From Print to Patch to His Own ‘Indie’ Site — A 25-Year Saga

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oswegoSteven Jack left the AOL’s Patch in the first round of layoffs – in August 2013, before the company sold majority ownership in its financially besieged community news network to Hale Global in January 2014. Jack, who was regional editor for eight Patch sites, did what many of his terminated colleagues did – he started his own independent site. Not only that, he did it in one of the communities he oversaw – Oswego, IL (population 30,000), southwest of Chicago. In less than a year, he has captured 31,000 unique visitors for his Only Oswego, which more than equals the town population. Here, he tells Street Fight how he did it:

You’ve been in the community news business 25 years, which covers the pre-digital period when print was king. What’s the most important thing you learned as you worked your way through this challenging transition
Without question, it’s don’t sweat the small stuff. Working in digital gives us a huge advantage over newspapers because we know what people want to read about. If I cover a topic, and the readership level doesn’t meet a certain threshold in page views, I won’t cover that topic again without a really good reason. I’ve spent more hours than I care to count sitting in insignificant government meetings seeking out stories that I always believed no one really cared about. Now I have proof.

More recently, you went from a massively scaled corporate community-based network (Patch) to your owned-and-operated “one-off.” What’s the big difference between the two — from the operator, provider and news consumer’s perspectives.
Starting and running my own site in the town that I love gives me a really unique ability to get very close to the readers. That was the original idea behind Patch, but the more towns they gave editors to cover, the less contact they had every day with readers. Readers can contact me at a moment’s notice, and I work hard to return all correspondence within a couple of hours. From the consumer’s perspective, I feel like my audience is very loyal. Everyone likes to support local, independent businesses and this is no different.

Did you entirely bootstrap Only Oswego?
I paid for all the upfront costs myself. My last job provided a pretty nice severance package, so taking on those costs wasn’t much of a struggle. So far, my total investment cost has been about $3,000.

You appear to write most of the articles on the site. Do you have freelance help?
I have no freelance help. I’ve done a few sponsored content pieces since the site launched at the end of February, but everything else has been written by me. I’d love to have some freelance support, but paying someone to do that isn’t something I’ve been able to wrap my brain around yet.

What about contributions from the community, including public officials?
I haven’t ventured into community contributions at this point. I’ve seen mixed results in this realm, and I’ve yet to determine if it’s worth exploring.

You operate Only Oswego part time. What do you do otherwise?
Through Dec. 31 I’m working as a full-time freelance local content producer for a national home-improvement site Angie’s List. I’m giving that up at the end of the year, however, to put all my efforts into Only Oswego. I used the last six months in that job to kind of provide a ramp for my own site and some income for my family.

Now, I’ve built a large audience, and there are a lot of sponsorship opportunities out there for me to explore that I haven’t had the time for to this point.

You’ve achieved high traffic numbers and strong engagement on Facebook. How do you make that happen?
Unique visitors for November were 31,000 and pageviews were 68,000. We have 6,060 “Likes” on our Facebook page. The success in terms of numbers is mostly about consistency. I try really hard every day to provide at least one piece of content that will draw most of my audience to the site. I also stay on top of police news and local economic development issues, which are the two topics that drive the most traffic.

Oswego is very competitive in local news. What’s your revenue strategy in these circumstances?
Since I’ve been working full-time in my other job for the last six months, my revenue strategy has been merely to deal with inbound sponsorship calls. I’ve had little time to solicit advertisers, but that will all change after the first of the year. My goal is to double my current revenue by the end of Q2 of 2015. Locable, the company that hosts my site, has a lot of great ideas in terms of revenue, so I plan to work closely with them to explore all my opportunities. They’ve also recently switched to Broadstreet for ad hosting, and that’s been a wonderful addition. Broadstreet has a lot of creative ideas that I think can empower indie websites no matter their size.

You have a Local Spotlight area at the top of the Only Oswego homepage where advertisers are promoted. Is that space premium-priced or do you rotate all your advertisers there?
That spot is premium-priced.

What are you planning to do in 2015 to enhance your site and stay competitive?
For 2015, I plan to provide a lot more local content. With my other job, it’s been difficult to cover all the stories that I know need covered. I’m also planning on launching a daily newsletter, which to this point has been weekly. I’m also planning more marketing events and finding unique ways to get more involved in the community.

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.