Alternative Press Expands Hyperlocal Network Into Suburban Philly

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The-Alternative-Press51Litigating attorney Mike Shapiro began his hyperlocal news network The Alternative Press in three suburban New Jersey communities — including his hometown of New Providence — in 2008. With strong news coverage that has won it journalism awards and national attention, TAP grew rapidly, with new sites that Shapiro either wholly owned or set up as franchises.

With TAP now reaching 30 New Jersey communities, Shapiro has decided to cross over into Pennsylvania with a site in Lower Providence, in suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County. Shapiro explains his interstate move to Street Fight:

Why suburban Philadelphia?
TAP is open to opportunities to launch in locations that make logical sense for our business model. Suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County is home to the tight-knit, involved communities that are similar to the ones we cover here in New Jersey. Melissa Treacy, former regional editor for Patch in Montgomery County in suburban Philly, reached out and asked whether we’d consider allowing her to franchise in the state. Given Melissa’s stellar journalism background, we welcomed her to the TAP family.

With editorial expenses a constant pressure on profitability at community sites, how do you keep you news model from conflicting with your business model?
Under our franchise model, the sites are independently owned and operated by one person or a group of people. One of their roles is to cover the news, so editorial expenses are basically nonexistent for them. Some do supplement their coverage with freelancers, the cost of which is minimal.

Lower Providence is steeped in 300 years of American history, but it has also been part of the postwar explosion of suburbia. How will your new TAP site balance the township’s past, present and future?
Here’s Melissa on how she’ll do that: “Lower Providence TAP is about keeping everyone informed. The community deserves more in-depth coverage, and we aim to get to all of it, from the township’s deep history to breaking daily news. Living in the township, raising my own children in this district, I know what matters and intend on keeping our town informed.”

Additionally, Melissa’s husband, James, is selling advertising for the Lower Providence site. That’s part of the beauty of our franchise model — independently owned and operated franchises headed by knowledgeable local residents invested in their communities.

How does the franchise model work. What benefits go to TAP and what go to the franchisee?
TAP provides a turnkey solution for people who want to start their own online newspaper business in their own town. In addition to supplying a customizable site, hosting, and ad serving, we provide comprehensive and ongoing editorial, sales and social media training, Facebook and Twitter pages, media kit, media liability insurance, CRM system and marketing of their site. Importantly, by franchising they also become part of the TAP network so they can share content with other franchisees (and vice versa) and also sell advertising into each other’s sites.

Will future TAP growth be all franchises or a combination with wholly owned sites?
Future TAP growth will be mostly franchises.

Patch is big in suburban Philly. Is there room for both TAP and Patch in Lower Providence?
The more hyperlocal sites, the better — as the residents will be better informed about their community.

Here’s Melissa with more: “With massive layoffs in the recent months, Patch has greatly decreased its local coverage and gone to a regional, statewide and even national coverage model with its stories. Lower Providence TAP will make sure the residents of my community still have a source for very local news that truly impacts their daily lives.”

What’s the status of your overall  TAP investment strategy? Are you still talking with potential investors?
We raised enough capital to fund our short- and mid-term strategy. Of course, there’s no harm in talking so we welcome conversation about the longer term.

Does TAP continue to be profitable?
Yes.  This year we are reinvesting our profits by making a significant investment in technology which began last year and will extend into much of this year.

We’re hearing a lot about programmatic advertising downshifting to local and hyperlocal publications as businesses seeks new customers among smaller but more engaged audiences. Is TAP benefitting from this new ad strategy?
We have not yet begun to tap programmatic advertising but plan to do so later in 2014.

What’s your reach with all your TAP communities?
Over 1.8 million absolute unique users came to the site during the past year. Pageviews are over 600,000 per month.  We are currently conducting a reader survey to get more detailed information, and we’ll have those results soon.

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.