Pasadena Now: 20 Articles Daily and 75 Advertisers — But Big Challenges As Well

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Young man surfing the internet on a tablet outdoor. Soft focus.

Pasadena Now, published since 2004, bills itself as “one of the oldest continuously operated community news websites in the U.S.” Its co-founders and co-publishers are husband and wife James Macpherson (also editor) and Candice Merrill (associate editor). Before Pasadena Now, Macpherson designed and manufactured men’s and women’s clothes (after the computer age wrote an end to his typesetting business). 

“We built an online community newspaper the old-fashioned way — with daily deadlines, plenty of shoe leather and a grueling schedule of personally attending dozens of community events every month,” Macpherson says about Pasadena Now.

In this recent Q&A with Street Fight, Macpherson talks about the successes and challenges of competing against three online publications in a picturesque, mountain-surrounded and very urban and diverse community of 140,000 in Los Angeles County:

When you founded Pasadena Now, you called it a magazine. But it actually looks like a digital community newspaper to me. So which is it?
Great question! We had to debate to decide the answer. We prefer to be called a “newspaperless.” We have become a genuine online news source for our community, every bit an online news “paper.”

Pasadena Now has a lot of news daily, everything from a string of shootings to the inspirational Rector’s Forum. How big is your editorial staff, ­­ full time and freelance?
Writers, researchers and editors: seven full ­time, plus additional keyboarders, a graphic artist, a transcriptionist. We almost always are the only local news reporters covering local events these days. Just a few years ago, there would often be five other reporters — at most Pasadena events ­­ these days, our reporter is normally the only one present.

Do you have a model for community news that balances quality vs. cost?
We do outsource selected work functions, using some researchers and writers in other countries, primarily in the Philippines. The cost savings are plowed back into the hiring of local reporters. We are “glocal,” I always say, balancing that which can be outsourced globally with that “boots­-on­-the­-ground” local work which cannot.

We only perform soft rewrites and edits on many press releases from known, reputable organizations to save costs.

What we save is used to pay for full-­time reporters whom we assign to photograph and cover events, news and people.

What do residents and other users want to read about most and least?
Crime and food stories are the two readers’ darlings. Among all-time highs in reads are stories about the city Public Health Department discovering cockroaches in restaurant kitchens and and the closing of popular local restaurants. Also very popular are any and all videos. It is discouraging to see that important local government stories that we work hard on attract far fewer readers. Least-read stories are­ about performers and  performances — especially classical music — and organizations.

You say in your video promo that some of your articles are read “20,000” times. Is that true?
We exceed that many times. Here are a few: This story about the fifth shooting in Pasadena over 12 days last December, prompted by our Facebook page, was clicked on our site and read 93,000+ times. This story on the closing of an iconic Pasadena family business after 54 years, again prompted by Facebook visibility, was eventually seen over 435,000 times on Facebook and clicked on and read on our website over 197,000 times.

You’ve got three competitors. How well do you do against them?
Online, we don’t have any serious competitors. We publish 20 Pasadena-­based articles a day, normally, seven days a week. No other publication comes close. We outperform Digital First Media’s Pasadena Star News, we believe, because we have more dedicated Pasadena reporters, more Pasadena stories and more Pasadena readers. (We think we publish approximately triple the Pasadena content they do.) The Pasadena Weekly is published once a week (both on paper and online) and probably 85% of their content has already been written about on our site. The Pasadena Outlook is focused on the relatively small but high ­demographic private school market; its readership base is quite small compared to our 105,000 average unique monthly readers.

In terms of documented readership, we think we are the best­-read local publication in our market every single day. However, in terms of revenue and ad sales, despite our large active readership base, we believe our sales are far less than our competitors’.

How do you explain that gap?
We believe that local merchants tend to fall into one of two primary categories: either they are older, paper-centric individuals who fail to realize the vital importance of the internet, or they are younger, web-saavy individuals who don’t have the traditional perspective and therefore don’t realize the vital role that local media advertising provides. (“We use free social media,” young entrepreneurs say.)

Both cases are tough nuts to crack. Both require a lot of education before local merchants understand how we can help them grow their businesses. We see our biggest challenge as educating merchants on how to use the media online in order to build their store’s brand awareness and sales.

How many advertising clients do you have, and what kind of messaging do they prefer?
We have about 75 advertisers. They prefer banner and content marketing.

You started Altadena Now in the next-door community a year ago. How is it doing?
We have high hopes for Altadena Now. Its dynamics are utterly different than Pasadena Now (which is amazing since the communities lie side ­by ­side!). Because Altadena has such a small business community, Altadena Now will probably never break even. But we are committed to growing it and serving Altadenans.

What about your daily email newsletter, which you resumed a year ago?
We stopped publishing it for four months as we hired more reporters and increased our news coverage. It’s back now and with only word ­of ­mouth has about 1,000 subscribers (it’s free). We think we will have at least 10,000 subscribers by the end of the year and 25,000 by the end of 2017.

Is Pasadena Now profitable, and the overall company (including other operations) profitable as well?
We are breaking even on an annual basis.

What’s next?
Video, video, video –­­ the final frontier. We are going to launch Pasadena Now TV, long a goal but now about to become reality.

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.