent handle “Queenseyes.” How big is your paid staff and how many freelance articles do you run per day and what do you pay for them?
At this point we are not paying our writers. At one point we did, and it almost sank the ship. We are hopefully getting back to paying writers as we continue to build Buffalo Rising. Our writers because they love Buffalo and want to see it kick ass again. Buffalonians were down and out for a while, but those days are now gone and we’re all pooling time and energy to get this city to where it needs to be. We post upwards of nine articles a day (fewer on weekends). Some days I might post five. Other days three. It all depends. A lot of people submit content to us. I also occasionally have an intern or two to help out.
You compete against Warren Buffett, who owns the Buffalo News. Does that scare you at all?
If I had time to think about it — no. I wouldn’t want his job, and he wouldn’t want mine. If we can carve out a little slice of the cake, then why not? I do a lot of things other than Buffalo Rising. I run a flea market, give city tours and create events such as The Witches Ball and the Flurrious and Powder Keg winter festivals, and cobble it all together to make a decent living. Plus, you just can’t beat the cost of living here. And the proximity to Toronto means that we have access to one of the fastest-growing cities in North America. We can get up at 8 a,m. and still be there in time for breakfast.
Buffalo Rising has a good number of ads. Does display — contrary to what we are hearing about its effectiveness — work?
The ads are working for us. Local businesses want to ave their brands associated with positive news about Buffalo. Or at least solution-oriented content. Our readers who like what we’re saying are apt to click on an ad that shows them where to buy a scooter in Downtown Buffalo. Or where a good restaurant is. Chances are, if we like something and write about it, and readers support the business by going there, then there might be an inclination to advertise. Obviously, as our readership continues to grow, it’s even more appealing to advertise. As for the businesses, they spend all of this money building websites and then they need to find ways to drive online traffic.
You sponsor events, like Cirque du Square. Do these events produce any revenue for you?
Cirque du Square is one of the events that my wife continually tells me that I’m crazy for organizing. I had the idea that Buffalo could take its central square and turn it into a place filled with live music, yoga, lawn games, cafe tables, gelato and pressed drinks, etc. It’s not a money maker. The point is to not lose money, and create a more vibrant city, attract more people, who will then buy houses and open up businesses, and ultimately advertise those businesses on BRO (at least that’s how I justify it to my wife).
You say you earn enough to “keep the lights on.” Are you profitable?
In a manner of speaking. Yes, we pay our bills, but it’s also not my full-time job. That might change in the near future, however.
If someone wants to start a community news site in a city, and especially if it’s a place that’s trying to come back with a new identify, what’s your advice on how to succeed in such a market?
Don’t expect to make a lot of money any time soon, unless you’ve got access to backers with deep pockets. Look at it like a hobby. See if you can grow it. Be willing to take chances. It requires lots of time and energy, and I don’t think that many people actually knows what goes into it. I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and I think I’ve finally figured out the game. There were a ton of pitfalls along the way, and it’s still not an easy road, but now I’m having fun with it, and when you get to that point doors tend to open for you.
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.