Is the merger between two independent news operations in metro Nashville just possibly a template for how community news plays out in a digital world where even big chains of local newspapers seem dwarfed — and perhaps threatened — by search, distribution and social-media giants like Google and Facebook? In this boundary-less competitive climate, there are no certain long-term winners among news publishers, no matter what their size or resources.
That doesn’t faze Kelly Gillfillan, co-founder and CEO of Home Page Media Group and its five sites in Nashville’s growing and affluent Williamson County, and Steven Ludwig, co-founder and co-owner of Source Local Media, which is also based in Williamson, as they announce their well-performing companies’ full merger and rebranding into BIGRmedia.
In this Q&A with Street Fight, Gilfillan and Ludwig talk about why they merged their operations and why they’re confident about their new company’s expansion-focused future in the sometimes-upside-down world of community news:
What is your strategy for withstanding the challenges that face any community news company, big or small, including a new merger like your private-equity-funded BIGRmedia?
Kelly Gilfillan, Chief Operating Officer: The communities we serve are hungry for information and each community connects with us and consumes the news in different ways. I believe it all begins with providing quality news and creating a trust with the reader. Once you have the relationship, you have pageviews, and you can begin building relationships with the advertisers.
Regarding Facebook, it is part of our daily strategy to deliver the news. Facebook however is more valuable if you have content. We help our customers strategize on using content on their social media and on their websites. Content is the key.
As Kip Dodson, co-owner of Source Local Media with Steve and its sales sirector, says: “Over 50% of all information seen today is on a cell phone and the distribution of interesting content through social media is a major force that every advertiser needs to address. BIGRmedia will be the key digital partner for advertisers to address this trend.”
Steven Ludwig, CEO: Community news isn’t struggling because of a lack of demand; rather, community news is struggling because the delivery vehicles are outdated and the traditional media companies producing it are failing to adapt and find a reliable revenue model around other methods of distribution. The old dog isn’t able to learn new tricks.
Our unique model embraces multiple distribution methods (mobile web, social, e-mail, and in our case even sometimes print), develops a revenue model that generates reliable results, and then concentrates on building a sales organization that can translate that model into clear, understandable strategy for our clients – particularly small and very small local businesses.
We don’t see Facebook as the enemy. In fact, many of our proposals include hard money budgets allocated specifically to making Facebook part of the implementation. Often, when we can show a small or very small business a more effective way to use Facebook (by partnering with us) it really resonates — because it’s common to be just as confused about Facebook advertising as the rest of the digital options.
Gannett is trying to rejuvenate The Tennessean, which used to be the dominant news force in Nashville, along with its other 91 local papers in the U.S. What is your merger doing to blunt Tennessean initiatives?
Gilfillan: We certainly pay attention every day to what the competition is doing and we even collaborate on a regular basis with our more local competition. But our team has a system, they are competitive and aggressive in their beats, and we know we are delivering an important product every day for our communities.
To sum up, what we do every day is not aimed in any way at what The Tennessean is doing.
Ludwig: Without getting too much into the proprietary details of our strategy, it is fair to say that Gannett, The Tennessean, TN Media, and other initiatives just don’t factor much, if at all, into what we’re doing. Same for TV.
We’re doing our own thing. We’re working in a ring AROUND Nashville, and as print and TV continue to reduce the scope of content creation we have found they focus more and more on the core of the metro area, rather than the suburbs — which is our strength.
Do your expansion plans include reaching most of metro Nashville, and, if so, over which time frame?
Gilfillan: I believe in going into markets where there is a need, if not a news “desert.” With the downsizing of the legacy newspapers, the suburban markets are underserved.
Ludwig: The most editorial content is being generated in metro Nashville/Davidson County, so we’re developing strategy in all the collar counties around that. Longer term, who knows?
Who are BIGRmeldia’s private equity investors, and how much is the initial round of funding?
Ludwig: We’re raising up to $2.1 million for this round. There isn’t specific investor information available publicly at this time.
Finally, what made Home Page Media and Source Local Media such a good merger fit?
Gilfillan: Steve’s team at Source Local Media has invested a tremendous amount of time developing a successful routine based on analytics and we are learning a lot about how to maximize the incredible content our team is already producing. We’ve worked very hard to establish a solid reputation for delivering credible news and entertaining content that serves our consumer and we just learn how to do more with that every day.
The important thing to me in merger consideration was we had such strong similarities in our growth plan. We both intended on working with displaced journalists and media executives. There is so much available talent in the market right now due to the staff shrinkage in traditional media. We have seen an incredible amount of layoffs and turnovers in my seven years leading the Home Pages. We have some seriously talented people working for us and it is to our advantage that they were let go. We want to create a new place for these talented people and bring them on as partners with a stake in the future of online media.
Ludwig: There are a few cultural differences based on how each company developed from its infancy, but we’re 90% on the same page and the remaining 10% is nuance where it’s been pretty easy to find compromises. At the end of the day we’re passionate about delivering great content, and building a profitable business that uses Big Ideas to get Great Results — thus, the new name: BIGRmedia.
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.