‘Baltimore Fishbowl’: One Story Behind ‘Optimistic’ New Revenue Numbers

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228658_207735775925660_1850516_nA majority of independent community news sites are doing fine building revenue, and, in many cases, quite well. That’s the anti-Chicken-Little message from authoritative industry watcher Michele McLellan, author of Michele’s List, which tracks about 200 entrepreneurial community news sites around the country. Her new survey of community news publishers finds that 62% increased revenue in 2013, with the average being 49% and half her respondents doubling what they took in.

McLellan says the numbers (produced from 80 survey replies) make her “optimistic” about the future of community news, whose own story of late – between corporate stumbles in scaling hyperlocal and many local businesses putting their ad dollars elsewhere – has been mostly downbeat.

To get at the “why” behind the numbers, I went to the founder of one of the best performing sites in the survey. She is Suzy Dunn of three-year-old Baltimore Fishbowl, which brings an innovative, lifestyle-themed slant to news in the city and its inner suburbs. The Baltimore that Fishbowl covers is light years away from “The Wire,” but the site produces fascinating, readable stories, and generates healthy ad dollars.

Here’s how Dunn, the witty wife, mom and non-traditional editor/publisher who is totally tuned to the Zeitgeist of a new Baltimore, does it:

Your news topics — like “money and power” and “My Real Life Modern Family” — go well beyond conventional fodder like 7-Eleven holdups and traffic tie-ups on the Beltway. Would you explain?
From the start, I knew I did not want to be the online version of the local community newspaper, so I never felt compelled to be the source for traffic tie-ups and holdups. Instead, I wanted to cover news that I felt was being neglected by the mainstream press about the university culture (Johns Hopkins is the No. 1 employer in Baltimore), the private school community, the residential real estate world and more.

We don’t have a full-time reporter on staff to cover breaking news, and we can’t compete with the Baltimore Sun and local television stations on breaking news, anyway.

(By the way, the Real Life Modern Family section was inspired by the first Big Fish interview we did — with local-girl-done-good and actress Julie Bowen, who stars in the TV sitcom “Modern Family.”)

Your staff includes a literary editor — Betsy Boyd. Why is that important to your community coverage?
What the outside world has not caught on to is that, with the demise of the steel mills, Baltimore is now a college town, filled with writers and academics. There are loads of writers — MFAs from the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins (our senior editor Rachel Monroe falls into this category, as does Betsy Boyd), graduate students at the University of Baltimore, professors at Goucher College and more — looking for a place to showcase their work. We try to give them that place. I find that having these writers share their stories creates community rather than covers it, but creating community is essential to any successful website, I think.

That doesn’t mean we are not covering community. The Baltimore Sun has a moral imperative to cover broken Baltimore, but with limited resources it means that so much gets missed — from pot smoking parents to cheating in the private schools — and it gives us the opportunity to cover those stories.

You cover the “private school community.” What about public schools?
They receive coverage from so many other media sources that it enables us to bring into the mix something the Sun ignores. The public schools affect more of its readership. We have just the opposite: more readers with kids in the private schools. We also have better access to insider information at the private schools because all of the regular Baltimore Fishbowl writers who send their children to private schools! Including me.

Baltimore Fishbowl has a casual, jaunty attitude – “The Front Page” for the digital era. What’s behind that?
Sites like Gawker, Business Insider and The Awl were great inspirations for me, and I like the mix of the serious and the silly that those sites present. We try to do the same.

I do not think that a diet of only Brussels-sprouts journalism drives traffic. Too much “candy” is not good, either. We are most successful with a mix. I encourage our writers to use humor in their writing and they do! Fortunately, we have a lot of funny writers.

Did you have any outside investment helping you get started?
Yes, the person who helped doesn’t want to be identified.

How much did that investor provide?
Enough to keep Baltimore Fishbowl in business for two years.

Your entire editorial content comes from freelancers. What’s your weekly editorial budget?
I am reluctant to tell you my weekly budget for editorial because to my writers receiving $25 for a story, the budget number is going to sound like a lot. But I have a target of 12 posts, and I pay writers to do the daily “headlines” and I pay a writer to send out the newsletter every day.  It all adds up!  Week-in and week-out the budget is in excess of $1,000 a week.

Michele McLellan reports you doubled your revenue in 2013. You say on your site that revenue increased “fivefold.” Please clarify.
Both are true!  We have increased fivefold from 2012-2013. Our revenue was just under $20,000 in 2012!  In 2013 it was just under $100,000. Our revenue in 2014 has doubled from the same time last year, i.e. revenue Q1 2014, the quarter that just ended a month ago, is double revenue Q1 2013.

How many advertisers do you have? What attracts them to Baltimore Fishbowl?
We have had over 100 advertisers, but currently we have about 20 advertisers on the site at a time, which doesn’t seem like nearly enough!   When I look to the sites that are known within the industry to be the big successes (The Batavian, West Seattle Blog, Baristanet, ARLNow) they have a lot more. Our advertisers are attracted to our affluent, educated readership, they like the sponsored posts, our email newsletter that goes out daily, occasional dedicated posts… we offer a menu of options.

What are Baltimore Fishbowl’s traffic numbers?
Our uniques are at about 50,000 monthly. Some months are better than others, fall is sensational, summer numbers are lower. Our page views are around 100,000.  We have a very low bounce rate of about 25%. Average time on site is about 3 minutes. While the numbers are not high, our advertisers like the eyeballs we attract.  As one advertiser told me, “I was going to advertise with [a competitor], but I couldn’t envision a lot of their readers coming in to buy [our product].”

You’re at the top in the $50,000-to-$100,000 tier on Michele’s List. What’s your revenue target for 2014?
We hope to generate $160,000 in revenue this year.

Is Fishbowl profitable?
Not yet. But I’m hopeful for this year!

Did you do any training on how to make it as a community publisher?
The most helpful and influential industry person to me has been Lockhart Steele, founder and CEO of Curbed [since sold to Vox], whom I contacted after watching him on a video on Mediabistro. He has been extremely generous with his advice. I would not have known how to get the site started and how to build audience without the advice of Lockhart Steele. Kael Goodman of the blankslate network has also given me invaluable lessons in the fundamentals of the space

What did you learn from your Knight Fellowship for News Entrepreneur Boot Camp in 2011 that helped you succeed?
I learned that there are a lot of us trying to figure out how to make it all work, that I am not alone, and that I have a real opportunity here. It’s like entering television in 1948!  Who knows where it could all lead?

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 rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched this month.