Steve Waldman has had three careers in local and hyperlocal digital journalism in a little more than a decade. In 1999 he co-founded and edited Beliefnet, the popular community-based faith blog, which is now published by BN Media (the third owner since 2010 after News Corp. acquired the site in 2007). In 2011, Waldman, putting on his consultant-analyst hat, wrote the encyclopediac “The Information Needs of Communities” (published by the Federal Communications Commission). And then last year Waldman launched The Brooklyn Game, which devotes 360-degree, on- and off-court coverage to the transplanted Brooklyn Nets of the NBA.
In his much-quoted report for the FCC, Waldman said that while hyperlocal news sites “do not make much money, they do not need to, because they function more as civic organizations than businesses, relying on volunteer efforts rather than cash.” But Waldman recently told us that The Brooklyn Game, for all its considerable civic presence, is, preeminently, a revenue-driven business where there are no slam dunks.
What has your one-year experience with the Brooklyn Game taught you about entrepreneurial community publishing?
It’s hard for a new website to thrive on advertising alone. For the Brooklyn Game, I hired a great editor and then hoped that plugging in some ad networks would take care of the revenue. But the ad rates are pretty lousy, i.e. a $1 CPM. Not enough. And I’m not making enough to hire a full time ad seller. On the bright side, we struck an early partnership with the YES Network, which broadcasts the Nets games — and that has been important to us in generating revenue. So that validates the notion that, for little guys, partnerships are vitally important.
If you were to write your FCC report today, would you give revenue more attention?
Revenue is obviously the crucial topic. There are so many new ways for journalists to do their reporting and distribute their work. But the sites don’t generate enough revenue, they wont be able to hire enough journalists to do labor-intensive reporting. We’ve seen over and over startups that have created a terrific editorial product — great news and journalism — and serious traffic, and yet can’t convert it to enough revenue to be sustainable. The analog-dollars-converting-to-digital-dimes problem persists with a vengeance. It’s exciting to see how many very creative local startups have sprung up in the last few years, but it’s frustrating to see how few are thriving or growing to be large.
Advertising exchanges, you say, don’t send enough CPM revenue to your site. Local Yokel says it has a solution for that. Have you tried it?
Yes, we’re using Local Yokel. Ask me at the end of the year whether it was the solution.
Are you exploring other revenue possibility, like sponsorships?
Yes. We’re putting more emphasis on sponsorships and have just probably signed up a major one — for a title sponsor starting in January (but it’s not final final yet so I can’t say who).
To start The Brooklyn Game, did you line up investors?
I have one modest-sized investor, Larry Hackett, editor of People magazine. But it’s mostly me. Larry and some other Brooklyn-based editors — Peggy Northrop, former editor of Reader’s Digest, and Michael Grossman, former editor-at-large of Time, Inc. — are advisers.
You has described your digital career journey as “journalist, entrepreneur, bureaucrat.” What are you today?
I’m back to entrepreneur. I’ve been feeling that at a certain point its unseemly and unsatisfying for me to pontificate about the problems of media. It’s time for me to try to do something on the ground. But to answer your question: yes, it’s been a great journey. I’m incredibly blessed. I loved being a journalist and I greatly admire the people engaged in the labor-intensive reporting so essential to democracy.
My journalistic training was essential when I created Beliefnet.com. I didn’t realize it, but being a reporter is an inherently entrepreneurial vocation. You’re out there on your own, adjusting to circumstances as they hit you, trying to craft new “products” each day that will be useful to “consumers” (a.k.a. readers). Also, we are (mostly, hopefully) truth-seekers. Sometimes business leaders avoid facing bad news, which is deadly. As a journalist I was trained to look for ugly realities; that has given me the ability to see problems realistically and confront them quickly.
In an interview with Journalism Accelerator, you said “there needs to be financial institutions or funds or strategies that create low profit but sustainable local media companies.” Can you explain how that might work? Are you exploring it in your own operation?
Long story, but yes. There are actually quite a number of media enterprises that could be sustainable — and significant in their communities — but not wildly profitable. Some of these are startups, some of these are individual media properties (newspapers, radio stations, websites) stuck inside large media corporations.
Venture capital is not interested in such businesses because they will never make 5x return on investment or 40% margins. On the other hand, many local media entities could take a quantum leap if they had a little bit of runway — especially to hire business people, i.e. better ad sales folks or biz dev or marketing people. So what we need is an investment fund that would finance local media entities that are sustainable (not charity), important to the community and yet may never produce humungous profit. I’m happy to turn over my plan for this fund to any billionaire who’s interested. I also would like to see local startups come together — perhaps through the Investigative News Network, Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, or other organization to share services related to technology, legal help and business support.
Will your Brooklyn Daily Bridge Media, which publishes The Brooklyn Game, be developing other Brooklyn-based news sites?
That was the original plan. What’s happened instead is that as I was working on some other Brooklyn projects, I came upon another idea that will probably start locally but then become a scale-able national platform. It’s premature for me to go into great detail but it relates to a new way of covering life milestones (deaths, births, weddings, graduations, citizenship, etc.) that will be more attractive, more comprehensive and democratic than what’s available now. (And unlike my previous local schemes, actually has huge business prospects). I’ve just started raising money and am so far getting a fantastic response. Now I’m looking to assemble a phantom team and recruit more seed investors.
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.