How Santa Barbara’s Noozhawk Zeroes In on News and Profits

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200-Noozhawk-SquareNoozhawk says it’s Santa Barbara’s “only 24/7 professional news site.” In the increasingly tough world of community journalism — where both readers and advertisers can be fickle and local advertising markets like Santa Barbara’s are crowded with competitors — Noozhawk succeeds because it’s not in the news business, but “the business of news.” Here, founder Bill Macfadyen explains what that means:

What’s your news model for greater Santa Barbara, and how big is your staff, counting paid and freelance?
Noozhawk covers Santa Barbara County with three full-time editors (who also are reporters, and prolific ones), four full-time reporters, and a handful of freelancers. For the most part, our staff is focused on the complex stories and topics that require the skills and expertise of independent, professional journalists. We believe that quality content is our greatest asset, and that it’s the reason our readers return to us again and again throughout the day.

We actively encourage the community to help us cover everything else. So much of what happens in a small community like ours does not need a reporter at all. We ask our readers to share what they know or what they saw — which is a vital lifeline for local nonprofit organizations, service clubs and other groups that can’t get their messages recognized in what I call Fossil Media. We’re transparent about the source, which empowers our readers to make their own value judgments on whether the information is useful to them. And the more of that THEY do, the less of it WE have to do.

With all your editorial overhead, how do you make it work financially?
We’re not cheating anyone, but we don’t overpay. And it’s fair to say that all of us are driven by being pioneers and the chance to make history. Although we look for talented, brand-new journalists we can mold in the Noozhawk culture, we also have two people who have 20- and 30-plus years in news.

We have an experienced, organized, disciplined and very effective sales staff that really knows our community. We spend our money wisely on the expense side. We’re also entrepreneurs and we continually look for ways to add revenue streams that work within our culture. With the exception of 2013, Noozhawk has been at break-even or profitable since late 2009. We finished in the red last year as a result of a significant expansion but we’re back in the black this year.

In addition to your homepage, you have the “News Grid.” It’s little squares of all text. What’s its purpose?
There’s a hierarchy to our homepage based on the choices and judgments of our editors, while the News Grid is governed strictly by the time stamp. We’ve found our readers engage there by skimming the headlines down to the stuff they read previously, at which point they know they’re caught up and can move on. We post as many as 30 stories a day so it’s an organizational tool for them. There are supposed to be pictures in there, too, however.

Your “Senior Living” section has a sponsor.  When you click on the “Senior Living” tab, you go to the sponsor’s splash page. Is that mixing news and advertising?
Senior Living is one of several sections with a sponsor. If you click on the Senior Living header, yes, it will take you to the Casa Dorinda site, but that’s an insignificant number of errant clicks.

My intention is for Noozhawk to resemble a college campus or a sports stadium, with “naming opportunities” on every building and corner you see. Our sponsorships are understated but they help pay for our ever-expanding news content and the “editorial overhead” you mention. We do work with our sponsorship partners on marketing-related issues but our news operation is separate. Sponsors can send us stories and news releases the same as anyone else — and, again, I would emphasize that we’re transparent about the source — but what they’re paying for is the sponsorship privilege and a separate, exclusive ad position within that section category (most often as an in-story ad).

What’s your advertising strategy? Do you go after regional and national ads? How successful is your ad strategy?
We’ve been quite successful, and I think our volume of ads and our profitability underscore that. What I’m most proud about is that the vast majority of our advertisers have been with Noozhawk for several years through multiple renewals, and in many cases we’ve cultivated a relationship of trust and reliability that enables them to view us as a partner and not a vendor.

We’re a local news site, though; while we wouldn’t turn away national advertising (if it were in our best interest), we don’t pursue it.

Noozhawk founder Bill Macfayden
Noozhawk founder Bill Macfayden

You have lots of competition. What does Noozhawk do that makes it stand out in the community?
There are quite a few reasons for our effectiveness here. We know our community and our community knows us. Santa Barbara is built on relationships, which often works to our advantage. I serve on as many strategic boards as I can fit into my schedule as a way to give back to the community while relentlessly promoting Noozhawk.

We are a professional news operation, led by one of my two partners, Executive Editor Tom Bolton, who is widely recognized as one of the Central Coast’s top journalists. Our reporters are accurate, objective and fair, and they represent our company with professionalism and integrity. We know our readers well and what they expect from us. We don’t take editorial positions or make political endorsements, and we keep our opinions out of our reporting.

We pay it forward by working closely with student journalists, especially in the high schools. Led by my other partner, Kim Clark, our business development vice president, our sales staff is attentive to our clients’ needs and we provide continuous feedback on their ad analytics. We’re very generous with Santa Barbara County’s nonprofit community, which totals around 1,500 organizations.

How important is your daily email “ Noozhawk A.M . Report” and what is its circulation?
The A.M. Report is a critical delivery vehicle for Noozhawk, with a circulation of just under 9,000 and an open rate of around 40 percent. It’s sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. and our readers actually know that (which says something about the number of people who sleep with their smartphones by their beds). Based on the reader engagement and how they interact, we are absolutely fascinated by email and study it closely.

One perplexing issue is that, even though the vast majority of our subscribers went to our website to sign up, a surprisingly large number of them actually think the email IS Noozhawk. Weird. Next month, we’ll be launching a P.M. Report that will be sent at 4:15 p.m. weekdays.

How do you use Facebook to leverage traffic to Noozhawk?
We post just about everything to Facebook, which is responsible for about 62% of our social media engagement (followed by Disqus at 32%). We would love to spend more time with it, but there’s only so much we can do in a day.

What are your unique visitors and pageviews monthly?
According to Google Analytics, in the last 30 days, we’ve had 315,000 visitors (Because Noozhawk essentially is a 24/7 news site, we believe visits are a more valuable metric than a unique.), 150,000 unique visits and 621,000 page views. We’ve set year-over-year monthly records three times so far in 2014 and are on pace to demolish last year’s high marks in all three categories.

You’re one of the top revenue producers on Michele’s List — in the $100,000-$250,000 range. What’s your revenue target for 2014?
We are above that range and we have set a target of. It’s a very ambitious 23 percent increase from 2013 and we’re on track to reach it. In fact, this year we’ve already exceeded our previous annual revenue record.

Are you planning any expansion – within greater Santa Barbara or elsewhere?
Earlier this summer we expanded to northern Santa Barbara County, a seriously underserved population center of slightly greater size than our base on the South Coast. We’re currently exploring a possible acquisition, and at some point we would like to expand into western Ventura County, basically following the commuter footprint to Santa Barbara.

Hyperlocal news is a very tough business, with possibly more failures than successes? What do digital community news sites need to do to succeed?
We do not disagree, but we believe communitysites can be most successful when they listen to their communities and treat them with respect and not arrogance. New media offer infinite more ways to engage with readers and hyperlocal news sites should embrace every aspect of those opportunities.

Finally, while we absolutely believe that content is the foundation for Noozhawk’s own success, we’re mindful that we’re in the business of news and not the news business. Growth is only possible when both elements are healthy.

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 earlier this year.