How to Get to 5 Years of Success in Hyperlocal Publishing

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ARLNowScott Brodbeck was a local TV writer-producer in Washington, D.C., when he decided to go entrepreneurial in digital community news. He launched his on turf he knew well from his broadcast experience — Arlington County across the river in Northern Virginia. Once a mostly white, bedroom community for federal workers in the capital, today Arlington is a highly diverse, mostly affluent city-county where 34% of the 225,000 population is minority.

This month Brodbeck is celebrating the fifth anniversary of ARLnow, and he’s doing it with a mini-network of four sites in metro D.C. In the past two and a half years, he’s expanded to the mostly affluent Maryland suburb of Bethesda (61,000 population), which is largely white but has a 9.3% Asian population; Reston (59,000 population), the planned community in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, where 37% of residents are minority; and, most recently, Capitol Hill (50,000 population), a gentrified-affluent neighborhood in D.C. that has a 34.5% black population. All four ARLnow communities are connected to metro D.C.’s subway system.

We caught up with Brodbeck recently to see how he’s made a journalistic and business success out of community news and where ARLnow is headed in 2015:

What are the biggest changes in ARLnow over its five years?
The biggest change is going from a one-person news blog run out of my living room to a credentialed local news organization with employees, office space and many more bills to pay. It has required us to do a lot more on the sales/business side, but that’s a good thing. More revenue = more local news reported and more jobs for journalists.

What are your numbers today compared with, say, two years ago?
I think unique visitors is the key comparison. In October we served a total of 430,000 readers (across all four sites). Two years before that we served 200,000 readers across two sites.

Do you have near-term plans for expansion?
We’re considering options for a fifth by mid-year.

Do you think you have come upon a solid business model for community news, and, if so, how has it changed?
In our first year, we only sold simple display ads, and only when the advertiser would contact us saying they wanted to buy an ad. That passive model worked, but it was only enough to support me, my home office and perhaps an occasional freelancer so I would go on vacation. Now, we have an active sales force that’s networking and knocking on doors, selling everything from display ads to sponsored content to (soon) marketing services. Our business model is constantly being tweaked — we’re in largely uncharted waters. If I were to open a takeout restaurant, there’s a playbook ready for me about how I acquire new customers and make the numbers work. There is no set playbook for local online-only news — we’re making it up as we go along.

What category of news is tops with readers?
Crime, business openings and closings, severe weather coverage, “weird” news, some types of school stories.

Display ads, we’re told, aren’t that effective in today’s digital world. Your view, based on ARLnow’s experience?
We get feedback from clients that their customers are seeing the ads and taking notice. And we’re actually finding non-annoying ways to make display ads more effective. Talk to the guys at Broadstreet about the click-through performance rates on some of their new rich media ad formats. We love the tools they’re giving us. Clients often come to us and say that their print ads weren’t working, so they’re making the switch to digital. At least on a local level, I don’t see how you can question the performance of online display ads without also questioning the efficacy of ads buried inside a community weekly or monthly magazine.

Of course there’s variability — some clients will have a message that connects and works and others will struggle. We have the eyeballs and the ad options to make ads effective, that’s not the problem. A key goal of ours going forward is to offer our clients a better creative consultation, to make sure they’re running campaigns that are effective for them. I think the lack of performance you see especially among national online display ad campaigns can be traced back to a lack of creativity. We would ultimately like to be the local “Mad Men” for clients that can’t afford a full blown ad agency.

What role does Facebook and other social media play in ARLnow”s success?
It’s a major distribution point for our journalism. It allows our headlines to reach readers in a place they frequent. Also, we get some valuable story tips, photo submissions and feedback via social media.

What’s an example of how you leverage the power of Facebook to increase or strengthen your audiences?
We’re not over-thinking it. We’re a news outlet and what people want from us is interesting, relevant local stories. All it takes is a compelling story and a compelling, non-gimmicky headline on Facebook — and people will share it on their own. Users hold the power on social media, once you realize that you realize that it’s more about story and headline selection than anything else.

Are you profitable, especially if you don’t count your most recent startup, Capitol Hill?
We have profitable months and unprofitable months, it’s a bit variable. We’re investing in growth thanks to a bit of financing we received last year, thus we have the luxury of not needing to be profitable. But we’re careful not to stray far from the break-even mark. The biggest hit we took last year was a new site design — without that we would have been profitable.

Local news thinker Jeff Jarvis says journalism has to move beyond content to service that connects individuals, who then become part of a more cohesive community. Do you agree?
I prefer the idea of reader-focused journalism. What kind of news matters to readers in a given community? I’m not talking about cheap clickbait, I’m talking about the kinds of stories that people want to share and talk about, either online, over dinner or at community meetings. Produce those kind of stories, and you will gain readers and effect local change. You will also develop a readership community that will participate in you comments section and forums. The challenge — and this is where a lot of larger hyperlocal news efforts get tripped up — is that different things matter to people in different communities. People on Capitol Hill have different interests and priorities than those in Reston. There are similarities, sure, but trying to do the same type of coverage in all communities is not going to work.

As you enter your fifth year, do you plan to do anything that will be new and big at ARLnow?
Our plans are a bit more incremental. The biggest priority this year is to increase per-site revenue. More revenue give us more resources — resources to produce more news and to create better ad campaigns for clients.

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.