Dallas Morning News Bets Ranch on Its Local/Hyperlocal Strategy

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DMNFor the Dallas Morning News, local and hyperlocal — increasingly digital but with a continuing and strong print presence — define the future of the 130-year-old A. H. Belo Corp. newspaper. To find out what the DMN is doing to keep wearing the 10-gallon hat among North Texas media, we talked with Grant Moise, senior vice president of business development; Nicki Purcell, chief digital officer; and Bill Patterson, group publisher, Community Newspapers. The questions and their answers:

What are the chief features of DMN’s local strategy, and how is it geared to staying on top in the fast-changing world of digital local news?
Patterson: While no doubt there is a digital audience in the marketplaces that we serve, we have found a solid audience for print too. Particularly as it is focused on niche community journalism where we can provide unique content and thus an affordable advertising option for small businesses.  Many smaller businesses in suburban neighborhoods are not as digital savvy and still look to print as a source to promote their business.  Certainly we have web sites aligned with all of our markets so we look to bundled buys with print and digital as a great opportunity.

Neighborsgo, your print-digital platforms for community news, has 12 sites that cover more than 20 communities in the Dallas market. Are DMN reporters deployed in your coverage of these communities?
Patterson: Each of our Neighborsgo publications has an editor who is active in generating content and news briefs in the communities we serve. Additionally we do tap into the DMN metro staff and have developed strong synergies where the metro staff helps Neighborsgo and vice versa where the Neighborsgo editors help provide daily content in the county by county coverage in the DMN.

There’s a lot of talk about how the definition of local news is changing. There’s still “duty” coverage, but some journalistic innovators talk about stories that try to capture the character of a community, what makes it special. Does this approach fit in with what’s happening with local at the DMN?
Patterson: We have to be able to provide more than “duty” coverage. As the communities around Dallas continue to grow, we’ve got to make sure we’re working to help make citizens life easier to figure out, to help guide them to places within their city to get them connected and involved. With Neighborsgo, both print and digital, it’s our job to give them a sense of community for those that have been in the community for a while, and those who are new.

The DMN formerly had a metro geographic approach to local. Now there’s more focus on individual communities, typified by Neighborsgo. Why the change?
Patterson: With the Dallas market growing like it is the growth is really impactful in the suburban communities around Dallas where Neighbors is published.  Some communities that were just fields with 10,000 citizen 10-15 years ago are now approaching 75k-100k population. That makes geographic coverage more difficult, it’s harder for citizens to get around to various communities due to traffic and keeps them more focused on the growth and what is going on in their own backyard.

How does your Speakeasy agency meet the needs of businesses who aren’t completely sold on traditional display advertising and want to try new approaches to connect with customers?
Moise: Speakeasy has a loyal list of clients who see social media and content marketing as an enhancement to what they are doing in the display space. Those who are not display customers, see the content that Speakeasy creates as a way to: A) enhance their SEO, B) create a dialogue through social media networks, and C) rely on us to be their eyes and ears in social media networks so we can alert them about potential public relations issues.

Are DMN’s local news consumers migrating rapidly to mobile, and, if so, are you tailoring news and advertising to make your mobile platforms attractive to them?
Purcell: Without a doubt, our local news consumers are moving more to mobile. Having said that, the DMN has been fortunate to see a lift in both desktop and mobile traffic. Consumers appear to be more consumed with news and that in-depth engagement leads to more interaction. The larger growth percentage is happening on mobile. One of the metrics we look at is how many of the top-10-read stories are leading on a mobile device vs. desktop.  It’s not surprising these days to see our top content with more unique visitors and page views on mobile.

As a result of this transition, we are continually improving our mobile platforms.  With the consumer in mind, it’s not just about an easy to navigate site with personalized content, it’s about understanding the place they are when they are viewing the site and the context in which they may be. Decreasing page load time and increasing the ease of sharing is often just as important as a design change to a mobile user.

Surveys of news consumers show they have mixed feelings about how they value local. How does DMN’s local strategy ensure those consumers will come to your local platforms and get and stay engaged with them?
Patterson: We try to make sure Neighborsgo has unique content that isn’t found in large quantities in the core DMN. We welcome community contributors and those submissions get the residents of the various communities we cover more engaged.  We have found that municipal government is one or our largest advertising categories as they feel we offer one of the best resources to reach their community.  The advertising base we are after is generally the smaller mom and pop type advertisers, those that certainly can’t afford to buy the DMN, but get to take advantage of being inserted into the Friday edition of the DMN.  We provide this content packaged so that readers and online viewers have to only go to one place, Neighborsgo print or online to find out what they need to know.

Do you have local initiatives that you’ll be introducing in 2015?
Moise: Yes, A. H. Belo’s recent acquisitions of Distribion, Vertical Nerve and Marketing FX all play into a local solution that we will be bringing to our customers in the second quarter of this year. We are 50% of the way through the design of these offerings right now, and can’t wait to get them into the market here in a few months.  The offerings will be centered around data enhanced e-mail, SEM/SEO and social media platforms.

The DMN has created an events marketing division, Crowdsource, that partners with external groups in sponsoring North Texas-related events in many categories. Do you see this as a new source of local revenue?
Moise: We absolutely see this as a new source of revenue for the company. This is also part of our M&A strategy where we have bought an interest in some of these companies so that we are building equity while we are growing these companies. For example, Savor Dallas is one of the biggest food and wine events in the North Texas region, and it allows so many of our endemic and non-endemic advertisers to reach this high-end audience.

Your 508 Digital marketing solutions group aims at helping local businesses build their presence in social media and on search engines. How successful is it?
Moise: We have been happy with 508 Digital’s growth and it is a profitable business for us, with clients that range from $350 to $35,000 per month in revenue.

To sum up, just how important is your local strategy to DMN?
Moise: The future of our business is local, so the local strategy is critically important to us.  Our goal is to be able to super- serve advertisers and marketers to reach customers across North Texas.  When we can help clients beyond North Texas, it is an added bonus to us, but our core focus is on the local market.  Whether that is hyperlocal (neighborhood) or across Dallas/Fort Worth, our goal is to be the dominant player in the region.

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.