‘Indie’ Hyperlocals Share Their Secrets to Sustainability

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smalltownIt’s been a tough year so far for several major hyperlocal news networks: EveryBlock was shut down by parent NBC Universal. Daily Voice was pushed to the brink. Patch brought in a new CEO and made more layoffs in its continuing struggle to profitability.

But what about the independent hyperlocal news sites that are popping up in communities all around the country?

Four Big Questions for 'Indies'Last week, Dylan Smith, chairman of the Local Independent Online News association (LION), delivered an optimistic overall assessment of this space, suggesting that the indies’ audiences and revenues were growing at a solid clip. To get a closer look, I asked a number of independent editors and publishers around the U.S. how 2013 was shaping up for them (see questions at right).

These entrepreneurs were, to the man and woman, optimistic and determined to prevail against the networks, which they compete against in many markets. While they prize their independence, some of them had surprising things to say about where indies should be headed for the long haul. Here, in unvarnished language, they speak out:

Jerry DeMarco, founder, editor and publisher of Cliffview Pilot (which covers Bergen and other communities in North Jersey):

The key to sustainability, for me, won’t be found by including council or school meetings or doing the deep, expansive (and lengthy) type of work of my previous career in pulp.

There is not only a vast audience for murder & mayhem, accidents, fires and the public service-based fundraisers that I write about: There are also advertisers who welcome the opportunity to pitch to that audience.

I like the idea of creating a new site or three, and/or partnering with others who want to bolster their crime & justice coverage. The ink on one such agreement is nearly dry, in fact. Talks involving two others are in the works.

In the longer term, that could mean keeping the Pilot, selling it…or, well, other possible alternatives that I’ve not yet considered.

I believe the future of independent online news is in networks — some loosely built, others firmer — that produce content that appeals to each other’s audiences, while sharing ads along servers designed specifically for that purpose, in order to monetize that content.

Yes, much of that is happening already. But I foresee many of us forming separate companies that produce original content separate and apart from our respective “babies.” Perhaps we create a new site, or sites, to do so, or we use the work on those we now have.

More and more, I envision indie publishers banding together in this way, rather than competing against one another or against the corporate entities.  I see us finding solutions to viability and sustainability by locking arms for joint purchases, including health and liability insurance. I see collective topic reporting, backed by regional ad networks built for us. In other words: the kinds of things legacy has been unable, or unwilling, to do.

As we continue to prove ourselves a wise and economical alternative to the massive — and rigid — media companies, we’ll also remain a better choice than those who think that having any and every citizen contributing makes for an attractive destination.

Anyone with a local independent site who burrows in and worries only about her/himself, I believe, will someday end up feeling like the prickly executive who spends his time in a quiet office at the end of the hall — with a near-dead phone and no one stopping by.

The rest of us, meanwhile, will be busy answering one another’s questions.

Brian Wheeler, executive director of the nonprofit Charlottesville (Va.) Tomorrow:

Sustainability means we have sufficient community support and fundraising revenue to maintain our operations within each critical work area (i.e. full-time staff for: journalism; community engagement; and business development/fundraising). Sustainability also requires our board of directors and staff to be jointly engaged accomplishing our vision, mission and goals to produce civic media for the benefit of the community.

We have hired a second full-time reporter who will cover local schools and these stories will be distributed online and through both of the community’s alt-weekly newspapers.  New coverage of our schools will dramatically increase our readership (primarily subscriptions to our free weekly email newsletters), pool of potential donors, and underwriting support.

Through our new media partnerships [including one with the long-established Daily Progress community paper], expansion into local education coverage, increased event marketing and our sponsorship of community events, regular underwriting support (site advertising), and with the benefit of having four full-time staff (plus interns) for the first time, Charlottesville Tomorrow will be in a much stronger position to continue our mission-driven journalism.

Tracy Record, co-founder and co-publisher (with her husband Patrick Sand) and editor of West Seattle Blog:

“Sustainability”means to us the same thing as it means to any business: Are we serving our customers? Are we serving our community in general? Do we have the revenue we need to be here tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next decade? Are we reliable and consistent –  continuing to deliver on what is expected of us? Right now, we can answer all those questions “yes.” Yet we are always “keeping a weather eye on the horizon.”

We are always working on multiple new steps. Sometimes they’re as simple as a server upgrade, which we did recently because our traffic continues to grow and since we have a reputation for rapid response to breaking news – from a power outage to a shooting to a crash blocking the bridge – we have to be able to accommodate a sudden slam.

Are expansion to other communities, partnerships, mergers and other collaboration an important part of what you’re thinking about doing or have already done?

The most important collaboration we have is with our community, and that’s what we work on strengthening every day.

If you are an independent, dedicated company in partnership with your community, serving it consistently, collaboratively, fairly, accurately, thoroughly, etc., and *listening* to them, you will be even stronger. The “will you survive?” question is really a more critical issue for legacy-media companies than for newer companies like ours. They still are slow to abandon or at least stop bleeding money into the legacy products that few really need any more (print, over the air broadcast, etc.).

Ned Berke, founder, editor and publisher of SheepsheadBites in Brooklyn, N.Y.:

Working towards sustainability is like building a house. You do it brick by brick with careful examination of plans, constantly rechecking the structure’s integrity and making small adjustments as needed. With the big players you mentioned, you see them rushing through a lot of this – putting up walls and roofs before they’ve dug a foundation. Indies are more careful, and 2013 will be just another year of increasing revenues, expanding coverage and business operations, and new hires — which is what many LION members saw in 2012.

Content remains king. So long as you don’t lose sight of that, much of the rest falls into place. But, content doesn’t pay the bills, so we’re always looking at ways to improve the services we offer to merchant partners and other revenue opportunities. But I’m very conservative in my decision making and don’t jump in on new trends until they’ve proven themselves. We add new revenue streams slowly and, whenever possible, with small or no financial investment unless we know it will provide a return. There are no big gambles here.

We expanded with a second site, Bensonhurst Bean, in 2011. We are not planning any other expansions, but are always looking to community stakeholders who could be partners in advancing our mission and growing revenue.

On the indie level, hyperlocal will continue to grow stronger. On the level of national or regional scale, it won’t. This is an era of institutional transition, and the structures that preceded us are no longer viable. Indies will eventually reach a point where they scale and merge and, of course, will no longer be indies – but the slate will need to be wiped clean before that happens. That won’t happen in 2013, but the process is well underway.

Next week, I’ll have reports from more indie editors and publishers on these important issues.

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.