One Model for Successful Hyperlocal News: Break the Rules

1002846_544279728966083_591403385_nStuNewsLaguna has become a success in its sunset-renowned coastal community in Orange County, Calif., by ignoring and even violating some of the “best practices” of hyperlocal journalism, and paying no heed to the people-don’t-care-about-local-news critics.

In recognition of just how far Stu News has come since it was founded in early 2009, community journalism analyst Michele McClellan has added it to her Michele’s List of promising start-ups. Shaena Stabler, the 28-year-old co-owner with founder and veteran Orange County journalist Stu Saffer, explains how she and Saffer are making StuNews succeed:

How do you each split up responsibilities?
Stu did the groundwork. I came on two years later. I’m responsible for sales, marketing, social media and writing the checks. Stu writes the news.

What’s the mission of Stu News?
To provide Laguna Beach with a hyperlocal source for news that both informs and entertains. The city has a population of less than 24,000, and, in addition to StuNewsLaguna, there are three print papers – two owned by media giants and the third by a regional media company.

What makes StuNews different?
This is a very engaged community and we produce editorial content that “thinks” Laguna Beach first and J-school second. We give great space and assistance to our many nonprofits, which adds to the local feel. Laguna Beach has the most non-profits/volunteers per capita in the state. The voter registration ratio is nearly 90% of those who are qualified to register and the voter turnout is generally the highest in Orange County.

Explain the success of one of your most popular editorial features — Dennis McTighe’s weather column.
Dennis is an icon in this town. He’s lived here most of his life. He really knows his stuff and, as a meteorologist, has the credentials. He has personally kept a journal of Laguna’s daily weather since the late 1950s as a kid! We encourage his unique writing style, which the community embraces.

How big is your editorial staff?
Stu does most of the writing. We do have freelancers, whom we consider family, and we’ll soon be having an associate editor, frequent contributor Maggi Henrikson.

You have weekly coffee meetings to which the community is invited. What  happens at them?
What makes them fun is how we have no idea how many people will show up on any given Friday. It can be four or 40 – but it is always low key and we seldom get too serious. We have had politicians show up along with some who just want a free coffee! Many stories and ad campaigns get pitched at the sessions.

Shaena Stabler and Stu Saffer
Shaena Stabler and Stu Saffer

What do your  audience numbers show about your level of engagement?
From Dec 20, 2012, through Dec 20, 2013 average unique visitors monthly were between 15k and 20k (depending on the month and stories that went viral. We had readers in all 50 states and 157 countries. Total pageviews for the 12 months were 571,311. Desktop to mobile readership breakdown was 62% desktops and 38% mobile or tablets

Based on our unique readership numbers (15k to 20k unique visitors monthly), we are the No. 1 news source in Laguna Beach by far. Perhaps the most important stat is that 57% of our readers came back 8+ times per month,

Michele’s List has your revenue in the $250,000-$500,000 category. Is your success primarily due to the Laguna market or what you bring to the market?
One hundred percent of our revenue is from local ad sales, almost all of which comes from Laguna Beach businesses and/or Laguna Beach residents who own businesses outside of Laguna. has been in the news with its new owners. What do you think of the erstwhile Laguna Beach Patch?
Patch never gained a real foothold in Laguna Beach. Our competition is print — the three print papers, all of which have their websites.

How do you get so many ads?
The ads work. This is due to the fact that our readership is higher than any other publication in town, yet our rates are the lowest. The ads also work because of the way the ads are laid out in relation to the content.

One of the major problems with the print medium — and Stu and I know because we came from print — is that in order to try and cover their high overhead, publications price their ads way too high for businesses, especially small ones, to achieve a good ROI.

Disillusioned by this model, we committed to offer “more for less” — more eyeballs for less money. We priced our rate card at about ¼ that of the print newspapers in town because our overhead was about ¼ the cost of theirs — even though we have more readers than they do and a higher level of community engagement.

Layout and positioning are also very important for our success. StuNewsLaguna is a scrolling concept. This means readers can access the full story without having to click a link that navigates them to a different page. The idea is that it feels, and reads, like a real newspaper, just online. This format contrasts with many hyperlocal online papers whose homepages consist of a collection of hyperlinked headlines, with no actual content featured on that page. The problem with this is that it takes readers away from the main page each time they click, and therefore away from the ads. Sure, it’ll drive the page count up for the site – but what good does that do if it doesn’t mean the ads are working any better as a result?

Lastly, we have, strategically, monitored and paced our growth so it doesn’t happen too fast, too soon. Believe it or not, we’ve had to turn down advertising revenue in certain categories (i.e. real estate) so as not to oversaturate the ads in that area. We see this as sacrificing short-term gain for a better, more sustainable long-term plan.

Based on your experience and what you’re seeing, where are hyperlocal news sites headed?
Hyperlocal will go as far up or down as its local owners are willing to lead. Patch, for instance, had all the money anyone could want to get going, but never was “local” here.  Hopefully, others will learn a lesson — to be local, don’t have people who don’t know your locale running the show. I believe that our model can be duplicated in many cities — as long as each is truly “local” hyperlocal, and the true goal is to have fun with each issue!

And what about those folks in new media who say people just don’t care about local news — that, for all practical purposes, it’s dead?
Local news is not dead — not if it’s done right. Every community is different. You have to tap into what it cares about. It’s not the journalism that’s most important — it’s how the community engages with the journalism. At StuNews, we’re only good because the community chooses to engage with us.

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.

  1. Steve
    February 7, 2014

    These numbers dont add up. You have 15-20,000 unique visitors, yet average 47,000 pageviews a month? so the average unique visitor sees 2-3 pages per month? If thats true, thats awful. I would imagine the 15-20,000 unique visitors is actually visits.

    1. TomGrubisich
      February 7, 2014

      Shaena Stabler’s numbers in her answer are correct. As she explains, StuNews’ design uses a scrolling effect, so the user is not continually clicking to another page to finish reading a story. Clicking adds more PVs, but that’s not what StuNews is selling to advertisers.

      1. Steve
        February 7, 2014

        Then you have 15-20,000 unique visitors averaging 2-3 visits over a 30 day period. Again, thats awful. If the UV’s were around 5-8,000, I would buy that the average reader comes 1-2 times a week for local news. If the average visitor comes 2-3 times a month, there are issues with engagement. Considering there is always acore group visiting daily or even multiple time’s a day, usually those commenting, that means the remaining come at most once a month. I respect what they are doing, but question the model long term. I would imagine they are selling to advertisers they have had a long term relationship with from their print days, and that model would be very difficult without that connection in a new market.

        1. Shaena
          February 7, 2014

          Hey Steve – please see above for further explanation. I invite you to get to know our model better!

  2. Shaena
    February 7, 2014

    Hey Steve – Shaena here. We’re not saying our particular formula will work for everyone – but it works for us and our community. If you don’t believe us, I suggest you ask around Laguna Beach to see who is recognized as the #1 news source in our town. Of course the exact formula will vary by community and by the specific skill set owners/staff can offer. As for our level of engagement, our Facebook post from last week with over 26,000 organic views to it – a video of a car chase through town – should speak for itself. And hey, since when was selling ads effectively a bad thing? I’m a born again capitalist and operating from the standpoint of a CEO – we’re highly profitable because the ads work for our advertisers, and the community engages with us to a level you cannot comprehend unless you live here. Don’t fault us for having one of the highest revenue to readership ratios in the country – figure out how to make something like that happen for yourself!

    1. Shaena
      February 7, 2014

      Also, to clarify – we operate this like a print newspaper – with 2x weekly editions, not new content everyday, timed sporadically. Also, we don’t allow comments on our site – that’s what Facebook is for, along with posting content (or rather repurposing content from our site) daily.

      1. Steve
        February 7, 2014

        I get it, your reply is to basically trust you. I wont until I see evidence that your revenue is what you say it is, and no one would ever produce that, so I’ll remain skeptical. If you have some magic pill, so be it, but its either that or there is more that is either not shown in the story or the numbers are wrong. you likely have the sales contacts from days in print, or “Stu” is so well known and a part of the community adveretisers are no caring about throwing a hundred bucks a month to you. Thats all good, but its not a model that makes sense outside that area.

  3. Shaena
    February 7, 2014

    Also, to clarify, we run this like a print newspaper – with 2x weekly editions, there is only new content on these days save for breaking news updates. We’re not posting content daily – like I said, it’s like a traditional newspaper, except for that it’s online. We don’t allow comments on our site – that is what Facebook is for. I suggest you take a closer look at our site as well as our Facebook page to get to know our model better.

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