In 2003, newspaper reporter and transplanted Arkansan G. Patton Hughes used some inheritance money to launch Paulding.com — a hyperlocal site dedicated to serving Paulding, Ga. At the time, the working-class bedroom community of just under 100,000 had no daily source of news for its residents. Hughes decided to combine his reporting chops with a vibrant message board, and he created a sustainable, financially successful model that won a Knight News Challenge prize in 2007.
At its peak, Paudling.com saw between 6,000 and 7,000 visitors per day, but that number is down to around 5,000 — thanks in large part to Facebook. [Editor’s note: numbers have been amended from an earlier version of this story] Today, his site receives around 40,000 unique visitors a month, gets a million page views, and pays its editor, publisher, and founder a living wage.
In a recent interview with Street Fight, Hughes talked about what it’s like to compete with the local Patch, the key mistake he made, and why the future of hyperlocal may include owner-operated franchises.
A lot of hyperlocal sites begin as a response to a lack of local news in a specific community. Was that one of your reasons for launching Paulding.com?
In 2003, it wasn’t so much that — although there were cutbacks in the newshole of the local paper. The newshole of the local weekly dropped from around 75 or 80% to around 10%. We never had a daily because Paulding was never a vital enough trade center to support one. In 2000, there were 89,000 people and no daily newspaper, and no prospect to grow one.
Let’s talk traffic. Can you give me some metrics?
Basically, we do somewhere around a million pages a month. We do 40,000 absolute uniques according to Google, and we have 150,000 visits. We have about seven or eight pages a visit, but we used to have 20 pages a visit. I’ve used a message board schtick, so we’ve always had a tremendous amount of user input, but with the advent of Facebook, we’ve lost a tremendous amount. We used to have 2,500-3,000 folks a day; now, we’re down to 750. The conversation about “What I had for lunch?” has gone to Facebook. Qualitatively, it’s probably a little bit better than it was in the days before Facebook.
Have you tried to do anything on Facebook to harness that movement or do you just let people go?
I have a presence on Facebook, but I’m not terribly involved with it. Personally, I don’t like their privacy — or lack thereof. They like to track everything you do. I would counsel against anybody going there.
How much original reporting are you doing?
The reporting is strange, in a sense. I do, and have done, reporting. I did a two-and-a-half- or three-year stint of a news show, and I’m in conversations about some type of video production. I’ve been limited because it is just me. We’ve had competition from one of the Patches. They hired the freelancers that the third newspaper that folded used to have. Let me put it this way: On average, Patch is burning through $200,000 per Patch — and I do mean burning. I don’t think they are sustainable, but they can whoop my ass. I’m going on 62. Not every time, but in general.
I do things a little bit differently than they do, however. I’ll give you an example: One of their stringers got a little bit of video from the Hiram council meeting where the mayor walked out. It took me two days to get the video of the entire meeting. Patch had four minutes of video. I put up 52 minutes, the entire meeting, and people could see everything in context.
Patch has done a lot of things that are right. Probably someone needs to go in and give all those folks who have been working for Patch a plan b, which would be franchises. I’ve suggested that to several people, including a board member of Patch.
Fair enough. But are you making money? Is this a sustainable business model?
Yeah, I’m not making a whole lot of money, but I have a nice little office and a studio. I’m enjoying my life. I’m not taking trips to the Grand Caymans.
You came up as a reporter and an editor. What have you learned about the business side?
I was always interested in the business side. I was at ad agencies in the 80s; I syndicated a TV show in the 80s. So I had some of that experience as well. I was a numbers guy and a numbers cruncher on the agency side. The most obvious thing I’ve learned is that I’m actually being nicer to the people who contribute to my site than the publishers were to me. I give them much greater respect.
Is Paulding.com a model that can be repeated?
Absolutely. The main thing is that you cannot do hyperlocal — it will not plant and grow — as a top-down corporate development. That’s my absolute opinion.
But Patch has done a lot of things that are right. Probably someone needs to go in and give all those folks who have been working for Patch a plan b, which would be franchises. I’ve suggested that to several people, including a board member of Patch.
That’s the future? Little Paulding.com franchises all over the country.
If I were in one of the surrounding counties that was traditionally a trade center, I would be making good money. My problem is that the local commercial business is almost entirely chain stores with buyers in Atlanta, Chicago, or New York. There was never much local inherited business in Paulding. The ones that were here were mostly run out by the chain stores when they came here.
There are 800 businesses in Paulding County; there are 3,300 business in Douglas County just south of us, a county with a smaller population.
If you were to start Paulding.com again, you’d look for a different type of city?
Yeah, I would have paid a little bit more attention to the vitality of the local commercial market. Only 15% of the property in our digest is business property. Those are key metrics. That’s also why the local Patch isn’t making any money, either.
Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at mediabistro.com and Business Insider, as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NYMag.com, Wired.com, SportsIllustrated.com, and many other publications.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.