ARLnow – an independent community news network that has been busy expanding in the shadow of the Washington Post – has just executed some eye-grabbing moves. It 1.) sold its Bethesda Now site in suburban Maryland, 2.) bought a dormant three-neighborhood site in the District of Columbia and 3,) will resurrect and expand its acquisition.
Scott Brodbeck, founder and publisher-editor of ARLnow, sold his three-year-old Bethesda Now to long-established Bethesda Magazine, which means the two “indie” properties won’t be cannibalizing each other anymore. Eleven-year-old Bethesda Magazine will be able to enrich its already strong content with much more breaking news about its fast-growing and diverse urban community, and ARLnow, through its purchase and expansion of the Bordestan site, will be able to extend its District footprint from one neighborhood — with its half-year-old Hill Now on Capitol Hill -— to five communities in the hot center of the city.
Borderstan served Dupont Circle, the U Street Corridor and Logan Circle, part of the cluster of contiguous neighborhoods that have been instrumental in creating a District of Columbia that, overall, is livelier, more affluent, safer and — controversially — less diverse. When Brodbeck recreates Borderstan this summer, it will include Columbia Heights, which is, arguably, ground zero for the debate over gentrification — the influx of middle-class, mostly white residents putting pressure on the neighborhood’s original base of less-affluent, poor and mostly black families.
The rapid, transformational changes coming to all the neighborhoods will be fodder for what five-year-old ARLnow can bring to its reborn Borderstan: solid curbside coverage of what happened in the last 24 hours, but framed within a big picture that captures trends in diversity, development and the pleasures and sometimes agonies of life in city center. It doesn’t hurt that Borderstan’s neighborhoods are populated with a high percentage of millennials who are civic-minded and share their community passions on social media that can be cross-platformed with ARLnow.
As he prepares to go bigger in D.C., I put these questions to Brodbeck:
Does your acquisition of Borderstan indicate you’ll being expanding into even more D.C. neighborhoods?
The key thing we look at when deciding where to launch a site is: What is the character of the community? Specifically: Is this a place that cares passionately about local issues? Is there a strong business community? Is there plenty of local news to cover? Borderstan covered all of those bases. There are other parts of the District that we’ve been looking at, but our focus for the time being is getting Borderstan up and running, growing per-site revenue, and adding editorial and business-side resources to our existing sites.
Does your sale of Bethesda Now indicate that you’ll not be further expanding into metro D.C.’s suburbs?
We’re still looking at the suburbs, especially in Northern Virginia, for possible future expansion. I think we realize now the importance of having a bigger presence in a community. An office, an editorial team, a sales staffer — that’s the goal. We were going to spread ourselves pretty thin if we tried to launch Borderstan and keep Bethesda Now.
What drove your decision to sell Bethesda Now?
Bethesda Magazine was a well-funded, web-savvy, locally owned and locally focused competitor. They were serious competition for ad dollars in Bethesda, even with us applying pricing pressure.
Did you do your Borderstan acquisition with external investment?
What about your model for producing news 1.) is cost-effective, and 2.) is exciting and compelling enough to engage the community as you confront the challenge of expansion?
We have a great editorial model. The bigger challenge is scaling up the business side so that we can give the editorial side the resources it needs.
Based on your experience and performance in your several years of growth — from your Arlington base — what do you see happening to independent community sites, both yours and others like yours, in markets like the ones you’re in?
I think “local doesn’t scale” will continue to resonate with lots of LIONs, who can cover their community like crazy, own the digital marketing scene there and make a good living while doing so — without the need or desire to expand. That’s a proven, viable business for many LION publishers.
Still, the ranks of LIONs with two, three or even four sites seem to be expanding. And there’s success to be found there, as well, though it’s even harder than the already-taxing job of the single-site publisher. Expanding is hard and not for the faint of heart. It takes lots of resources and patience.
To break out above the four-site mark there’s going to have to be a third major revenue driver, to fund the overhead expenses that come with that expansion. First there were display ads, then sponsored content came along. Those are pretty universal among LION sites. What’s going to be the third big thing that drives revenue and works for most publishers? I’m not sure yet (we’re working on it) but I am pretty sure that we’ll need to figure it out before we continue to expand.
Tom 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.