How Local Publishers Can Score With Sponsorships: One Yard at a Time

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fingersCommunity news publishers are being urged to develop new revenue streams. Yes, by all means, they should.  But it can be hard — especially if your site is a small independent.

I spoke recently to the indefatigable Teresa Wippel, founder and publisher of the indie My Edmonds News north of Seattle, about her search for new revenue stream. In 2011, two years after she began her site, she turned to content sponsorships to supplement her modest display revenue. Sponsorships get talked about a lot, but only about 30 community publications nationally feature them, according to the Columbia Journalism’s Guide to Online News Startups.

Wippel made her challenge even harder by building sponsorships around a whole new way (for her) of covering high school sports — live.

High school sports are a big deal in Edmonds, as they are in just about any community anywhere. Wippel, wife, mother and veteran journalist who has lived in Edmonds for 30 years, wanted sports coverage that would capture some of the immediacy that parents and other fans experienced from their seats in the stands on the game sidelines. So that if you couldn’t make it to the game, or you’ve moved away, you could still cheer your team from your computer or tablet.

Here’s how she did it:

“We started with audio-only streaming of most games at just one high school. It represented about one-third of our total revenue after expenses, which include streaming costs (we use a third-party sports streaming company at a per-game fee), marketing, and a donation of 15% of revenue back to school’s sports booster club.

Teresa Wippel
Teresa Wippel of My Edmonds News

“The following year, we continued the audio-only streaming at the school and added video streaming at another high school, but video expenses were double the audio costs due to increased broadband it required. So while the net audio revenue was about the same, the video revenue was much lower.

“During the current school year, we shifted completely to video. Audio is cheaper, but there was a strong demand from the fan base for video. We also decided to include all four of our school district’s high schools since they often play each other. Another reason to expand coverage was that during the past two years I have acquired news sites in two neighboring communities — MLTnews and Lynnwood Today — where the other high schools are located.

“We are now doing two ‘games of the week’ that rotate among all four high schools. We did have to raise our rates to cover the increased video costs, which I believe resulted in a slight dip in sponsorships. And we had increased marketing costs due to the expansion to all four high schools, as well as new branding that required signage, etc. That reduced our revenue percentage from last year, so about one-third of our total revenue — which is in the mid-five figures — now comes from streaming.

“Bottom line, like most initiatives, we are a ‘work in progress.’ We will continue to look for ways to reduce our expenses and become more efficient — and find new sponsorships — so we find the right mix.”

But hard as it was, and continues to be, for Wippel, the sponsored video streaming of high school games has won her a trifecta in community journalism:

1) A significant source of new revenue from seven sponsors that include a good mix of local merchants plus two community colleges.

2) A nice jump in My Edmonds News unique visitors — to 100,000 from 80,000 a year ago — and 80,000 new UVs from the recently added Mountlake Terrace and Lynwood communities, with total UVs far exceeding the 96,000 total population of the three Seattle suburbs.

3) A strong partnership with one of the schools, whose broadcast and journalism students serve as crew members for the TV coverage of the games.

Would sponsored video streaming of high school sports work for other community publications? I asked Wippel

“I would recommend other sites pursue this if they have a passion for high school sports,” she says. “I do spend a fair amount of nights/weekends at high school games even though my kids have been out of school for a few years.”

But there are no silver bullets in developing new revenue streams such as sponsorships.

Down the West Coast, James Macpherson  has done a lot of innovating with his 10-year-old Pasadena Now, which he co-publishes with co-founder Candice Merrill. He pioneered in outsourcing local coverage, like city council meetings, to India and founded Journtent, which produces local coverage for other community sites ($15 to $45 per article, depending on length). But don’t talk to Macpherson about content sponsorship.

“We have never gotten anywhere with sponsorships and are geared, mentally, I think, to the faster (if not smaller dollar value) retail sales cycle. Things are going well. We booked our single largest sale in December ($15K) along with a large number of $5K deals.”

Yes, sponsorships can be great. The statewide nonprofit Texas Tribune earned $958,000 from them in 2012, according to the Knight Foundation report “Finding a Foothold” on how nonprofit news sites raised revenue. VTDigger, the nonprofit that focuses on investigative journalism in Vermont, has 125 underwriters — corporations and labor unions among them — who provided $125,000 in revenue in 2012. But the Tribune and VTD have statewide reaches.

A small indie can succeed with sponsorships. But, as the story of Teresa Wippel shows, it’s likely to be one yard at a time.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that will rate communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability. He will present the site’s new demo on Charleston, S.C., at the DIG SOUTH 2014 interactive festival in Charleston on April 9-13, 2014.