Will 2015 Be Breakthrough Year for Community News?

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reporterIt’s been a rocky road from print to online for local news publishers. Two decades into the internet era, it’s still unclear whether consumers will have enough online appetite for community information to sustain local publications that count their success by the click.

There were a few distinct signs of community news starting to get its mojo in 2014 — here, here, here and here, among other places. But is it a lasting, growing trend? To get a peek over the horizon, we went to top experts in community news — publishers, editors and others who are involved in producing, analyzing and critiquing it. 

This is the first part of a two-column series — the second will run later this week.

Billy Penn CEO Jim BradyJim Brady, founder of Billy Penn in Philadelphia:
I do think local is headed for the breakthrough that has long eluded it, though there’s still plenty of tough sledding ahead. I think the growth of local will be powered by a few key things: 1) a move away from reliance on a display ad model, and 2) the continued emergence of mobile and, by extension, an increasingly location-aware consumer.

On the revenue side, you’re seeing a surge in events and membership models, largely because I think we’ve all discovered that putting all your eggs in the display basket is tough in local. Network ad pricing is largely beyond your control and page views are a fickle beast, making it hard to build a reliable business on that stream alone. Events and membership both take advantage of the physical proximity of local readers, and the business model is less subject to market forces. And, to me, mobile is the first big shift in media usage habits that plays more into the hands of local publishers than national ones, since we can use location to supplement the deep knowledge we already have of our communities. Plus, being able to connect local consumers gets easier when you have access to most all of them on a 24/7 basis.

Howard OwensHoward Owens, founder and publisher of The Batavian in upstate New York:
I disagree with the initial premise — that’s there’s no audience for local news.

In a coverage area of 57,000 people, we get 130,000 users a month to the site. Against a competitor who covers three counties to our one, our web site gets 20% or 30% more traffic.

If you visited Batavia, you would be hard pressed to find people who don’t read The Batavian. All because we’re 100 percent about local news.

There is a hunger — and I don’t believe this is unique to my market — for true local news, breaking local news, timely local news, local news that truly reflects what’s going on in the community and what it means to live in that community. And if you provide that, and give a forum to local businesses where they can thrive, advertisers will embrace it and support it.

What we do is easily replicable in any community. Just because there isn’t a lot of success to point to doesn’t mean local can’t work. It just means there are too few publishers doing it right.

The formula is very simple. Produce relevant, timely news that matters to your community, and nothing else, and you will begin to build a viable, successful business.

If you live in a community with poor community coverage, it’s not surprising you would say in a survey it’s not important to you. You can’t miss what you don’t have and maybe never had.

Rusty CoatsRusty Coats, executive director of the Local Media Consortium of newspaper and broadcast TV publishers:
I believe 2015 will be a breakthrough year for community news because of work being done at both ends of the spectrum — the growing sophistication of small startups in their approach to being businesses (and not just journalistic hobbies) and the strengthening coalition of major media companies involved in the Local Media Consortium. The first reflects lessons learned by the early news entrepreneurs who built large audiences and then realized they needed to build sustainable revenue sources. While many did not, many did — and this provides a playbook (advertising, events, membership, direct-response and even symbiotic relationships for joint gain) for current and entrant entrepreneurs. The second reflects the growing importance of maximizing the value of non-locally sold ad inventory through programmatic buying, and the need to streamline the local-media industry for major buyers (think Honda and P&G) to buy brand-safe, viewable inventory with upscale audiences at huge scale. This not only builds revenue on the programmatic side, it also creates upward pressure on rate and forces local sales teams to sell at more premium CPMs.

Key things to watch in 2015:

• The further evolution of community news publishing as involvement in community conversations. Everything we cover from a community news perspective is actually an ongoing conversation – about education, crime, race relations, health care, even tourism. It was there before we wrote about it and will continue after we’ve moved on.
• The effect of millennials seeking not only information but opportunities for involvement. Don’t just tell me what happened — tell me what I can do about it.
• Mobile now makes up more than half of pageviews for some local news sites. This is a completely different advertising model and content presentation model. Adjacency is not the answer, in-stream seems to be the new black.
• Symbiotic relationships in which community news businesses leverage their audience and reach to profit from the result. If I ran a community news site in a hot real estate market, I would explore partnering with a real estate brokerage or even starting my own, driving eyeballs to my listings and earning a percentage when the listing sells. If we believe our local ads work, let’s prove it — and make money from the result.

Tucker, CarlCarll Tucker, founder and CEO of the suburban Connecticut-New York community news network Daily Voice:
With 700,000 monthly unique visitors in a population of 1.76 million, unit profitability that grows every month, renewal rates from advertisers well north of 80%, and as much investment as we need, Daily Voice is not looking for breakthroughs, only more of the same.

For our current 43 sites, our objectives for 2015 are to increase frequency of visits and time on site (we don’t think we can increase UV’s by much, since we’re currently at more than 70% of our addressable audience); introduce additional digital products (e-mails, audience extension, etc.) to existing advertisers; enhance our content by adding features, improving technology and increasing community participation; and sell more effectively and efficiently, thanks to technology and experience.

TAPinto CEO Mike ShapiroMike Shapiro, founder and CEO of New Jersey and Philadelphia network TAPinto.net:
The year 2015 promises to be fantastic for community news as more and more people tap into online community news sites to obtain their local news and information. I expect to see traffic increase 25-40% and revenue surge by a similar percentage as both local businesses as well as regionals continue to learn the value proposition that community news sites deliver. I have received several investor inquiries during the last 90 days as our network of owner/publishers continues to expand and I expect investor interest to grow as our franchise model prospers.

Kenny_KatzgrauKenny Katzgrau, co-founder of Broadstreet Ads:
Publishers I know are creating business directories and incorporating in-depth reviews of things such as restaurants. To point to one, Red Bank Green has a “PieHole” section for foodies. In revenue, our focus as of late has been 100% on innovating in the display ad space, specifically ad formats. It’s still display advertising, but we’re taking it much further.

Publishers tend to have a love/hate relationship with Facebook, but it’s still an immensely powerful vehicle for posting, sharing and gaining viral traction on big stories. Additionally, with every reader a publisher gets to like their Facebook page, they’ve pulled them into the fold for “push” style publishing.

Our new ad formats are specifically tailored to work with mobile, and we’re working on several new Broadstreet products publishers can use to take mobile advertising even further. If we don’t do it, we don’t think anybody else will.

The only way to build a successful, sustainable business is by selling products other publishers aren’t offering. A standard display ad is buyable through an exchange at a cutthroat price. If it’s non-standard, like our new products are, and it impresses the advertiser, they’re going to get the win.

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.