Hyperlocal Sustainability (Round 2): Upbeat ‘Indies’ Say They’re Winning

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fingersEditors and publishers of independent hyperlocal news sites are brimming with thoughts about what they’re doing to achieve sustainability — and what they think “indies” in general should do to make sure they don’t write their own obituaries.

Following up on my column last week, here are more — sometimes blunt — thoughts from editors and publishers I’ve been talking to about sustainability (a word, by the way, that sets the teeth of some of these entrepreneurial journalists on edge):

Scott Brodbeck, founder, editor and publisher of ARLNow, which launched in Arlington, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., in 2010 and expanded to Bethesda, in suburban Maryland, last year:

Sustainability means bringing in enough revenue, quarter after quarter, to pay myself, my employees, and our vendors. While those in smaller communities may be able to achieve sustainability on their own, I believe having employees is an important component of sustainability for us. It helps to prevent the founder from “burning out” with too much work and not enough off-time, and improves the product so we can better fend off new competitors.Four Big Questions for 'Indies'

We’re hiring another full-time employee and we have a +50% year-over-year sales goal so we can remain profitable. We want to improve news coverage and better serve advertisers. Having steady advertisers who stick with you because you provide them real, tangible value is incredibly important.

Our sales are on a steady path upward. We’re sold out of most of our display ad positions. Forget DSPs [demand-side platforms], SSPs [supply-side platforms], click metrics and all the other wheel spinning in the national online ad marketplace – there’s too much focus on the flawed science of using technology to target audiences across ad exchanges and too little focus on truly effective and well-thought-out ad creative and targeted ad buying.

I believe more and more local companies and organizations are realizing how cost-effective online advertising is. That puts independent online news publishers in a great position, because no other exclusively local website can achieve the market penetration that we can. Facebook and Google are of course capturing local ad dollars, but members of Local Independent Online News (LION) association have the flexibility to offer sought-after solutions (content marketing, interactive advertising, personal customer service, etc.) that advertisers love and that Facebook and Google do not currently support.

Howard Owens,  founder, editor and publisher of The Batavian, a four-year-old site in upstate Batavia, N.Y.:

My word association response to “sustainable” is “bull****.” The only people that care about sustainable are usually the same ones who think local news is all about scale.

When William Allen White bought the Emporia (Kans.) Gazette, there were five other newspapers in Emporia.  The Gazette was the cellar dweller in the division. White didn’t ask, “Can I build a sustainable business?” He went about building a business.

I don’t see why this year is any more critical than any other in the history of online local news.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.  Some runners won’t be able to keep the pace and will drop out.  The ones with the most dead weight — Daily Voice, Patch, EveryBlock, etc. — are dropping out first.

We’re years away from any sort of finish line.

Right now, I believe the indie publishers are setting the pace, but we won’t all survive. It’s damn hard keeping a business in business, just ask any Main Street shopkeeper. It’s a lot of work and a lot can go wrong along the path to financial security, and even then, nothing is guaranteed.

As any good business should, we’re always trying to find new sources of revenue. We will continue to pursue what we believe are the wise options as they come along.

For 2013, we want to produce the best news stories in our market to grow and retain our audience and continue to juggle our various revenue opportunities as best we can in a manner that is the most effective for increasing our year-over-year results.

We’ve tinkered with expansion ideas but as things continue to develop, we’re feeling more confident that our best strategy is to focus on what we do best: serve the readers and businesses of Genesee County.

The question of sustainability will always linger because pundits will continue to ask it. If we had an organization three or four times our size, you would still be asking me “when will you be sustainable?” It’s a buzzword that gives pundits something to write about, but it really doesn’t mean anything in the real world.

Susan Mernit, founder, editor and CEO of Oakland Local, a four-year-old nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area:

We redesigned with a responsive theme that is super mobile and traffic friendly, and moved to a new hosting service – these actions have led to a rise in traffic and 100% more commenting. We’re also planning to upgrade some of our content substantially to drive more revenue and more audience engagement.

We’re partner central. We love to collaborate and are very happy with our relationships with New America Media, KQED, East Bay Citizen, EdSource and other partners.

Selling local ad units is a bear for everyone. Sustainability = adding real value. What’s the best way? We keep noodling on that one, big time. But we fill a void that keeps growing in local news in our area – so we want to educate the community as to how they can support us — and make sure we’re doing a good job for them.

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.