The Alternative Press: A Successful Hyperlocal in the Garden State
The story of why InJersey went out has been told in so many conflicting ways it could be called “Garden State Rashomon.” I’d like to tell the story of another New Jersey hyperlocal, The Alternative Press, that is less maddening, and more optimistic. Would-be hyperlocal publishers and editors, give TAP founder and CEO Mike Shapiro five minutes of your time.
In April 2008, Shapiro, a New Jersey native and an attorney with a litigation firm in Manhattan, is at a hospital with his wife, waiting to see if their 1-year-old son Shayne will survive high-risk open-heart surgery. He does. In gratitude, Shapiro decides to build a new career promoting social good. Wanting to be close to his family in suburban New Jersey, he decides to publish “high-quality, objective, non-partisan, hyperlocal news and information.” For an extra measure of goodness, the product will be “in an environmentally-friendly format” (i.e. electronic bytes instead of dead trees).
Shapiro appoints himself editor, publisher and chief ad salesperson of three new community websites, one of them in his hometown of New Providence. He has no journalistic experience (except working on his high school and college newspapers). Nor does he have any business know-how. He sinks $250,000 of his own money into the enterprise. For nearly two years, he takes no pay.
Today, Shapiro’s The Alternative Press is a 15-community network, including two licensees (nonprofits that pay a discount on the standard licensing fee of $10,000 up front plus 10% of revenue). TAP pays its founder a salary and, he says, is profitable. Shapiro’s next step is hiring an editor so he can spend more time selling licenses as part of his plan to turbo-charge revenue by scaling TAP throughout the Garden State, which has 556 communities, less than a fifth with hyperlocal sites.
These are TAP numbers that Shapiro reeled off at a MIT Enterprise Forum in February in New York City:
- The 15-community network (total population: about 225,000) is generating 400,000 unique visitors annually (about 3,500 per community per month). An average-size community generates about 50,000 uniques annually who open 170,000 pages, all loaded with salable ad inventory.
- Each of Shapiro’s sites has an average of six advertisers. Each advertiser pays about $2,500 for an annual contract, and 80% renew.
- Ad sales are growing by $100,000 a year (a 25% rate).
- By 2013, Shapiro expects the current TAP sites to have a total of 200 advertisers, generating $500,000 revenue, with expenses totaling $400,000, for a profit of $100,000.
- The TAP-operated network plans to expand to 35 communities by 2013, with another 35 sites launched as licensees or in partnership with TAP.
Shapiro welcomes press releases, calendar listings and guest columns from the community, but not—under new rules being rolled out—news articles. The daily grist of community news is produced by freelancers, who are paid $25 to $60 per contribution. The network has grown to 200+ freelancers. Shapiro is arranging for reporting and photography workshops for journalistic newbies. The 30 columnists get paid $25 for each 1,000 unique visitors they attract.
Shapiro has nine ad salespeople, counting himself, who all work closely with merchants in the production of display ads, most of which are clickable small squares (155 x 155 pixels) with room only for the name, address and telephone number of the merchant. “There’s no self-serve,” Shapiro says, in a crack at Patch, which competes with TAP in many of its communities, and other sites that give merchants ad-production tools.
Shapiro makes a big point of comparing his low visitor-acquisition costs—28 cents—to what he says is Patch’s— $1.39, based on when the AOL hyperlocal had 3 million unique visitors vs. the current 4 million.
TAP is the rare non-major-media enterprise that is has succeeded in scaling hyperlocal. Another is MainStreetConnect, which last year raised nearly $4 million from individual investors and has 51 sites in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., Fairfield, Conn., and Worcester, Mass., and says it plans many more.
How good is TAP’s journalism? It could, and should, be better, and it is tarnished when advertorials are presented as “top stories” and “articles.” Shapiro argues that an article headed “Virtue Tile in Summit: Unmatched Product, Knowledge and Service” is factual reportage. He adds that he’s begun featuring clearly labeled and separately formatted advertorials for which merchants pay in one test community, Westfield.
TAP’s journalism is not as incisive as what’s featured on hyperlocal paragon West Seattle Blog. But that site has a single editor—the deeply experienced Tracy Record—for one city of 80,000 population. Shapiro has one editor (himself) spread over 13 sites. Then again, WSB hasn’t yet tried to market its special sauce beyond West Seattle.
(The two TAP semi-autonomous licensees—Paterson.com and New Brunswick.com, which were set up by the Citizens’ Campaign good-government lobbying group—take a harder approach to news, and it shows. Paterson.com has its own editor, Joe Malinconico, who was a longtime investigative reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, and NewBrunswick.com’s editorial is managed by staff from the Rutgers University Department of Journalism and Media Studies.)
But TAP’s journalism is good enough at this point in the site’s development—a solid B if graded on a curve. If and when Shapiro seeks outside investment—which he says he’ll consider—he may be able to hire a couple more editors and make other improvements that would help him lift TAP to an A, which West Seattle Blog and a few other hyperlocals, all indies, have achieved. But there’s no denying that TAP’s news content has a reassuring consistency, something that InJersey, despite its occasional home-run stories, conspicuously lacked (as InJersey Editor Ted Mann acknowledged in his Street Fight post-mortem).
Shapiro doesn’t push the envelope on civic engagement with stories that go beyond finger pointing to problem solving, which would require more resources than he’s got. Nor does he develop stories from the free, easy-to-use municipal-level data available at TownStates.org, basically because it focuses on numbers rather than people. That may come later, “if that’s what our readers want,” he says. TAP is a digital version of a reliable, comprehensive, well-thumbed community paper from the dead-tree era. The communities TAP serves are fortunate to be one click away from this hyperlocal bounty.
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.