Sheepshead Bites Founder: If You Meet the Market’s Needs, It’ll Meet Yours

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mlEvent sponsorships are becoming a double-digit percentage of revenue among some news sites in local digital. The major nonprofits Texas Tribune, St. Louis Beacon, NJ Spotlight and MinnPost all report big gains in revenue from their events. At independent hyperlocal Sheepshead Bites in Southern Brooklyn,  founder-editor-publisher Ned Berke looks at event sponsorships from a wider perspective, as he explains in this Q & A on how his six-year-old site is performing.

You’ve just come off presenting your biggest event, “A Taste of Sheepshead Bay.” What’s it all about, besides the obviously delicious (and international) array of food?
First and foremost, it was born out of a love of the neighborhood’s food and a desire to help build bridges between the neighborhood’s various ethnic groups. For at least 25 years, the neighborhood has been in constant flux with new waves of immigrants. Eastern Europeans and Asians led the first major ethnic shifts, and more recently Turkish, Central Asian and Arab groups have moved in.

The obvious way to [deal with differences and the tension they can bring] was to get people to sit down together and try each others’ food – because, who doesn’t like food? And, if they found they really liked an Uzbeki plov [pilaf], maybe they’d stop by a Uzbeki restaurant in the neighborhood to try something else, strike up a conversation with an employee and learn that Uzbeks aren’t weird and scary after all. In fact, they’re good, hardworking people who make good food and could be a valuable neighbor. A secondary goal was especially to help the two-thirds of our restaurants hurt by Hurricane Sandy to recover.

Receipts from “A Taste of Sheepshead” look to be just north of $9,000, with 300 attendees paying $30 each ($35 at the door). Did you make enough money to justify the effort you and your staff put into the event?
It helps us raise money to pay freelancers to do more great reporting. It makes us money, but compared to the effort, it’s probably not worth it financially. I do it because I love it, my neighbors love it, and it helps the businesses. I don’t sit there jotting down notes about my ROI. My ROI is that it feels good and I sleep well.

Do the 20 restaurants that participated in “A Taste of Sheepshead Bay” advertise with you?
Some do, but most do not (yet). One signed a deal with us, but the campaign hasn’t yet started.

Sheepshead Bites attracts 135,000 visits a month from an audience where 61% earn more than $60,000.  The success of “A Taste of Sheepshead Bay” on a cold January night indicates the level of engagement of your audience. Why, then, is “revenue a problem,” as you say in your profile in Michele’s List?
Revenue is always going to be a problem in community news. We’re good. We’re stable. I make a living and I can pay those who help me, although I’d like to pay them even more. But revenue will always be a problem for community news because people in community news are passionate about what they do, and they always want to do more, and it will almost always cost money to do more.

I’m always going to tell you that revenue is a problem. Because community news publishers are passionate, and passion is climbing a mountain with no crest – you climb and climb and climb, and pray to God to have what it takes to climb a little more.

Michele’s List has your annual revenue for 2012 in the $51,000-$100,000 tier. Do you have an update for 2013?
We inched up in 2013 — quite a feat considering two thirds of our ad base was hit hard by Sandy and all three of our events were canceled last year.

There’s increasing discussion about how community news sites, assuming they have verifiable levels of user engagement and can produce detailed demographic and behavioral profiles about their users, can benefit from targeted ad buying. This programmatic advertising used to involve only national publications, but now it’s moving downstream to hyperlocal pubs, especially on mobile platforms. Would this work for Sheepshead Bites?
I’m glad these conversations are happening, and I do pay attention to them. But on the ground, I say to myself, is the technology there, can I afford to implement it, does it have proven results and can I explain it to the owner of the pizzeria? Now, Gus at the pizzeria is actually very savvy, and that’s probably the only one of that set of questions I can answer in the affirmative.

Would you consider networking with other community sites in Brooklyn and elsewhere in the city to offer marketers scaled targeting?

You want to invest in new revenue streams. What types appear to be the most feasible?
Slow and steady wins the race. We’ve recently created new display ad opportunities on the site, we’ve produced events, we have a handful of other small revenue streams. I hope to do more with those as we go along. We’ve dabbled with other things — social media management, directories, etc. I don’t believe in coming up with something and forcing it down the throats of clients. We put it out there, and patiently wait to see if it accumulates like a snowball, or disintegrates like a comet in the atmosphere.

What are you doing about mobile, which is growing so rapidly, including in local ?
We do a very bad job of dealing with it. We have a redesign in the works to better accommodate mobile users.

What kind of progress are you making with your second Southern Brooklyn site, Bensonhurst Bean, which you founded in June 2011?
It’s gaining inroads in the community. Engagement is increasing. We’re doing more and better reporting every day on it. But we haven’t sought to monetize it yet. Frankly, I’m enjoying the experience of growing another audience from scratch, and look forward to getting it to a point where we can explode onto the local ad market there (as opposed to Sheepshead Bites, where readership and advertising grew side by side). The different strategic approach is just plain fun for me.

Sustainability is a big topic in digital community news. It’s a question mark for corporate networks and independent sites alike. What do community publications, including yours, need to do become more sustainable?
From the perspective of an indie, a big part of it is forming realistic expectations and your own definition of sustainability, and knowing your own market well enough to suit its needs. If you meet the local market’s needs, it’ll meet yours.

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.

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