Howard Owens on What It Takes to Sustain a Hyperlocal News Site

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Howard OwensIn the first few weeks after Street Fight launched in April 2011, we ran a series of interviews with prominent luminaries working in hyperlocal, to get their sense of the business landscape and the opportunities that existed. To celebrate our second anniversary, we’ve gone back to a few of those same people to see how their assessment has changed in the 24 intervening months.

When Street Fight co-founder David Hirschman initially spoke with Howard Owens — the  founder, editor and publisher of the independent Batavian in Upstate New York — Owens’ message was really about how indie hyperlocal news sites could create sustainability by starting to sell ads “on day one.” On our second anniversary, we asked Owens to take a new look at those same questions, and talk about how the business of indie hyperlocals has changed.

The online world, particularly the community news space, changes rapidly. Has your strategy at The Batavian changed?
When I said, in the new Street Fight in April 2011: “There is a business model for local media because some of us are doing it,” I had this solid assumption that we had done a good job of selling local display advertising and that we would branch into other revenue streams.

My big fear was nobody had really succeeded doing what I planned and that as a bootstrap startup, we would find expanding difficult.  My secret fears have proven accurate.  We haven’t been able to expand the way I hoped, and continue to struggle to develop second and third revenue streams. That said, we continue to grow. We dominate our local market in both audience and market share of advertisers. And we continue to push forward in the development of additional revenue streams.

There’s more happening in mobile, but I still see local as very much a Sales 101, basic type of proposition.

Our content model remains the same as it ever was.  Our advertising model will evolve as we start to convert some of our premium spots into CPM-based ad positions, but still priced competitively.

Has Batavia changed in any significant way? A tougher business climate? Less optimism, perhaps?
If anything, it’s improved.  Columbia-based Alpina has opened a yogurt plant. Pepsi, in partnership with Theo Muller, is about to open a yogurt plant. Dozens of new mom-and-pop businesses have opened in the past two years (and half that amount have closed). We’re still a rust belt community struggling to survive, but, if anything, things have gotten better, not worse. We have no trouble selling ads.

Have changes in community attitudes and expectations led to any editorial changes at The Batavian?
I hesitate to provide a short answer. There are so many changes, but they’re all so nuanced.  The bigger our audience, the greater the exceptions and responsibilities.  While we’re still pretty non-traditional in our news approach, we’re a lot less trivial at times. With a couple of recent exceptions on certain topics, I’m much more circumspect in my comments (we don’t have editorials — I comment on stories with my opinion). I have to be much more careful about arguing with people because I’m “The Batavian Guy” and my words have greater impact.

It’s hard to explain to an outsider just how big The Batavian has become locally.  That just raises the stakes in so many ways.  It’s easier to make enemies.  It’s also easier to win friends.

Are you doing anything differently today vs. two years ago? Is technology more important? Analytics about your users?
Nope.  Pretty much all the same.

If you’re not taking a cheap approach to local news, you’re not being truly disruptive. … The web, and especially local independent only news is all about being disruptive.

Local news can be expensive. Have you figured out any way to make it more cost-effective while maintaining, or even raising, quality?
Well, I totally disagree that it’s expensive. Local news is dirt cheap.  It’s the cheapest news you can do.  A scanner need cost no more than a couple of hundred dollars. It costs nothing to show up at the local elementary school and snap a couple of pictures at the celebrating reading day. A few weather pictures? Cheap. City Council coverage? Cheap. True local community news is pennies on the dollar compared to enterprise and investigative coverage (which we do from time to time).

Look, if you’re not taking a cheap approach to local news, you’re not being truly disruptive (in the Clayton Christensen sense).  The web, and especially local independent only news is all about being disruptive.

Would you update your traffic metrics — UVs, PVs, any other user analytics?
Regularly over 7,000 UVs per day, often over 8K.  As near as we can tell from triangulating GA, Quantcast and anecdotal feedback from readers, we reach about 40,000 people per month in our market area of 57,000 people.

Is The Batavian more profitable today than it was in April 2011?
Revenue has grown, so has expenses.  We’ve grown revenue about 80 percent from April 2011.  On the positive side, when I need money for something, it’s there.  On the down side, we haven’t escaped financial worries. There’s always pending bills. My wife and I are comfortable and my lone employee is happy.

What’s the big opportunity today – for you and The Batavian, and also for other independent community news sites?
Us indies have been saying all along “local doesn’t scale.” What we’ve seen with Patch and Daily Voice and the other companies has pretty much proven that point.

I still believe the future of local journalism will be written by the independents. We remain largely under the radar. Outside of Street Fight and NetNewsCheck, we’re largely ignored. But we’re the only ones in the local online news space who have actual growth and success we can document.

When the NYT or WSJ or whatnot does a hand-wringing piece on the fact of local journalism, it only looks at the national failures. There’s never any discussion of the indie successes. We’re so small, and our success so incremental, a journalist who isn’t well versed in local news reality and actual business acumen just doesn’t see it.  I don’t even think Clayton Christensen sees it.

There appears to be a shakeout developing in the community digital space: EveryBlock closed, Daily Voice (formerly MainStreetConnect) retrenched, Patch is making what looks like deep cuts in its editorial expenses, Mike Fourcher has, in effect, put his two highly regarded community websites serving the Near North Side of Chicago on the block. Is there a clear message here about the future of community news sites?
First, Mike Fourcher’s experience is a one-off.  There’s unique circumstances there that don’t signal much of a trend. Not only that, put 100 indie sites in a room in 2011 and by 2013 some of them will be out of business. That’s just the nature of things.

If there’s any clear message, it’s what I’ve been saying for the past four or five years: Starting and running a local news site is hard work.  You need a good model, a solid plan, the ability to work long hours and handle multiple disciplines and stick with it for years and years with no promise of ever striking it rich.  If you can do that, you’re on the right track.

I’m pretty much naturally an optimistic person.  I remain hopeful for what we can accomplish, but on the flip-side, I love what I do and as long as I can keep doing it, I’ll be happy even if it’s never anything more than a ma-and-pop with one employee.  Let the critics make of it what they will.

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