Five years after she co-founded an independent community news site in metro Nashville’s most affluent suburb — Brentwood ($133,304 median household income) — Kelly Gilfillan is now running, and growing, her company by herself. Former partner and editorial honcho Susan Leathers recently left amicably to spend more time with her family and re-engage in local civic affairs. Gilfillan, whose primary expertise is sales, recently added a fourth site, Spring Hill, that, like Brentwood and the other two sites — Franklin and Nolensville — is in Williamson County, the most affluent county in metro Nashville with $91,146 median income.
Gilfillan’s sites are squarely in the middle of the market of the Nashville Tennessean, which is one of the five community dailies where media giant Gannett Corp. is developing “newsrooms of the future” to produce more reporters from same-size but reorganized editorial staffs. The goal of the intended transformation, coming after years of budgetary cutbacks that sapped editorial quality, is to make both the print and digital papers stronger and more community-oriented.
Here, Gilfillan tells Street Fight how she competes with a $5.4 billion media corporation as she pursues her “indie” entrepreneurial course.
What has happened in the digital community space in Nashville-Williamson County in the past year that directly affects you and how have you responded?
We had planned on opening our fourth site, in Spring Hill, in September 2014. When the Tennessean closed their weekly there, we went three months early. There is still a publication there run by Stephens Media, the Advertiser News. But we are the only online daily presence, though, and our growth has been swift and profitable.
Advertising sales continue to grow. Community engagement is what we do every single day. I am very involved in the community, and have spent a lot of time in Franklin, our largest market [68,886 population], in the last year to try and grow our roots there.
Social media provides about 30% of our clicks, according to Google Analytics, and so we take it very seriously. We have been working for several months to develop a policy for the entire staff to be involved, but we are being cautious to protect our brand. Because we believe so much in the importance of social media, we also expanded our marketing arm.
Mobile usage is growing tremendously. What’s the impact on your publications? How are you responding?
About 56% of our visits are from mobile. That is up from 42% at this time last year. As far as editorial, there is no difference. For advertising, we are constantly trying new ad opportunities that work well on mobile. Our site is responsive, but the ads don’t always hit like I would like. There are so many types of phones and constant change in the market, you just have to stay on top of how the site is looking on different devices.
Do display ads still work for businesses in your market?
Absolutely, we are still having a strong response from our readership with clicks. Our growth in readership has continued to correspond with a rise in click-through rates.
What about sponsored content. Do you have it?
Yes, we have been experimenting with it. We have a private school that has a column in three of our sites in the Schools section. They provide really good content on parenting, helping kids with school, opportunities in education, etc.
The Tennessean is one of Gannett’s five pilots to develop a model aimed at making all 98 of the company’s community dailies stronger and more community-connected. Is there room for both of you in Williamson County?
Here’s our coverage this week of what’s happening with the Tennessean in Williamson.
Are you still profitable?
Yes, this year a little less so but only due to our expansion. Each time we expand, we go forward with pre-sales and in the black. But it still increases our needs in production and editorial and I’m willing to make that investment back into the business to keep our product high quality.
What are your plans for 2015? New sites?
We are in the process of creating our new strategic plan. Yes, we will have new sites and maybe even go forward in other vertical markets. There is a lot of opportunity with our product because we have positioned the business model to replicate in other cities. I have been approached by businesses in other counties in the area to come in to their area and provide this product. I have an advisory board that is working with me to develop the best plan of action. I believe it is important to establish that a need exists in a new market. Going in and taking on another small business that is trying to fill the need in a market is not appealing to me. But if there is not a daily presence in a market and the readers see a need, I will be taking a look.
Now that you run the company by yourself, what are you doing to close gaps and ensure you have the people to support your bigger cluster of sites — in the middle of a market that likely includes a reinvigorated Tennessean?
One of the first changes I made was to rename the company Home Page Media Group. All of our sites are “City Name” Home Page and we felt like it was more congruent with our expansion plans and “Media Group” is a better description than just “communication.” We also expanded our marketing arm and renamed it Home Page Marketing. We have added, just in the last month, expanded services to our customers. In addition to the social media posting, content marketing and graphic design we were already offering, we now offer Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, Mobile Websites, Website Design, Geotargeting, and much more. Already, we have a dozen proposals out without officially announcing it to our customers. We have to help our existing advertisers adapt to the changing market and that does include more than digital display ads. We can act as their full service agency now and our sales team loves teaching about these new marketing tools. It is truly exciting.
I feel the weight of their livelihoods on my shoulders every day, but I believe deep down what we are doing is important and necessary. We independent publishers must find a profitable way to keep local news alive
I have hired a new Managing Editor, Jim East, who has a tremendous background, not the least of which is 30 years covering Williamson County for the Tennessean [and is author of the Home Page Media article linked above on the paper’s renewing of its presence in Williamson]. And I hired Robyn Williams, a former sales manager for the Tennessean in Sumner County, to be my Vice President of Business Development. We have increased the sales team from three part-time independent contractors to five full-time employees.
On the editorial side, we have a Managing Editor, Jim East; Assistant Managing Editor, Allison Maloney; Sports Editor, Sam McGaw; three beat reporters, Jonathan Romeo, Michael Ackley and Greg Jinkerson; county/schools reporter, Jess Pace, and a part-time copy editor, Josh Vardeman. We have a digital media manager, Jaisie Castellon, who handles all of our graphics needs, marketing materials and social media. And we have a Customer Service and Sales Support Manager, Angela Legge, who is the glue of the office.
We have gone from eight employees to 15 in a year and it’s a lot of responsibility. They are all so incredibly talented and strongly passionate about what we do. I feel the weight of their livelihoods on my shoulders every day, but I believe deep down what we are doing is important and necessary. We independent publishers must find a profitable way to keep local news alive because it is an increasingly difficult thing to do for the legacy papers. I believe we have a good model here and I work about 70 hours per week to make it happen.
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.