The Challenge for ‘Indie’ News Sites: Monetizing Highly Engaged Audiences

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When they met at their recent Chicago convention, independent community publishers and editors talked a lot about what might be called “reve-news.” On everybody’s mind at the Local Independent Online Newspaper (LION) Publishers’ annual meeting was how to monetize news.

Even obituaries can be monetized, said one speaker, prominent “indie” publisher Steve Waldman, who is readying the launch of LifePosts, which will chronicle not only paid obits but also weddings and other celebrations and commemorations that will be published for a price. “In the context of a $7,000 funeral, paying $25 or $500 for the obituary is cheap,” Waldman told the more than 100 LION members and guests who gathered for the association’s third and biggest get-together. “In Brooklyn alone,” he said, “there are 15,000 deaths per year. Only 2,000 were reported on. So 13,000 stories were not written.” Or paid for.

I sat down virtually with Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of LION, to talk about the subject that preoccupied conventioneers over their three days. Here’s the Q & A:

Just how important is monetization for your members, based on what happened in Chicago?
Whether for-profit or nonprofit, I think revenue growth and sustainability tops just about everyone’s list of concerns and challenges. A related issue — how to juggle revenue responsibilities with news gathering and management of technology in a news organization of a handful of people — probably is second. And finally, how to better monetize what in most cases are very significant, very loyal, very engaged local audiences. The audience is there, intensely grateful for and reliant upon the work of these local news sites. But how do you hit your stride connecting local advertisers to those readers and also develop reader revenue programs? So the short answer on “top-three challenges” is “revenue, revenue, and revenue.”

The conference heard a lot about “crowdfunding” as a source of revenue to supplement advertising. What’s going on there?
Brian Wheeler, executive director of Charlottesville (V.A.) Tomorrow, talked about one of his nonprofit site’s crowdfunding campaigns that was successful — an effort to expand coverage with the hiring of an education reporter — and one that wasn’t — funding upgrades to the mobile site. The lesson at Charlottesville Tomorrow is that readers will support projects they identify with, that they feel have an impact on their lives and community. Fine-tuning your mobile platform may not do that. The Lo-Down, a site on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, talked about its successful $26,000 campaign to fund a solutions-oriented reporting project on endangered small businesses. The campaign succeeded because a project focused on endangered small businesses resonated with its community. Crowdfunding is one of the best and most encouraging examples of how the strength of high-quality local content and strong community engagement can lead directly to funding of journalism.

Publishers were urged to “be important” to advertisers. How do you do that without looking like a phony? Local independent online news publishers are important to advertisers, so there doesn’t have to be anything phony about it. Their journalism and connection to the community are authentically local and their audience is local, engaged, loyal, and paying attention. As local advertising sales guru Eleanor Cippel said at our conference, publishers must be “intentional” about communicating that message with specific solutions that will elevate advertisers’ brands and help sell their products and services.

“Community building” was stressed if a new site wants to go to its audience for funding. What’s the recipe for success?
Jim Brady, a great leader in the online news community and a LION member in his role as publisher of the Billy Penn site in Philadelphia, talks about monetizing users of a news site over the “lifetime” of their interaction with you instead of on a single visit. In other words, developing a relationship of trust with readers — focusing on a great user experience and eschewing clickbait — is one important part of building a community of readers. Active, intentional listening, involving the community in every step of the local news process, is another. And finally, opening the curtain and being transparent about the work — and the struggles and costs — that go into local journalism will generate loyalty and support. Berkeleyside, a for-profit news site in California, has had tremendous success with a membership program by doing quality local journalism that readers feel is vital to the community and by talking very honestly and openly about the resources needed to do it.

Video content is a winner with both users and advertisers. Facebook produces eight billion videos daily for its one billion-plus international audience. Does the average-size community news site have enough resources to produce videos on a continual basis?
Video is part of the DNA of born-on-the-web, online-only, or primarily digital local news sites. While the volume of video at smaller news organizations is going to reflect the size of the organization, the consistency is there, for sure. It’s also supplemented by a growing use and understanding of how to effectively use video shot by readers. We’re seeing more video editing and sharing apps and tools launch that make this easier than ever for local publishers.

The Seattle Times emphasizes what it calls “solutions journalism.” What is it and why is it important?
We were pleased to have Samantha McCann from Solutions Journalism Network speak because the concept is right in the wheelhouse of local independent online news publishers. It’s a simple concept: Instead of writing about a problem facing your community and leaving it there, explore potential solutions to that problem, including how other communities have addressed it. Apply the principles of strong, critical reporting to those solutions to see if there are objective ways to measure their effectiveness. This is a great example of community building.

You’ve said you want to see the annual conference focusing on what you’ve listed as the biggest issues: “growing revenue, running a business, expanding audience.” Are these the issues that this year’s conference attendees defined as the biggest?
Yes, definitely. Many LION members are former legacy media journalists who chose to step up and fill a gap in local news in their community left by newspaper cuts. Although interested always in improving their journalism, that’s the comfort zone of most. Figuring out revenue and the best way to handle bookkeeping, human resources issues, legal questions — that’s where they need help and guidance. On the expanding audience question, I think everyone is trying to figure out how the platform dominance of Facebook and Apple are going to affect them.

For you, was there one moment at the event that stood out the most?
The publisher of a local news site that had just launched was signing in for the conference, and I asked her how things were going. She just spilled her guts about how difficult it was to juggle local news reporting, where to even start in building a plan for revenue growth, figuring out whether her site is on the right web platform, and how alone she felt. “Well,” I said, “you’re in the right place.” She left the conference a few days later with some good answers to these questions, but more importantly, having developed relationships with people who have done what she’s trying to do and share her mission and challenges going forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.