A Hyperlocal Network Grows in Brooklyn

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corner-mediaLiena Zagare started several hyperlocal news blogs in Brooklyn eight years ago, then, in 2011, sold them to Patch when she became special projects editor for AOL’s new community-based network. But nine months later she left Patch and, after a brief time as editor in the parenting vertical at Huffington Post, returned to her “real love” — community news.

She created a site in her family’s Brooklyn home neighborhood of Ditmas Park and then, through her Corner News Media company, expanded to three neighboring communities. Street Fight spoke with Zagare recently about the keys to success for her sites, and what may be next for her fledgling hyperlocal network in New York City’s hottest borough.

First, some background. Why did you leave Patch? Didn’t you sign a non-compete clause?
I was eager to try to build a network genuinely focused on serving local readers and local and regional advertisers. And no, I did not have a non-compete.

Where did you acquire your eight years of experience in community news?
I am totally self-taught, with some help from my husband, who’s been a reporter all his life. [Zagare’s husband, Ben Smith, is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed.] We moved to Ditmas the year our daughter was born, about eight years ago, and I started the blog as a way to document life in the new neighborhood.

I was getting my master’s in urban planning from NYU, and so I came to hyperlocal news from a community-activist point of view. It quickly became clear that the site was an effective platform to spread the word about, for instance, a Tibetan deli that had amazing Momos (dumplings) — and that, once we helped generate some publicity, opened a restaurant next door. It was also a way to get stuff fixed in the neighborhood, from police cameras by Prospect Park to street lights on dangerous intersections.

Community news can be a tough business — with staffing and other costs that can overwhelm revenues. How do you make your sites pay the bills?
The sites are one year old and not fully self-sufficient yet, and like a lot of the small businesses we work with, I’ve invested savings — including everything I made from the sale of the previous sites — to get off the ground. In order to pay the bills, a site has to reach a meaningful rate of penetration among readers in the community it serves, and that takes time.

One thing that is really clear, though, is that you can’t do this on the cheap. For-profit community news is ultimately a luxury good, and you get what you pay for.

Liena Zagare, Corner Media in Brooklyn
Liena Zagare

Patch originally tried to staff its sites with an editor in every community, plus freelancers. Do you economize by spreading your staff among your four sites?
I believe you need a deep grasp of each community, which means a dedicated editor. That was the same model I had to begin with as well on my old sites. I have an absolutely fabulous managing editor in Mary Bakija. We have two full-time reporters one in Ditmas Park, one in South Slope and a vacancy just opened in Park Slope. We supplement with freelance as needed, but the bulk of content is by our editors.

In order to cover a community as intimately as we want to do, the writer has to live and breathe it. You have to be connected, you cannot be a visitor. Being part of the community has to be part of your daily life. We post six to 10 posts each weekday. And you also need some backup to build a great team — writers need to take sick days and vacation, to occasionally work on big projects.  There has to be slack in the system to accommodate for it, and someone good has to be available on short notice to jump in. Sometimes that can be a good freelancer, but usually Mary Bakija, our incredibly gifted and hard-working managing editor, jumps in.

You produce very interesting enterprise stories like a preview of the Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn in Park Slope, which opens Dec. 1. Are these stories time consuming, and, if so, how do you balance that with available resources?
A story like that will take about three hours total, but it is what everyone wants to know. The longer stories are the more interesting ones, and yes, it is a tricky balance. We wish we could do more of them, and we will.

You’ve got loads of competition. In just Park Slope there is, in addition to Patch, DNAInfo, Park Slope Reader, Here’s Park Slope and other specialty sites. How do you make your Corner sites stand out in the community media crowd?
We don’t really see ourselves as having direct competitors. We have the most comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of Park Slope and South Slope, and are often the source of news for sites with a less local focus. This is often, sadly, the case when tragedy strikes, as when a child was struck by a car on Prospect Park West recently, or when a pair of young people were killed in Ditmas Park during Hurricane Sandy.

Many independent sites are one-offs. Deb Galant, who founded Baristanet in suburban New Jersey, famously said “Local doesn’t scale.” You have scaled to four sites. Do you have a different take on this issue?
I’d agree that hyperlocal news does not scale. From the editorial side, in Brooklyn, if there is a shooting 10 blocks from where you live, you probably aren’t concerned about safety where you live, but if it happens three blocks away, you care very much. Which explains the labor-intensive model of news gathering to serve small communities. Most people’s neighborhoods in Brooklyn are confined to what’s within 10-15-minute walk from their residence, and focus on a commercial strip and transit stop. That’s about a square mile, give or take.

However, to be sustainable I think local has to scale to what, in the old community newspaper model, would be considered a regional publisher. You have the deep local roots your readers require — but can also offer a uniquely appealing opportunity to regional and local advertisers. So I can totally see Brooklyn covered with about 30 or so hyperlocal news sites. Most small businesses — great advertisers like Ox Cart Tavern, Sycamore Bar & Flower Shop, Lark or Pawsitive Veterinary serve customers in more than one neighborhood, but not necessarily across the entire borough, while regional advertisers we are proud to have worked with, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, target a larger area.

I’ve been watching one-off blogs I adore disappear  — BushwickBK, or Kensington Brooklyn — because the owners move or never found a way to make them financially sustainable. My goal is for the Corner Media sites to continue to exist with or without me, which requires a great editorial team and great, long-term relationships with merchants.

Might you expand to other Brooklyn neighborhoods, to other boroughs?
We are actively looking at other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

How big is your audience?
Our three sites with editors each had between 20,000 to 37,000 unique visitors in October, per Google Analytics. To put it in perspective, according to the 2010 census, the areas each site covers range in size from 25,000 to 55,000 residents.  Sixty percent of our visitors are returns.

How do you use social media?
We are active on our communities’ Twitter and Facebook conversations, and see a lot of sharing of our content on social media. Different communities also lean toward different platforms. For example. Ditmas Park is bigger on Facebook, Park Slope on Twitter. Social media is a big part of learning about news from neighbors. People see something and send us tips that way. It is important for both discovery and distribution of content.

Do you have investors?
No — we’ve financed this from our savings, and our mortgage. This is not a “get-rich quick” kind of business, with an obvious exit strategy. But I believe it can be a sustainable, profitable business that  serves its communities of readers and advertisers well.

When do you anticipate becoming profitable?
Our monthly sales are 10 times what they were this time last year, and we are well on track to have all of the existing sites be self- sustaining, with full-time editors that have health care and other benefits.

In fact, I don’t plan on being profitable any time soon — too many neighborhoods to cover, and expenses are front-loaded while a site reaches a level of penetration that allows ads to be sold effectively.

Should independent sites begin thinking more about scaling, either by expanding one-offs into a network that’s a structured business (like your Corner Media) or at least by collaborating with each other?
I certainly believe our network model is a very promising way to go. Collaborating could also make sense, though it can be, frankly, time consuming, and none of us have spare time. The reward would need to be substantial, or else the effort involved minimal.

In either case, should community sites take a closer look at ad exchanges, which appear to be moving beyond the “programmatic” selling of national ads that, through live auctions, helped drive down CPMs?
One issue with exchanges is that I think of ads very much as content, promoting a special or discount like a chalkboard in the street that you pass by. As a publisher, I want a high degree of control over what kinds of ads get served to my readers, just the way we control what kind of editorial content gets posted and how. And most of the ads I want to see on our sites are from our local neighborhood businesses.

To my mind, regional (beyond Brooklyn) and national advertisers need to pay a premium to be on my sites, because they are not local, and their ads can detract from the hyperlocal experience and have a tendency to make all sites look alike. They would need to be either highly relevant (say, the American Express Shop Small campaign featuring a business in my neighborhood ), or minimal (one ad of many). Occasional campaigns from advertisers outside the neighborhood are great additional income.

I made a conscious decision to not have network ads, so the only way an advertiser could reach my audience was to go through me. At the local level, one establishes long-term relationships with the advertisers, and often your site is the only place where they advertise.

What are three rules that community start-ups should follow?

  • Under-promise and over-deliver, both to community and advertisers.
  • Pay equal attention to the editorial and business sides of the site.
  • Really, really care and root for your communities, and that includes businesses. Trust builds slowly, and you are in for the long run.

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.