How Community News Can Win Respect — And Bring in Revenue

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According to the new Reuters Institute Digital News Report, women and men have their own favorite categories of news. Women, for example, rank health and education very high and politics further down. For men, it’s the reverse in those categories, the report says. But the two sexes agree on their number one favorite – local news.

It was the same story in a 2015 Pew Report. Residents surveyed in three cities – Denver, Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa – favored local and neighborhood news over international and even national news.

But local and neighborhood news gets little respect. Many publishers, whether they are daily newspapers or digital “pureplays,” can’t persuade enough advertisers to put their messages next to the very news content that users say they like the most.

To get answers to this dilemma, I went to a publisher of community news who not only has many users who like his site but who also gets lots of advertisers — Mike Ragsdale, founder and impresario of 30A, the 10-year-old website and radio station (and gear, wine and souvenir retailer, and tour/event enterprise) that serves the beach communities of West Florida along the Gulf Coast. 30A was the first site to reach the $1 million-plus revenue pinnacle in Michele’s List of community news sites.

How Ragsdale looks at community news  is revealing. Here’s my Q & A with him:

I was intrigued with your live video forum on whether proposed incorporation of South Walton [which comprises 16 beach neighborhoods along the Gulf Coast that 30A covers] was a good idea. Civic forums are often “broccoli” under the traditional definition of news. But it looks as if you made this event into a compelling presentation. Your “A Better South Walton” video reached 82,341 people, was viewed 13,453 times and had 563 comments.
South Walton is a very special place, and we want to help make sure its authenticity stays protected. There had already been several public town meetings on whether the community should be incorporated to protect its authenticity. But we knew there were a lot of people who didn’t have a chance to participate in those meetings, and that’s why 30A sponsored this event. It was live and everybody could submit their questions. We were very happy with the results in traffic and engagement.

Do you expect to monetize video content like “A Better South Walton?”
Some of our Facebook Live videos are paid sponsorships. For example, we’ve recently hosted several “cooking shows” in local restaurants. We also use them as value-adds for our existing sponsors. If someone is already advertising with us, for example, we’re much more likely to send our team to cover an event they’re hosting.

In the case of this particular forum, it wasn’t about advertising. It was about supporting community leaders who are trying to make our home a better place to live. Even so, not surprisingly, many of those community leaders are business owners and sponsors. So again, you can’t always focus on monetization. You have to focus on what’s good for the community and for your audience. In my experience, if you do that, the money will eventually follow. Put others first, and they’ll inevitably support you.

When you do the right thing for the community, can it also mean doing something good for your business?
Yes. On Monday, we made an announcement about a new line 30A products that will do their part to help our fragile environment. Our new shirts are beach-inspired, soft and durable. And they’re made from recycled plastic – water bottles, discarded film and plastic lunch trays. Each shirt recycles the equivalent of eight water bottles. We’re calling the line “Dumpster Diver.”

30A founder and publisher Mike Ragsdale
30A founder and publisher Mike Ragsdale

Most communities don’t have a coastal beach. Can news publishers in land-locked communities do what you’re doing?
Of course. Every community has an ingrained sense of pride built into it and ready to be tapped into. Colleges. Sports teams. Attractions. Tourism. State parks. Fairs. Farmers markets. There are so many things to be celebrated in every town. People everywhere are proud of their home. It has nothing to do with the beach. The beach is just one of the local assets that we celebrate. But each town has a uniqueness that generates a sense of communal pride. The opportunity for publishers is to tap into that pride — to become the rallying point for that enthusiasm. To celebrate each community’s unique businesses and personality traits.

If a publication helps its community to do these things, does that create opportunities for the site to build brand around what make the community special, as 30A has built its brand around Gulf Coast beach life?
Absolutely. My daughter lives in Brooklyn. She is incredibly proud to live there. She is interested in what is happening around here today, now. Another one of my daughters lives in Paris. She loves it. She is proud of her neighborhood. My son goes to school in Orlando. Universities overflow with communal and team pride. It’s not about CITIES — it’s about communities WITHIN cities. A community can mean a geographic neighborhood; or a group of people with common interests within a city (dog owners; half-marathon runners; volunteerism; etc.). Find your niche. Make celebrities out of our fans. Become your audience’s source of communal pride.

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.