In the “Northeast Kingdom” of Vermont is Orleans County. Orleans has a population of only 27,169, but it is the location of a four-way competition among community news publishers — digital and pure play. The newest competitor is the pure-play independent Newport Dispatch, which, in less than two years, has captured the biggest digital audience in Orleans and, according to founder, publisher and editor Bryan Marovich, is “paying the bills.” Here, Marovich tells how he’s succeeding against two dailies and a weekly:
Why did you decide to start an online-only newspaper in Orleans County?
I did some freelancing for the weekly newspaper. I enjoyed things like covering the local demo derby, and looking for ways to tell local stories that appealed to my creative writing background. The pay was an insult. When I started routinely getting stories that ran on the front page, I thought that there should be some way to write full time. I worked hard and sent in three articles to the paper one week, one of which was an interview with Grammy winner Steve Earle, who was visiting the area, and they said that they couldn’t pay for it. I realized then that I needed to start my own newspaper. Thanks to people like Howard Owens, and Street Fight, I already knew that print was not the way to go. I also didn’t have any money to go any other way.
What has been the biggest change(s) you’ve made based on what you learned about your community and its residents from your launch?
The biggest changes I made were editorially, based off of the fact that I could l see through analytics reports and social media, what type of stories people want to read. I also changed my advertising rates to match the financial situation of local businesses.
Can other community news sites do these kinds of things to attract and engage readers and maybe develop new revenue streams?
Absolutely. I think that community news sites should experiment with many different types of advertisement or local business promotion. Think outside the box and be creative. If you find something that works, you have a great story to tell another potential advertiser, and they will see that you are actually in the business of helping their cause, not just sending out bills.
The thing with social media is that it costs me nothing to plug an event for an advertiser – check out the big response to the store opening on Facebook (photo at right) — or to try to organize a group of people to take part in an evening of events across the border. But for the business I’m helping to promote, it proves to them that we really are all in this together.
You have ads, but aren’t you selling at below-market prices? How long will you continue doing that?
Our ads are way below-market in price, but we are a small, rural county in Vermont. I plan to slowly offer more expensive marketing options that include in-post placement. We also plan to do more with video in the next six months, and so our advertising options will grow, allowing room for everyone. The key is to gain trust, and show people who have been advertising with the local paper for years—-some who hardly even use the internet—just how much better it is to advertise digitally. Once they see returns on low rates, raising our rates will be an easier sell.
You compete against three print papers, one of which, the Chronicle, charges an online sub, and a second which refers readers to its print publication. How well are you doing compared to them?
How we are doing compared to them depends on how you look at it. Financially, it is no secret that we are not making as much as we could, or even close to what the local papers bring in. As far as popularity, hands down our numbers prove that we are the most read, most followed socially, and have a platform in place to reach just about everyone in Orleans County. I think that we are doing way better than them because they have been in business for years, and in just one year, we were able to build a bigger audience by about three or four times what they can offer local advertisers. It is a very competitive business, and we have been in a street fight ever since launching. I don’t even want to get into some of the tactics other local media has used against us, but let’s just say that it has not been welcoming.
What kind of engagement do you get from your readers, including in unique visitors and pageviews?
In the last 30 days we had 41,376 unique visitors, with 90,562 pageviews. We had some really big stories lately that pushed our numbers up. We usually hover around the 30K mark. As far as reader engagement, I say good content will be read, then shared. If that is three paragraphs of a crime report, who cares? Why is a feature length article about a local building project that fewer people read and nobody shares considered more engaging? Orleans County has a population of 33,000. Put all those people in a room, and I still had 10,000 more at my website in the last month.
Are you profitable?
I pay my bills, have a roof over my head and food on the table. I can take long bike rides, and visit family back in Indiana whenever I want for as long as I want. I don’t have to pitch stories, and have built a platform that is very powerful locally. Can any business grow and become more profitable than that? I know that answer sounds idealistic, but I think that it is important to be happy with what you have and to live within your means. I want to grow the business and make more money, and I plan to work hard to do both. But, I know the value of what I have.
How important is social media to your success?
Without social media, I would not have a business. I’ve heard some people in this industry say that you shouldn’t chase social media followers. I disagree. I say don’t chase them, buy them if you have to. When I got started, I developed a strategy based on the percentage of clicks a link received on Facebook within the first hour a post went live. If it was above a certain percent, I boosted the post. Facebook would distribute the link to more people, and more people would be exposed to our content. If you really think that anyone has 30,000, or even 5,000 followers on social media within a year, and they didn’t pay for it, think again. Everyone has to advertise their business, and a local news site is no different. Social media is the ideal place for us to advertise, and the cost is low. You’d be surprised what giving Facebook $30 a month will do for your business.
Do you plan on any major innovation or expansion in 2015?
I’m working on developing a network across the state of Vermont. I can also offer anyone who wants to give it a go, a turnkey solution to get started. So far I am working with a journalist in Addison County, Vt., who is developing a site, and I am actively looking for others.
Video is going to be a big part of our 2015. I’m paying close attention to NowThis, and applying some of their tactics to local content. Finding ways to tell local stories through social media is what I plan to explore in the next weeks.
I’m a big fan of Jared Tucker’s work. He runs the Plains-Valley Online News, based out of Roswell, N.Mex. He is the only one I know of who has jumped into hyperlocal online news video the same way we all jumped into “online newspapers.”
I feel that it is important to give your audience a local media experience that includes photo, video and audio. I’m going to see what works, then offer our advertisers more options to reach our audience. If that is a 30-second commercial that runs before a breaking news update shared solely on social media, I don’t think they will care, so long as people hear their message.
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 last year.