Community Publishers Mixed on Borrell Prescription for Content

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fingerGordon Borrell minced no words in Street Fight recently when he talked about content and audience in the revenue-hot digital space that his new annual local media report pinpoints. He said:

“It’s so much not about readers. It’s so much more about consumers. So those folks who are trying to develop hyperlocal sites around good content really need to know, and the evidence in this report is very clear, the good content that needs to be developed is basically advertising or consumer related. … Unless you know who [the consumer] is, what they’re about to buy, their gender, their zip code, where they were last, that person’s not valuable at all.”

Community news publishers spend a lot of time and resources cultivating an audience they think is interested in both local news and information as well as local products and services. I asked six of them what they think of Borrell’s prescription for content, as well as his emphasis on identifying the demographics and buying behavior of their audience:

Grant Moise, SVP of business development at the Dallas Morning News, whose Neighborsgo covers more than 20 communities in the Dallas metro market: “It’s an interesting take, but we do not share the same opinion as Gordon. There is no doubt the data on the reader is important, but I would not say it’s mandatory.”

Carll Tucker, CEO of Daily Voice, the 43-community news network in suburban Connecticut and New York, said Borrell “is right directionally. I agree we have to know who are customers are, but first we have to get them in the door. And you do that with ‘urgent news’ — the big snow storm, the traffic pileup, and tell it in 300 words or less. Then, to engage them, you enrich the news product with information that’s ‘nice to know.’”

Programmatic advertising — which includes the targeted display that Borrell reports is now far out-performing conventional display — is the third source of revenue for Daily Voice after content partnerships and regular display, Tucker said. As the network deepens its profiles of users, the goal is to raise the CPMs of programmatic advertising and make it 60% of total ad revenue.

Mike Shapiro, founder of the network serving 50 communities in suburban New Jersey and two in Pennsylvania: “Over 50% of our readers reported that they have purchased a product or service based on seeing that product or service advertised on So readers can certainly become consumers. But we have over 3 million readers because of the original award-winning local news content we provide through our unique model of franchising local news sites to local owner/publishers.”

Mike Ragsdale, founder of, which serves the Gulf Coast communities of Santa Rosa in Northwest Florida: “I agree that publishers need to stop thinking about their audience as ‘readers.’ Today’s, consumers are so much more sophisticated than that. Publishers need to develop a loyal following. Develop a brand. Develop a TRIBE. Offer your tribe things that they value, and they will consume them — sometimes for money. But you don’t need to try to make a dime off of everything you do.”

“I disagree that everything needs to be advertising-focused. You need to be careful not to view your fans with such a crass commercial eye. Focus on what your fans want. If you give your fans what they want, your business and brand will ultimately thrive. But when you get too calculated — when you scheme too much in the boardroom — your brand credibility will inevitably suffer and decline over time.”

“Our brand has over 310,000 Facebook fans. I don’t know what they’re about to buy, their gender, their zip code, where they were last, and frankly I don’t care and I don’t need to know.”

Scott Brodbeck, founder of ARLnow, which has four community news sites in metro Washington D.C.: “I believe Borrell might be on to something here, but he takes it too far. I believe the aggregate audience is valuable to local advertisers. After all, we know that the majority of people reading our Reston Now site are people who live and work in Reston — which is valuable to an advertiser whose business serves Reston, regardless of the website they just came from or their exact zip code. In fact, sometimes data like zip code can work against you. What if someone lives in D.C. but works in Reston — in that case, a lunch spot that’s only targeting Reston zip codes is missing out.”

“My takeaway from Borrell is that we should find ways to be of service to local consumers at the point of a local purchase decision. We’re kicking around a few ways to do that, to produce content that readers will find unique and useful when making a local purchase decision — like hiring a service provider or choosing where to go out to dinner. This would go beyond a traditional business directory, which is simply commodity information. And it would obviously be a very valuable moment for us to monetize. Whatever solution we come up with will have to be mobile-first — or at least mobile-optimized.”

“As for turning all content into advertising — that’s not going to happen. We need to continue to attract the largest audience possible, and the way you do that is through quality local news coverage.”

Howard Owens, founder of The Batavian in upstate New York: “Everything, everything, is about producing great content — content readers want — and building audience. Online, you’ve got to dominate your local market. If you’re not reader-focused, you’re doing it wrong.”

“My job is to give readers great content and then for their benefit and for the benefit of our local business owners, to bring readers and merchants together in a way that creates commerce.”

“The straight-line path is to get a huge audience on our home page and put ads there. We know this strategy works and is working and continues to pay dividends. Gordon continually seems to try and discount this strategy. I feel like he’s flying at 50,000 feet and missing what’s really happening when you put feet on the street and walk into brick and mortars every day.”

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 last year.