NJ’s TAP Grows Indie Hyperlocal Network Through Licensing

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When an entrepreneur launches a hyperlocal site, it’s not a cautious, toes-first endeavor — it’s sink or swim in deep, fast-moving waters.

New sites launched by bigger networks like AOL’s Patch and the legacies powered by DataSphere begin well prepared with editorial templates, sales guides and turnkey technology. Now, in New Jersey, indie start-ups can have all those benefits, and without sacrificing their entrepreneurial dreams.

This is possible because of a licensing program from The Alternative Press indie network of 14 sites in suburban New Jersey. TAP was launched by Mike Shapiro, a litigation attorney-turned-hyperlocal-publisher who learned the business the sink-or-swim way. Street Fight has closely followed TAP’s progress, and there’s a great update at Block-by-Block on how Shapiro is creating a new revenue stream through licensing.

One of TAP’s three licensees is Mindy Scarlett, a veteran editor and writer — in the U.S. and Australia — who launched the Scotch Plains and Fanwood site in late January 2012. “My intent is to strengthen both communities,” said. Scarlett. “My take on hyperlocal is to present things in the most positive way possible. I’m not out there to stir up trouble. Some publications take two lines out of the police blotter and blow it up into a big story.”

The kind of story that Scarlett wouldn’t touch is the one featured last fall in the local Patch site about a Scotch Plains-Fanwood high school boys’ JV soccer coach who allegedly poured glasses of wine for two of his 17-year-old players during a stop at a restaurant in neighboring Westfield. There was a community uproar — thoroughly reported by Patch — after the popular coach and substitute teacher was suspended by the school after his arrest.

For local businesses, Scarlett says “I am an active advocate. I’m not there just to sell ads or be a hired gun who will be gone in 12 months. She says she tells merchants: “An ad will not guarantee you $1,000 of business, but it’s one plank in the boardwalk to your place of business.”

Scarlett’s main competition is Patch. The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times is a 53-year-old print weekly, but it only publishes its front page on the Web. Her focus has been building an audience. In her four months of operation, she said she’s landed 10 local advertisers, with “five to 10 waiting in the wings.

Under TAP’s licensing program, participants pay a $2,500 fee in their first year, $5,000 in year two and $10,000 in year three, plus 10% of their ad revenue.

Shapiro says a licensee, “after the three-year ramp up, should bring in $50,000 to $100,000 in income (after expenses have been taken out for licensing fees, freelance, ad commissions, marketing etc.).”

“It’s a great model,” says Scarlett. “The R&D and branding are already in place. Mike is extremely responsive. His advice and guidance is phenomenal.”

Shapiro gives his licensees a lot of slack. But he emphasizes: “It is important for them to realize both the incredible responsibility it entails to serve as a town’s community newspaper and also the opportunity that it presents. This isn’t something to take lightly and a licensee needs to be in it for the long term.  It’s all about being embedded in the community, developing relationships with organizations and businesses, and building trust.”

These objectives are important, and so is thorough reporting — even if it involves an uncomfortable item from the police blotter.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, 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.

Photo courtesy of Scotch Plains/Fanwood The Alternative Press, shows site editor and publisher Mindy Scarlet with Scotch Plains mayor Nancy Malool and TAP CEO Mike Shapiro.