2015 ‘Michele’s List’ Shows Strengths — And Weaknesses — of ‘Indie’ News Sites

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There are encouraging and even bullish numbers in the performance of independent community news sites as reported in the 2015 “Michele’s List” survey. But other numbers indicate that “indies” are having a difficult time generating revenue that would ensure stability and put them in a position to expand into at least a mini-network. It’s worrisome, too, I think, that too few community news sites in the top 100 metros have strong revenues.

Let’s start with the best numbers in the new edition of “Michele’s List,” which community news expert researcher Michele McLellan is now producing in collaboration with the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism:

  • 30A, which covers the tourism-focused Santa Rosa beach communities of Northwest Florida on the Gulf Coast, led the list, once again breaking through the $1 million ceiling in annual revenue.
  • 47% of the 94 news sites in the survey turned a profit compared to 32% in 2014.
  • 70% reported revenue increases compared to 62% in 2014.
  • 9% of the sites recorded more than $500,000 in annual revenue – more than double last year’s 4%.
  • 72% of the sites said local advertising was their primary source of revenue compared to the less-diverse 94% in 2014.
  • 83% of the sites publish content from a mix of contributions that include, beyond journalists, community members, students, and partner organizations – up from 75% last year.

Top revene producers, 'Michele's List' for 2015The less-encouraging numbers:

  • 66% of the sites had revenue reaching up to $100,000 – down from 77% last year and 68% in 2013.
  • 24% had revenue of at least $250,000 – down from 25% last year and 32% in 2013.
  • While many sites are located in the top 100 metro regions, only 14 of them attained revenue up to $250,000, and many were in the $50,000 or lower range
  • Two thirds of the sites had fewer than 50,000 unique visitors monthly.

Ad revenue in the total community digital space – mainly because of the success of commercial pureplays like Yelp and Autotrader – continues to soar. But for the most part, news sites are not part of that feast. It’s not just the indie news sites that don’t have prominent seats at that revenue table, it’s local newspapers — the “legacies” — as well. As “The New News” documented last week, McClatchy, the No. 2 publisher of community papers in the U.S., is still stuck producing low single-digit increases in its computer-mobile revenue, despite a big investment and effort in going digital.

While indie new sites aren’t doing much disrupting of legacies in the top 100 markets, one indie mini-network is proving to be the big exception in that territory. That’s the four-site, six-year-old Home Page Media Group in Williamson County, the most affluent part of greater Nashville, the No. 29 media market in the U.S. Under co-founder Kelly Gilfillan, Home Page is competing against media giant Gannett’s Nashville Tennesseean. Despite the pay-walled Tennesseean’s refocus on Williamson – which it used to mostly own in audience and advertising prior to 2009 — Home Page continues to ring up revenues in the $501,000-$1 million range, according to the new “Michele’s List.”

Home Page’s audience numbers are impressive: 176,000 unique visitors monthly, 278,000 visits, 389,000 pageviews, 9,900 Twitter “followers” and 19,000 Facebook “likes.”

One big combination editorial-revenue success at Home Page has been its “Be Healthy Challenge” feature, which, says Gilfillan, has “consistently brought in new customers every year as sponsors. We went from 25 to 75 sponsors this year.”

Home Page also used the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to introduce a very successful history feature. It began with the 1864 Battle of Franklin — one of Home Page’s four communities — but has grown considerably, both in editorial and as a revenue producer. “The sponsor agreed to stay and readership has done so well we decided to keep the special section alive,” Gilfillan says. “Now we are covering Reconstruction and the freedom of slaves.”

The Tennesseean also has covered the the Battle of Franklin as a heritage story, and the sesquicentennial of the abolition of slavery, but Home Page, from what I see, has done a better job of conceiving and presenting stories.

The only community news operation on “Michele’s List” to top $1 million in revenue is 30A, which takes its names from the two-lane road that links the dozen or so of Northwest Florida’s Santa Rosa beach communities stretched along the Gulf Coast.

According to founder and publisher Mike Ragsdale, 30A is not just a website but also an “international brand” that includes a digital radio station and a retail operation that sells everything from to T-shirts to beach chairs to beer.

While 30A is all about the good times associated with sun, sand and surf, Ragsdale says his operation is an object lesson for sites whose communities aren’t anywhere near a beach.

If your end goal is to build a good website, then you’ll likely just end up with a good website,” he says. “But if you think like a brand, your universe becomes much larger. A brand can evolve into many different things. Some of the more obvious extensions of a successful website are things like social media sites, email newsletters, and even print publication spin-offs. But other possible extensions might not be so obvious, such as online radio stations – like 30A Radio — branded apparel, major events and even consumables.”

“There’s one thing that exists in almost every community: a sense of communal pride. Your job is to foster and feed that pride. Create a brand that locals want to rally around. Create a brand that locals are proud of. Support your community, and they’ll support you in return.”

Take this virtual visit to one of 30A’s communities, South Walton, and I think you’ll see what Ragsdale means.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.