How to Run Hyperlocals that Make Money — An Email Mini-Debate

As part of writing for Street Fight I give the impression of being an expert in hyperlocal, and following that sometimes come requests to talk about the category and give my impressions of where things are headed. (If only I knew.) But not being an impolite journaler I usually accept happily in hopes I’ll, too, learn something.

Recently the good folks at the American Press Institute (yes, there is one still) asked if I’d help lead a discussion of a cross-section of people from newspapers around the country. The topic? “Strategies for Sustainable Hyperlocal Business Models.”

Oh, is that all? It’s an obvious challenge we’ve reported on quite a bit at Street Fight. And I can tell you that there are as many workable strategies out there as there are failures. That is to say, nobody has it truly figured it out. I see that as a great thing — it spells opportunity. Maybe I’m among the few, but I surely don’t believe this is evidence of inevitable failure for hyperlocal. There are finer points to this discussion, of course. And subtleties matter. So I did what I do best: ask someone else.

Who better than Laura Rich, Street Fight CEO, and Tom Grubisich, columnist and longtime chronicler of hyperlocal as well as champion of (a startup aiming to use data to reveal yet unknown facts about localities). I asked these two about it in email and I liked the feisty authenticity of the private exchange so much that I’m just going to lift and republish for your benefit (shh, don’t tell them). I also queried Rick Blair, lately of, GoLocal24 co-founder Josh Fenton, and Scott Brodbeck of  I asked: “How do you get to sustainable business models in hyperlocal?” Here’s what came back at me:

Tom Grubisich: A continuing challenge in the hyperlocal industry is establishing — with hard data — a correlation between editorial quality and engagement (as a key component of product development) and financial success. We can pretty well pinpoint which sites have the most quality, and make a stab at the level of user engagement that quality generates (by checking the number of user comments on articles and “likes this” and “talking about” on Facebook and tweets, “following” and “followers” on Twitter), but we don’t have access to ad revenues [per site].

To get specific, we can reliably state that West Seattle Blog or Westport Now or Sacramento Press is high in editorial quality/engagement, but we don’t have any P & Ls from those sites, or others — even major-media ones like AOL’s Patch — that would help us establish a connection between quality/engagement and profitability. We also don’t have access to detailed engagement metrics, which would show us which articles generate the most activity, a starting point in establishing the elusive correlation. So, I think whatever you say will have to be qualified with caveats that the hyperlocal industry is very un-transparent and loves to talk about success in generalities. You’ll note that Patch’s SVP/revenue answered all your questions without using a single number. And that’s not an exception — it’s the rule.

Laura Rich: I think we have to be careful on the editorial quality point to assume it leads to profitability. In general, in many areas across the commercial landscape, this is not often true. Think of “quality” TV shows that get kicked off the air because they don’t pander to the lower-standards broader audience. Or how about the work of a painter? Perhaps higher quality than a comic book, but the comic book is reproducible and leads to more sales. And the very existence of factories points to the fact that lower-cost (lower-quality) products can lead to greater margins and more profits.

Not that quality can’t lead to profits and audiences. I’m just saying it’s dangerous to assume so.

Tom Grubisich: The debate about whether quality content — whether in print, broadcast or digital — leads to profitability is eternal. But I think you can say that quality takes on real meaning in markets that are less mass and more local. You can’t start a standalone site in, say, Peoria, and pack it with aggregation and ranting forums, and expect it to be profitable, as Topix apparently is with its network built on millions upon millions of PVs that yield 10 cents per thousand (though I haven’t seen its P&L).

A site that tries to cover Peoria with better editorial may fail too, but its chances are a lot better because it doesn’t have to live or die by PVs but can maybe eke out a living with a small but engaged usership. Can I prove that beyond doubt? No, not unless I get my hands on a lot of financial information that is notoriously unavailable in the hyperlocal industry.

I think Rick should be candid with his API audience about the quality question, which can’t be sufficiently analyzed, much less answered, without that missing data. But if I were Rick, I’d assemble about five successful hyperlocal case histories — maybe West Seattle Blog, Baristanet, Westport Now, Sacramento Press and Charlottesville Tomorrow — and ask his API audience what they think the case histories have in common. I’m sure that after all the debate dust settled, there’d be consensus that all five, each in its own way, made a grand attempt to connect with its community by reaching up rather than down. Beyond that lesson, there are no certainties about building a sustainable media business. But maybe that’s enough.

Laura Rich: So, this is a good argument but I guess I still think it’s more valuable to look at the revenue side — you can have all the users in the world and be a nice brand and advocate for your community but if you can’t develop the advertiser relationships or find another way to monetize, you’re not building a sustainable business, which is our goal for hyperlocals here at Street Fight (and the focus of Rick’s question).

I also decided to bring in a couple outside voices, one well-weathered in the hyperlocal and local media spaces; the other a noob meeting with great success by killing it in Arlington, Va.

Scott Brodbeck, the relative newcomer who is editor and publisher of semi-famously profitable hyperlocal offered this thoughts focusing on product and service:

To reach sustainability, a hyperlocal news web site must first attract a large local audience. It can do so by producing consistent and engaging content that matches the mood and interests of the community the site serves. The site then must serve business clients, by providing superior, cost-effective advertising options and other useful services that benefit local businesses. Anything on top of that is just icing on the cake.

Content is still king says Josh Fenton of GoLocal24:

It is all about content.  To be successful in local media you need to produce content that is relevant to how people live their lives.

You simply can’t fake it – you need to break stories, you need to be trusted, you need to treat your audience with respect. GoLocal24 is driven to create high value content that enhances people’s lives. Investigative journalism, coupled with insights into the local economy – no three-day-old wire stories that I heard on CNN days earlier.

There are too many gimmicks trying to claim they are producing local digital content cobbling together user content, canned media and part-time writers. The reality is if you create high value content – readers will come and advertisers will follow.

Rick Blair, former CEO of, said he believe the tenets of a sustainable hyperlocal revenue model would include all of  the following:

  • A network of local/hyperlocal sites (whether regional or national)
  • Content and ad revenue strategies that are both vertical and local, allowing for local, national and regional buys
  • A mix of CPM, CPC, CPA and flat monthly fee programs priced allowing the advertiser to select the risk he/she would take on relative to the cost
  • The right mix of sales feet on the street, telesales and  self service. The success of the latter two will be the determining factors in the rate of return, allowing the publisher to keep the prices affordable.
  • Availability of inexpensive creative (copy, web sites, landing pages, etc.)
  • Non advertising related products and services including copy, creative services, and products from local merchants.
  • The resources to continue to invest and refine the process

… and finally, time.

Then again time is the one thing the API and its newspapers might not have…

Think we’re all full of it and you’ve got a better answer? Please let us know in the comments below. It’s free!

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight. Follow him @Loclly

  1. Chris Tolles
    November 30, 2011

    Hey – good stuff here!

    I will merely clarify one point made about Topix – we get between $3.00 and $4.00 eCPM site wide and this is through a mix of direct ads, networks and biz dev deals with folks like Yext which pay out pretty well.

    Tom’s overall point is well taken, though as we are more probabalistic in our approach compared to, say, baristanet.

    1. November 30, 2011

      Thanks for the clarification!

    2. Tell it like it is
      December 15, 2011

      Topix is making money in the muck, as you yourself said. Very little on Topix is about news. The main purpose of Topix is Hate for Profit, where cyberbullying, defamation and slander are happening in numbers like never before. People are having their lives and businesses ruined on Topix. It has very few fans, except for trolls and the tea party. It is not a model anyone should use. It is not sustainable. It will burn itself out in time, by the hell it created.

  2. Geoff Sakala
    November 30, 2011

    On the question of content quality and revenue correlation I’d say it’s more important to have relevant content than quality. There is a difference. A highly relevant short article in many cases is better than a quality well written article on a topic that’s irrelevant ie not local. However there is not much correlation between content quality or relevance and revenue. The more important factor is audience. Namely how big is your audience and who are they. In this content quality does matter in attracting the right audience whether it be local or affluent or a highly desirable niche that advertisers want to reach. All this being said the key to hyperlocal revenue growth is having the right audience plus advertising products that connect consumers with businesses. There are many options in the advertising regard and a combination of efficient (low cost) ad production and effective (relevant) is key. I’d also like to point out that hyperlocal is about local content, not specifically news. There are models that do not include news which can provide highly relevant content and efficient ad production. ShopCity is a great example of relevant local content (local businesses and their products) combined with an efficient and effective advertising model. 

    1. November 30, 2011

      Geoff I like your noting that poor/relevant beats great/non-relevant. It’s worth remembering — not that anyone aspires to poor content. And certainly hyperlocals need to think waaaay beyond the standard (news) models into perhaps uncomfortable territory.

  3. November 30, 2011

    Re: “untransparent.” What privately owned small business shares their financials publicly? Does your local corner store/insurance agency/gas station go public with their P&L? Heck, in the decades that “newspapers” have been around, have you seen a small community newspaper (predecessor to what we do) go public with theirs? It’s private information and even if made public, would be taken hopelessly out of context. If I announced our revenue from last year, half of the handful who cared (if that many) would say “That much?” and the other half would say “That little?” I realize what you are saying is that you won’t believe we’re profitable until the day we scan and upload our bank statements, but the one bit of incontrovertible evidence I can point to is  … it’s been four years next week since I walked out of my good-paying family-supporting TV-news-management job, and with ZERO grants/investors/side jobs/donations/loans/rich relatives/savings, we’re still here and still growing. How is that not a business model that works, in an online world where so many silly, forgettable startups are out there inexplicably attracting and then busily wasting millions of dollars? – Tracy

  4. December 3, 2011

    I continue to be fascinated at the naval gazing over “profitable” and “sustainable” local news sites.  Why do people assume there is some mysterious undiscovered formula?  I don’t get it.

    What Tracy said.

  5. rick nelsen
    December 4, 2011

    I’m not in the industry as of now, but I do follow it quite a bit. As a small business owner, I’d second what Tracy and Howard have said here. 

    Have content. Be local. Give back and contribute to the community you cover. Sell Ads to small business owners inside that community. It’s win/win once you get to the point where the community understands you are there to contribute, and not scalp hides and plunder pockets.

    Stop trying to punch holes in perfectly good kytes. 

    And for goodness sakes, if you are going to have a discussion about how to profit from a hyperlocal…be sure to include more than one in your panel. 

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Street Fight Daily: 11.30.11