Chris Jennewein has been hardwired to digital local news from its birth. It began in the early 1990s when, as director of information services at the Atlanta Constitution, he oversaw the paper’s launch of its pioneer Access Atlanta site on the now-extinct Prodigy Internet service in pre-browser days. Later, at the old Knight-Ridder publishing company’s San Jose Mercury News, he led the launch of the first full online newspaper. From other top digital posts at Knight Ridder, Jennewein moved to the San Diego Union-Tribune as director of its online operations. After a couple more career moves, he went to Aol’s Patch, where he helped roll out the new, fast-growing network’s Southern California sites.
Jennewein left Patch after Aol sold it, and returned to San Diego to launch the independent Times of San Diego. He was now a direct competitor to his old digital stomping ground, the Union-Tribune, which was going through the double whammy of the fast decline of print and the impulsive leadership of a new owner who, critics said, was turning the 145-year-old publishing institution into a megaphone for local development interests. Barely six months later, he marched up the coast to Los Angeles and started a twin regional site called MyNewsLa.com. I caught up with Jennewein recently to find out how he’s faring in his fourth decade of digital local news:
You started the Times of San Diego in March 2014. You’re now at 139,584 unique visitors monthly in less than 18 months, which puts you not far behind the Union-Tribune. How did it happen?
We focus on both SEO and in-person, public outreach to grow fast. The site was in Google News and Editors’ Picks from nearly the beginning, and is well indexed on Bing as well. This quickly boosted traffic. But a personal touch was important as well. Our staff makes a point of covering high-profile stories in-person, greeting newsmakers and handing out business cards, so that opinion leaders in San Diego know about Times of San Diego.
How did you finance your start-up? Any outside investment?
I’m personally bootstrapping Times of San Diego. For MyNewsLA.com, I’m working with investors in Los Angeles.
Half your San Diego readership is outside the metro region. Where is that half located and why do they read Times of San Diego?
Any local news site that covers its community well should see significant outside readership. Local companies like Qualcomm, the movements of San Diego-based Navy ships, the scientific research out of UC San Diego — it’s all of national interest. The more regional a site, the more likely it will see outside readership. Our readership beyond Southern California is from all over the world, but mostly other parts of the United States.
Do you really try to cover the 3.2-million population of greater San Diego? How can you do it with your size staff ? Don’t you have to be arbitrary about what you are going to report about, given your resources?
We do try to cover the entire metro area. Our goal is 20-25 stories daily that are essential for a resident of this region. That number compares favorably to the number of printed local articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune or the number of separate local stories on a television news program.
A small staff — we have six contributing editors and one contributing photographer — can leverage the Internet ecosystem to produce much more content than a traditional news team of similar size. Press release services, Google search, Facebook, local wire services, Twitter, YouTube and corporate websites can all be mined to quickly cover a story. A good example was Petco’s announcement Monday [Aug. 17] of an IPO that will be one of the biggest in San Diego corporate history. A press release, a Google search for revenue estimates and a quick call to Petco’s PR chief resulted in a story. Bloomberg beat us, but no local media outlet did. In many ways, Times of San Diego and MyNewsLA.com are built on what we learned at Patch about producing quality content with a small staff.
Generally, it’s proven hard for community news sites to scale and maintain quality without busting the budget with editorial expenses. Have you solved this problem?
At Patch and various internal startups at newspapers, I’ve seen the dangers of spending too much. So my credo going into Times of San Diego was to watch every penny. We use efficient news-gathering techniques, and I only spend more when there’s more revenue.
San Diego County is slightly younger than the U.S. Its millennial and Gen X population is about 42% compared to 40% nationally. What are your numbers for younger readers?
Our newest demographics show that millennial and Gen X readers, aged 18-44, account for 56% of our traffic. By contrast, the average age of newspaper readers and television news viewers is over 50.
What’s your advertising strategy, and how successful is it?
Times of San Diego sells local advertising directly and also participates in a number of national advertising networks. The combination of local and national is proving very effective. National advertisers understand the importance of using the Internet to reach millennials and Gen Xers, while for local advertisers there’s still a bit of a learning curve.
What’s the mix of advertising at Times of San Diego — local-regional compared to national? Do you participate in any programmatic advertising sales?
The mix is around 25% direct sales and 75% network. Probably a third of the network ads are from local and regional companies. So the overall mix is about 50/50 local-regional and national. One of the three networks I use is based on programmatic advertising techniques.
Did the decline of the Union-Tribune after its sale to a local real estate developer in 2011 provide a crucial space for the Times of San Diego’s launch early last year?
The changes at the Union-Tribune did create something of an opportunity. For example, Times of San Diego was in Google News Editors’ Picks for about four months before the Union-Tribune added its feed. But I figured any opportunity would be of short duration, so the new site would have to succeed on its merits.
Tribune Publishing has acquired the Union-Tribune and appears to have tightened the paper’s digital paywall, based on a post-acquisition dip in U-T traffic. It says the paper, in combination with the resources of Tribune’s LA Times, will have the “comparative advantage” to capture the digital market for news in metro San Diego. Are you worried, and do you plan any competitive changes?
I’m concerned. There’s always the potential for a well-funded legacy media company to succeed online. But to do so means turning away from the core business — the newspaper, or news program or magazine — and treating online as the core business. Some national media companies are doing this, but very few local ones so far.
You appear to be pulling ahead of the 10-year-old, nonprofit Voice of San Diego in readership. They’ve in the 130,000 range in monthly uniques. What makes the difference?
Times of San Diego is a very different site than Voice of San Diego. Our focus is on breaking, hard-news coverage, while Voice takes a more analytical, in-depth approach. We publish probably 10 times as many articles, but they’re much shorter than Voice’s posts. If a wildfire is burning near San Diego, we’ll write about it now, while Voice might write several days later about why it happened.
How has digital community journalism changed since your early days at the Atlanta Constitution and with Knight Ridder, and what drives the change?
In the early days, digital was all about developing new products and revenue streams for legacy media. I always thought digital media would grow to eventually be the largest part of a newspaper’s business. But traditional media panicked as Internet adoption increased. Now, with newspapers and TV doubling down on their core businesses and erecting paywalls, digital community journalism has to find an independent way forward. I believe that local news coverage is vital to a democracy, and my vision is to develop independent local media that reaches millennials and Gen Xers on their own terms.
Is Times of San Diego profitable or nearing that mark?
The business is at cash-flow break-even.
Are you thinking about other regionally focused community news sites in California or elsewhere in the U.S.?
Working with investors in Los Angeles, I launched MyNewsLA.com last October. In July that site reached 404,000 unique users. The site is similar in look and feel, and shares some of its staff and stories with Times of San Diego. For the Los Angeles site, we rely heavily on a local news wire (the same one all the TV stations use), but still produce a lot of independent content. The site typically publishes around 30 stories daily. The model is certainly applicable to other metro areas, but right now we’re focused on Southern California.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.