We conclude our recent series on thriving independent mini-news networks (see the previous installments here and here) with Liena Zagare, founder of Brooklyn’s Corner Media Group. Zagare’s eight sites stretch from northwest to southeast in New York City’s most populous borough. They include Park Slope (median income: $81,000), with its stately and historically marked and protected Victorian mansions and rowhouses, and Sheepshead Bay (median income: $45,500), with its marine-rich environment and a population that’s 43.5% foreign-born, mainly from Ukraine, China and Russia.
We’ve spoken with Zagare in the past about her growing network (here, here and here), but we wanted to catch up with her as part of this series to hear in more detail about the formula that is making her Kings County network successful.
Scaling can be the curse of “pure-play” community news sites. How have you avoided that?
I think it is important to realize that expansion takes time, and it is a lot of long hours, and hard work, earning the trust of our readers and advertisers. It helps to be strategic about expansion, and make the business case before launching. There are always stories to be told, but there also needs to be money to pay for them.
In four years, you’ve grown to eight sites, some new and some acquired. Brooklyn is NYC’s biggest borough, and it’s becoming a center for the arts and has seen major economic and higher-income residential growth. Do you plan to add more sites in 2016?
We always look at opportunities as they arise, but I feel we have room to grow within the existing network, given our reach across much of Brooklyn.
How would you describe your editorial model?
The core difference between us and some more traditional media is simple: We care more. That expresses itself in how we related to the communities we cover — we are rooting for them, though with eyes wide open — and the way we approach stories. Organizationally, we’re shifting from an editor-per-site toward something a bit more dynamic and beat-based. The new model will make us less reliant on everyone being good at everything. I expect costs will stay about the same, but it’s a way for us to focus on quality across the network.
I’m thrilled that having operated for years from coffee-shops and shared work spaces, we are moving into a space of our own this week. We have come to the conclusion that it is better for collaboration, more fun and in the end more productive. There is still a lot of flexibility in the hours, and our editors are still spending a lot of time in their communities, but it is no longer just one byline on all the stories. We are also continuously experimenting with new ways of covering news, including mini-beats that work to amplify the strengths of our reporters.
How many stories — as a percentage of total editorial content per site — do your sites share?
We publish over 100 posts across the sites each week, and share maybe a handful. It is inevitable that there will be stories that matter to more than one neighborhood, especially where those neighborhoods are adjacent. Since we serve neighborhoods, not distinct towns, there is a level of cross-pollination. Many of the business owners in one of our neighborhoods reside in another that we cover, and we may cover them as neighbors in one and as a business in another. It is nice to be able to make the city feel a bit smaller.
Some community news networks have added a new editor who curates and coordinates news to which all the sites have access. Do you do anything like that?
There is a limit to what kind of content can be centrally generated and be useful to us. We share our pool of freelancers across the sites, and plan and assign what can be assigned.
What kind of news do your readers want most? Do they like short or long or a mix?
Our readers want quality community news first and foremost. Top stories are a mix of food, crime, real estate and history. Formats vary, we do tend to break down longer reporting pieces into series that are more easily digestable online, and we are growing audiences across various distribution channels. Lists do well whether it is cats or mobsters (like this one), but so does reporting that helps get results for the community (like this story ).
Does the size of your network help attract more advertising?
While we continue to work with smaller businesses, the big difference from having a network is that we can meaningfully work with the larger regional advertisers and agencies directly. We offer genuine reach within our communities, and across the neighborhoods we cover reaching most of Brooklyn on daily basis.
Do display ads still rule?
Yes, and for good reason. We believe display ads will continue to work well for local sites as branding works at this level, as do specials. We have always thought of ads as content, and local ads are relevant to our readers.
What about sponsored content?
We offer sponsored content to our advertisers, and have seen good growth in it, but we are careful that it does not overwhelm as a proportion of our content. Creating quality custom content is a rather expensive proposition for most small businesses.
Do you get involved with programmatic advertising?
We’ve experimented, but our focus is on local and regional (citywide) customers, and serving their needs though enabling them to reach our audience as best as we can.
How many advertisers, overall, do you have who are regular clients?
We have about 100 advertisers that run ads regularly. It is a mix of large and small, and about 60% of our revenues come from the smaller local businesses. Most of our customers are repeat clients, frequency varies.
How big is technology for your network, in editorial and advertising especially?
Technology is important, and it can be exhausting. We are a content company, not a tech company. We keep tweaking our sites constantly, with the goal of getting the content to our readers in the best possible way. There are economies of scale, for sure, and we have been happy working with folks at WPEngine and BroadstreetAds.
Are you profitable?
We continue to be on track revenue-wise. We could always be doing better, but there will continue to be a trade-off between comfort and growth, and we are not done growing.
What’s the biggest and best lesson you’ve learned through your expansion?
When you are a small team, every person really matters, and having a good, strong team is invaluable. In this line of business people are the critical element, and I could not wish for a better team.
Tom 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.