The six-year-old Alternative Press (TAP) network of community news sites in suburban New Jersey and Pennsylvania has a new name — TAPinto.net — and a new look. It also has a new strategy aimed at leveraging content and audience reach across TAPinto’s sites, 32 of which are franchisees and a few wholly owned by founder (with his wife Lauryn) and CEO Mike Shapiro. A former litigation attorney, Shapiro explains the changes, and what’s coming next.
What’s TAPinto.net all about that’s new and significant?
During the summer, we re-branded The Alternative Press as TAPinto. We began as the alternative to the hard-copy local paper. However, we are now the primary news source for residents in our towns, so our original name no longer correctly described us. In addition, our new branding has enabled us to personalize our sites (e.g., TAPintoWestfield.net for our Westfield, N.J., site), and have a shorter name that is easier to remember, while maintaining a connection to our former name. It was logical as well, since many people referred to The Alternative Press as TAP.
What has changed in community news that helped you to move toward this strategy?
In our localities, community news outside of TAPinto’s coverage is virtually nonexistent. The local papers have largely become regional in nature, covering very little news in a given town. Patch has in most respects become an aggregator and a community message board and does minimal local news coverage. The large newspapers, like the Newark Star-Ledger, have significantly reduced staffing in recent years and typically cover only the most controversial of local news. TAPinto has established itself as the go-to place for people to tap into their communities for truly hyperlocal news and information. We also make it easy for people to see what is going on in other towns, especially ones near them.
Your clustering framework looks similar to what Aol’s Patch has been doing in suburban New Jersey and other major metro markets. How does TapInto differ from Patch?
Patch is now largely a news aggregator and community bulletin board. TAPinto is a completely different model. Our sites are independently owned and operated by owner/publishers who live in the town or have a very strong connection to the town. They own the business. We provide the backroom support, ongoing training, working knowledge and materials. There is no bureaucracy. Our management team is miniscule. There are no content mandates. Their only requirement is to follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. We suggest that they do at least one original news story per day. In our model, the sites can easily share content with each other and can also sell advertising into each other’s sites. We have created a network of hyperlocal sites that is scalable on the content side as well as the advertising side.
In addition to Patch, you compete against “legacy” newspapers and TV broadcasters, many of whom have been in the news business for years and are even community institutions. What can and do your sites provide that’s different from and better than the legacies?
The legacy publications have largely abandoned local news. Typically when we cover a town council meeting or even a town event, we are the only publication there reporting on it. Because we do not have the cost structures of legacy media, we are also able to do more high quality local news reporting and our advertising rates are significantly more affordable. In addition, because of our content management system and ad serving, we are able to easily share content and advertising throughout our network of sites, which legacy media typically is unable to do. Most importantly, our owner/operators have great networks in their towns, so TAPinto is typically first on the scene of any breaking news.
To expand more rapidly, you originally settled on licensing as a transitional strategy. Now you’re in franchising almost completely. What happened to TAP licensing? What’s the difference between licensees and franchisees? Is your franchising model similar to McDonald’s?
About two years ago, we had a handful of sites that my wife and I were running ourselves but we kept getting requests from people to launch sites in their towns. We saw mistakes being made by other publications and wanted to develop a way to expand. We knew the key was to keep our sites truly local. We began licensing our platform and, while it was well-received, licensees needed more support from us than we were allowed to provide under a licensing arrangement.
So in December 2013 we became a franchise. At the time, we had slightly over a dozen licensed sites. Today, we have 32 franchised sites. There are several key differences: 1) While a licensee was, in effect, renting the platform, franchisees own their business and do have the right to sell it if they wish, creating equity in their site as they continue to build its traffic and advertising revenue; and 2) we can give unlimited support to our franchisees which has enabled us to make the franchisee experience as turnkey as possible. They write and publish content for their sites and do local ad sales in their towns. We do everything else from billing/credit card processing to site-wide marketing to providing virtually 24/7 content, advertising and social media support. Unlike a McDonald’s, our franchisees have virtually total control over their sites and their business. They receive all of the benefits of franchising without the downsides.
It’s been said “local doesn’t scale.” You’ve got more than 30 community sites. Is that scale?
Yes. Those who say it doesn’t scale either have no interest in scaling or typically do not want local to be able to scale. Many mistakenly believe that they have a vested interest in making sure local does not scale.
Community news, whether scaled or a “one-off,” is a hard business to make profitable. On the cost side, it’s labor intensive, on the sales side, it competes with a variety of other platforms and ways for businesses to get out their message, and in audience, its users can be fickle. How does TAPinto deal with these challenges?
Through the franchise model, franchisees are provided with training on developing content, selling advertising sales and working with social media platforms, and with ongoing support that could never otherwise afford. They are also provided with company-funded marketing that would be very costly to do on their own. We also form partnerships which provide significant benefit to our franchisees and that likely could only occur by having a network of sites, Because our sites can easily share content with each other and are able to sell advertising into each other, they also receive benefits of franchising that one-off sites cannot easily replicate.
What’s your traffic overall today, in unique visitors and pageviews?
On a given month, we have approximately 500,000 unique visitors and 1 million pageviews.
How do you translate these numbers into advertising, especially when business have many ways to get their messaging out to consumers? What kind of ad menu do you offer businesses, especially those who don’t think display works that well?
Since we began we have differentiated ourselves by offering premium content as part of our advertising packages and delivering significant value to our advertisers, which accounts for our 85%+ renewal rate.
How many of your franchisees are profitable or close to it?
Basically almost all of our sites are profitable as it only takes selling less than a handful of ads to pay all expenses involved with the franchise. Any ads sold after that is profit.
Tom 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.