The Batavian’s Owens: Start Selling Ads the Day You Launch

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Veteran newsman Howard Owens bristles when some news pundits tell him there aren’t sustainable business models for hyperlocal. “I just want to jump out of my skin,” he says. “There is a business model for local media because some of us are doing it.”

Over the past two years as publisher of The Batavian, a local news Web site serving Batavia and Genesee County in New York, Owens has practiced what he preaches. The site’s traffic has grown from 2,000 to 6,000 unique visitors per day, he’s selling enough ads to turn a profit, and he has established himself as a leading voice in the world of indie hyperlocal publishers.

Here he tells Street Fight that hyperlocal networks like Patch are at “a disadvantage” when it comes to selling local ads, because there is “a certain barrier of trust that must be overcome” in order to get local businesses on board as advertisers. He also weighs in on the long-term viability of advertising as a business model for online content.

What does the word “hyperlocal” mean these days, and how does it relate to what you do?
I have a love/hate relationship with the word “hyperlocal.” I think it can have value as far as focusing some attention on what I perceive is a correct strategic decision about how to cover local news. On the other hand, it really has no meaning because nobody can really decide on what it means. … There’s no clear-cut definition that everybody who uses the term agrees on.

For example, we [at The Batavian] often get lumped in and called a hyperlocal site. In some ways that is true, and in other ways, it’s not. To me, typically, a hyperlocal site is a Web site that focuses on almost a single neighborhood and provides… every cat that crosses the street gets a mention practically. It’s very granular: “Here’s everything going on in our part of the city right now.”

The typical small business owner doesn’t have a lot of time to figure out how to make Google ads work really well for them. They don’t have time to figure out the best practices for a Facebook page and strategy.

For us, we do some of that kind of reporting. I always go back to one of the earliest posts we did that got quite a lot of comments: One of the reporters that I had at the time took a picture of somebody who had been writing song lyrics on the pavement downtown, and he took a series of pictures of these lyrics written on the pavement and just posted the pictures and that got all kinds of conversation going. … That is an example of the “cat crosses the street” sort of news that is not the type of thing typically that a traditional news journalist, even on a local community level, ever deals with. But we publish that kind of so-called “trivial” stuff all the time. To me, that’s an aspect of hyperlocal.

On the other hand, I think of us primarily as just a local news site. The stories I’m working on right now, everything I’m working on today, is all traditional journalistic coverage for a community of this size. It’s not all that much different than what I’d be doing at a strictly print newspaper. It’s not that different from what I did as a newspaper reporter 20 years ago.

Having gone through the process of building up The Batavian, what have been some of the things that have worked so far?
Once I came to live and work in the community, I became much more successful . … There is a tremendous advantage to being the person in the community who is responsible for the site and also talking to the local business owners. The outside salesperson, the corporate salesperson is at a disadvantage.

Any kind of conglomerate effort at “local” has a disadvantage in that there’s a certain barrier of trust that must be overcome. Once local business owners saw me as one of them, “I’m another local business owner just trying to make my way, the same that you are,” they were much more accepting of talking to me. And there’s definitely a sense of a camaraderie that I’ve developed with a lot of advertisers of “we’re all in this together” sort of thing. And that’s very hard to do if you don’t have an ownership stake in what you’re selling.

I know everybody talks about the billions and billions of dollars to be made in online and it’s sold as this golden thing of “all these small businesses can’t wait to take advantage of all these wonderful opportunities to market their businesses in the digital world, and they’re going to jump right on self-serve and they’re going to jump right on social networking and they’re going do all these things themselves and whoever give them a key to unlock the tools and everything is going to make a lot of money.”

I first started selling advertising to local businesses when I ran a small newspaper in San Diego back in 1986–87. And to me, that line of thinking has always been bullshit. The typical small business owner doesn’t have a lot of time to figure out how to make Google ads work really well for them. They don’t have time to figure out necessarily the best practices for a Facebook page and strategy. They know that online is important and they want to be a part of it, but they’re also still a little afraid of it. So when somebody comes in from a conglomerate environment, selling this stuff, there’s a barrier of resistance that must be overcome. So that’s why I think there’s an advantage to being the local owner in the local community.

How do you create a big enough audience within a small local community to sustain a business?
In February 2009, when I became sole proprietor, we had about 2,000 unique visitors a day; now we do about 6,000. But even at 2,000, there was the perception that “everybody reads The Batavian.” …

We launched The Batavian and said, “Okay, we’re going to take three to six months to build the audience, then we’ll start selling ads.” I now advise anybody starting a local Web site: “On the same day you launch your content effort, start selling ads.” You may not sell a single ad for three to six months, but in taking your media kit around to all the small local businesses, what you’re doing is building a network. The small business owners are generally the most connected people in town. So if what you’re doing is good, if you’re putting out good content and serving the community well, these small business owners, they’re going to be resistant the first time you come in to buying an ad from you, but they’re going to log on to your site. And if they like what you’re doing, they’re going to tell their friends about it, they’re going to tell the other neighbors and you get this network of all the most connected people in town talking about your site. That creates the perception that “everybody in town is reading it.”

You really want to build up that relationship with the local business owners because they’re the ones that first promote your site and once they have confidence in your site, they will advertise on it. And that goes back again to what I was saying earlier about how everybody is really focused on all the golden money out there in online, thinking that “we’ve got to find the magical formula to unlock it.” The magical formula to unlock it is the same formula that existed for newspapers 40 or 50 years ago: feet on the street, knocking on doors, making sales. As a friend says, “It’s Sales 101.” …

Everybody focuses on Patch or what New York Times is doing or TribLocal or all these other initiatives and with always this general presumption of, “Oh, they’re probably going to fail,” or, “They’ve got a long way to go. How are they going to succeed? How are they going to make money?” There’s all this doubt and angst about what these big conglomerates are doing. Meanwhile, those of us in the trenches, doing local news sites, are out selling ads, making money, being profitable, showing that there is a business model here and that hardly ever gets recognized by the pundits. There’s been stuff recently from Tom Rosenstiel and Gordon Borrell and a few others saying there’s no business for local media and I just want to jump out of my skin. There is a business model for local media because some of us are doing it.

And advertising is what’s going to support that business model?
There’s a class of digital pundits out there who like to preach about how advertising is dead, that all this digital technology is going to kill off what was traditionally known as “advertising.” But I believe that we’re all at some point consumers; we’re all interested in some sort of product or service at some point, and there’s always going to be businesses that are looking for us. And it’s not always easy to identify us. There’s still a place for advertising to reach those of us that drift in and out of consuming different products. As long as you can bring together a target market of readers, of eyeballs — I hate that term — then advertisers are going to want to reach those people. Because as inefficient as advertising sometimes seems, it’s still the most efficient way to reach new people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.