‘Indies’ and Sustainability: One Destination, Different Paths

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smalltown1Sustainability of one kind of another is on the minds of every editor and publisher of the independent community websites I’ve talked with in recent weeks (even if they hate the word). In parts one and two of this series on indie sustainability, we talked to a wide variety of publishers from around the country about what they did to help ensure that their sites could survive and thrive.

In this final column on the subject, two editor entrepreneurs, David Askins, of  the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Chronicle, and Denise Civiletti, of the RiverheadLocal on Long Island, talk about what they’re doing to keep their sites healthy long-term. A third entrepreneur, Ben Ilfeld, former COO of the Sacramento Press and now CEO of spinoff AdGlue, talks about why innovation is so important to success in community publishing.

Dave Askins of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Chronicle, a five-year-old for-profit site that actively seeks reader subscriptions to help fund its news menu of extensive civic coverage, said this about his site:

Here at The Chronicle, a sustainable pace means that the business is financially stable enough to cover the freelance writers, basic business expenses and the livelihoods of a full-time editor and publisher. But The Chronicle is not sustainable in an important sense. It requires a full-time effort from two people – and here I don’t mean 40 hours, or 60 hours, or even 80 hours a week. I mean basically every waking moment.

So The Chronicle is not sustainable in the sense that it’s a business that could be sold to someone else to carry on – unless that someone else were two people who are willing to run down a race course that offers a simple livelihood with few water stations and some occasional cheers.

Some Ann Arborites are enthusiastic roadside coaches when it comes to the race The Chronicle is running. They’ll offer sound advice, like: faster turnaround for meeting reports would make The Chronicle better; Ann Arbor Public Schools need more coverage beyond just board meeting reports; we shouldn’t have dropped coverage of University of Michigan regents meetings; high school sports would give people a reason to visit the website; The Chronicle should cover crime and spot news; a weather almanac feature would be great; more opinion columns would be welcome.

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with any of that advice. It’s just that advice alone doesn’t pay the bills.

And ultimately, that advice is not what we need most in order to make this enterprise sustainable for the longer run. Right now, as we’re running down the road, what we need from a greater number of Ann Arborites is a simple cheer, or a drink of water – in the form of regular voluntary subscription dollars.

Denise Civileti, Riverhead LOCAL, a three-year-old for-profit site covering a community on the North Shore of Suffolk County on Long Island:

I think “sustainability” – like the word “hyperlocal” – are buzzwords used by people who look to make a living out of talking about what other people are doing.

To small business startups, including independent news entrepreneurs like me, “sustainability” means earning enough money to pay the bills and grow our businesses year over year. We’re doing it. We’ve been doing it. And all indications are we’ll continue on this trajectory this fiscal year and beyond. Why? We’re giving people who live or work in our community something they need and want.

“Sustainability” probably means something else to people in corporate environments for whom the “key” to “hyperlocal” is “scale.” But I don’t think that’s where the vast majority of community news organizations are at – or ever will be. We’re in it for the journalism, for our communities –not for empire building.

And the examples you site as evidence of “sustainability” being the “inescapable byword of hyperlocal news” are corporate networks looking to build empires.

Wake up. It doesn’t work.

But that doesn’t mean that what we’re doing doesn’t work. Because it does. RiverheadLOCAL and hundreds of other online community news sites are working. And our business model will continue to work no matter how much people like you pontificate about how it doesn’t work, citing the failure of completely different animals like Patch as evidence of your faulty premise.

I think there are people like me and Howard Owens and Jerry DeMarco and Dylan Smith who are doing what we’re doing — something community newspaper entrepreneurs were doing, successfully, long before the Gannetts of the world tried to make it “scale” — because we care about our communities, we’re devoted to our craft and we love being in business for ourselves.

It’s about the journalism. It’s about community. Our community.

The fact that my husband, Co-Publisher Peter Blasl, and I can earn a comfortable living at it is sweet. The fact that we don’t have the overhead of failed or failing corporations overstuffed with managers managing each other, and frantically chasing revenue that will never materialize for their cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all “hyperlocal” experiments? Priceless.

The people fretting about “hyperlocal” “sustainability” are the people who think you can outsource community news reporting to people in the Philippines as long as their site’s software allows them to choose “American-sounding” bylines. Yeah, that’ll work. Not. There’s really nothing more to say.

Ben Ilfeld, founder and CEO of AdGlue, a spinoff from the Sacramento Press, where Ilfeld was COO:

Sustainability for any given firm is critical, but why is it critical? Because it gives that organization a chance to experiment, refine and build a community. What I mean is that sustainability is not the end goal here. We are so early in the revolution of this industry, that sustainability only serves to keep the innovation coming. Innovation is the key and it can be messy for any individual firms.

At The Sacramento Press we built our own CMS which drove enormous community engagement and contribution. We released updates on three-week cycles, adding a comprehensive metrics dashboard, a refined search, a badge system and an incredible layout tool for editors. We had the opportunity to launch a daily deals platform, create the first independent local online ad network and build a boutique social media agency. Not every initiative succeeded, but as an independent local publisher we have the agility to keep innovating in service to our community.

I’m lucky enough to have seen one of our experiments, AdGlue, come out of the laboratory of the Sacramento Press and ramp up to be a separate company. We built AdGlue to engage our advertisers as part of our larger community. It worked so well, it might just be a scalable tool for others around the world.

Independent local publishers are building innovative solutions, gaining valuable insights about their own communities and creating new business models. Some solutions will only work for their community and deepen that unique relationship between a local publication and the community it serves. Other solutions might scale and transform the industry. Innovation, growth, sharing and agility – these are the values that have ignited and will sustain the revolution in local online publishing.

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.