Sac Press’s Ilfeld: More Talk About Reader Revenue at Hyperlocals

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Two major online news industry conferences were held recently — BxB Summit 2012 in Chicago and ONA12 in San Francisco. I asked Ben Ilfeld, COO of the Sacramento Press and an inveterate news industry conference goer who was a participant at both meetings, for his take on what took place at both.

Were participants at these recent conferences hopeful, cautious or pessimistic about meeting the community news industry’s big challenges?
At both conferences people were in a good mood about the present and future. I remember conferences that were pessimistic from a couple of years ago. Either people are still pessimistic and are tired of talking about it or they have accepted a new normal about the rate of change in the industry. I think it’s the latter. People are excited to get together and talk about innovation and how we can do our jobs better. I feel we can be both realistic and forward-thinking.

Any new thoughts about revenue?
I heard people talking more and more about reader revenue. I was pleased it was more about memberships than paywalls.

What was the best idea you heard – one that community sites everywhere and of all sizes could adopt?
My favorite single session was probably Eleanor Cippel at BxB 2012 talking about using CRMs [customer relations management systems]. I think most community sites don’t, and CRMs are such powerful tools. We use both Salesforce and Highrise. They allow us to work as a team and adds accountability to our sales efforts.

How serious are participants about using technology to achieve content, traffic, engagement and revenue goals?
The audiences at both BxB2012 and ONA are 100% engaged with technology. Many are talking about membership programs and developing more engaged email lists. I saw excitement around curation and live blogging. Storify, though not new, was really hot everywhere I went. Scribblelive, the content management system, was a winner at ONA. There is more use of Google+ as well. We are using it at least once a week to create live video chats.

I get the feeling that proprietary content management platforms are really toast. (This is coming from someone who both built a proprietary platform and uses it for the Sacramento Press.) People really don’t complain about their CMS like they used to. Database management and visualization continue to be hot at all levels, but much more among ONA members. In traffic measurement , Google analytics continues to be the clear winner. There was talk of using third-party tools to run Facebook contests. At BxB, which is very best-practices focused, we talked about what tools are best for different scenarios.

People are discussing mobile. I hear a lot about Responsive Web Design with its flexibility across multiple platforms. I think people see the mobile Web as an opportunity, but mobile apps as a threat.

Are independent sites beginning to think about scaling, at least on the modest scale of Scott Brodbeck, who has expanded from ARLNow to BethesdaNow in metro Washington, DC?
David Boraks did so at the Davidson News last year. The model for independent publishers isn’t Patch with its hundreds of sites. Some think they can meet the needs of the community next door and are happy to do so. I see a lot of multi-site operators out there. It reminds me of the early days in the cable industry.

Conferences can eat up a lot of time and be exhausting. After you finished your road trip to Chicago and San Francisco, was it worthwhile?
I’m at conferences a ton, so I’m pretty good at making the most of them. I wanted to leverage connections I’ve made over the years for a couple of really important causes. First, LION Publishers, the new trade group for independents, is the single most important thing I’ve been a part of since we launched the Sacramento Press. Second, AdGlue, the platform co-developed at the Sacramento Press that lets businesses put their ads where they want to, is my passion. If we don’t fix the relationship between advertisers and publishers, we will miss an opportunity as an industry.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

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