With Metro D.C. Cool to Community News, One Publisher Pulls Back to Profitable Niches

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Metro Washington, D.C., is  one of the biggest and most affluent regions in the U.S., and its 6 million people live in more than a hundred towns and cities and other well-defined communities. But that hasn’t made the region a hotbed of news close to home.

Scott Brodbeck, founder of Local News Now, seemed to be on an expansion trajectory earlier in the decade when he had two sites in Northern Virginia and two in the District of Columbia. But today he has two — in Arlington and Reston, both in Northern Virginia — and while they’re both profitable, he not thinking of launching more sites any time soon.

It’s not just local pureplays that have a problem in metro D.C. In 2015, the Washington Post closed its digital and print Gazettes serving 28 communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in suburban Maryland. The papers were 56 years old.

I went to Brodbeck with some questions on why metro Washington is not that hospitable to community news, and how he’s adjusting to that reality. Here’s our Q & A:

In your seven years in the business, you’ve expanded four time in metro Washington, D.C.  After selling one expansion site and closing two of them, you’ve retrenched to your Arlington and Reston sites. Why is even moderate scaling of local news sites in metro Washington — often called the most affluent region in the country — such a big challenge?
It’s because each place is different, even places right next to each other. And it’s hard to scale doing different things, editorial and business-wise, in each place we’re at, given that we’re covering individual communities rather than whole cities. It’s a tricky problem. Luckily, our Arlington and Reston sites are doing well and so now we get to focus on them and on other opportunities.

What might be your other opportunities?
We’re exploring a membership model. The question is what members get out of their $6/month or whatever we would decide to charge. I don’t believe people are going to give money to a for-profit business just because. So if we can find a way to add real value to users at a low price point, that is definitely something I would like to implement.

We also want to improve our self-serve advertising offerings, and are looking at hosting other Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION)  sites on our platform.

Jim Brady has merged his Spirited Media sites in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with the company that founded the pureplay Denverite in the Mile High City. What do you think of Brady’s millennial-focused, mobile-first strategy?
Jim Brady is on my advisory board for a reason: I think he’s a brilliant local journalism “product” guy, to use a Silicon Valley term, as well as a great leader and talent recruiter. He was ahead of his time with TBD but I think his Pittsburgh and Philly sites are now hitting their stride.

I’m from Pittsburgh and I see The Incline increasingly finding its voice in the city. The big question has always been whether the business model can be supported, and in the case of Denverite I was pretty skeptical of the idea of using investor money to start a site without a business model. Jim, however, does have what seems like a workable business model for Philly and the ‘burgh, so if he can get that working in Denver as well that would be huge.

I think our sites and Spirited’s sites could co-exist nicely in a new local news ecosystem, with regional/citywide sites like Billy Penn aggregating and linking out to the more hyperlocal community news sites like ours. (That was one of the big concepts introduced by TBD.) Because of its larger scale, a Billy Penn has the resources to do lots of events and high-touch, in-person things, with large regional advertisers as sponsors. That’s harder for a one- or two-person community news site, and our client base is typically made up of smaller local advertisers. So there’s not much overlap there, which means there will be opportunities for complementing each other rather than competing.

Originally you didn’t think much of programmatic advertising on the hyperlocal-local level. But you decided to give it a new look recently. What’s been the result for your Arlington and Reston sites?
Still in a holding pattern. Programmatic in its current form is not the future, I don’t believe it’s delivering sufficient value for advertisers, publishers or readers. It’s a really poor experience all around. But there are months where our modest remnant ad revenue (Google Adsense) is the difference between a loss and a profit. So I’m still looking into ways to get a higher rate via programmatic, but I’m very concerned about user experience and don’t want to mess with video ads or anything else that slows down or interrupts the user.

We’re hearing a lot about the importance of the “user experience” to build longer user “sessions” and not just pageviews, which can lead to a lot of “bounces” from a site. Do you pay attention to sessions vs. pageviews?
The higher the pageviews per session the better, as long as you’re not using gimmicks to raise it. If it’s higher because users are sticking around to read more of your content, that’s great. So yes, if it looks like pageviews/session are dropping, and we’re getting predominantly drive-by social traffic, that would be a big concern. Luckily that’s not an issue at the moment. In fact, we’re in the process of redesigning our site to make it less of a concern. The new design is going to be more feed-based than click-based. Facebook basically wants you to only go to one page: their feed. To an extent we’re already doing that, with our blog-style homepage layout, but I think there’s an opportunity to go further, making various types of content more easily discoverable and consumable for those used to browsing a single feed.

Your colleague Joe Hyde, founder and CEO of the independent San Angelo LIVE! in West Texas, thinks Facebook’s importance in driving traffic to local sites is overrated. Your opinion?
Facebook is about 20% of our traffic. And it’s an important way for new readers to discover us. But we’re diversified enough where we’re by no means totally dependent on Facebook for our traffic. I see Facebook as more friend than foe to publishers, especially as a traffic driver.

I can’t deny that I personally consume a fair amount of news content via sharing on Facebook. But their dominance in the ad market is of some concern. It’s important for everyone in the web/media ecosystem that there be enough of the advertising pie left over, after Facebook and Google get their share, to support publishers. Without high-quality local publishers to link to, Facebook becomes a less compelling product.

Are you considering events and other alternative sources of revenue for your two sites?
Self-serve promotional tools for small businesses and subscriptions to those tools are something I see as a growth driver. We’re focusing on that in our redesign. Self-hosted events were a meaningful but small part of our revenue last year. I still want to do more but they’re very labor intensive. Ultimately I’d rather prioritize revenue sources that are easier to execute and scale while still adding value to clients.

You’ve been a longtime board member of and advocate for LION. How is independent local news faring these days compared to the big local newspaper companies like Gannett, McClatchy and Hearst?
I would not want to trade places with a newspaper company right now. It’s much more interesting to be building something small than managing the decline of something big. I don’t think newspaper companies have any real answer to save their business long term. The next big economic downturn is going to be a bloodbath for the industry. I think that will also be a turning point for LION sites, when we rise to the occasion to provide a viable replacement for dying print publications.

“Indies” are usually supported by their entrepreneur publishers own financial resources. This was your case in financing your unsuccessful expansion into the District. Do you see any new financial ways for indies to get started or to expand that are less personally costly?
There’s still no playbook for building an indie site from scratch. Someone launching a print publication, even now, can find investment because there’s a defined way to do that, with specific vendors you work with, ways of doing things, financial projections, etc. The challenge for us pureplay local online indies is to get to the point where there is a vendor ecosystem that makes it easier to start sites, a more mature knowledge base around best practices, and a funding ecosystem that provides opportunities for those without the financial means to self-fund or the ability to survive on ramen noodles for a year.

You were quoted recently saying that you weren’t planning on expanding. Since you once had the expansion itch, how hard is it for you to stay focused on your established local news sites?
I’m always looking to improve what we’re doing, searching for new paths to growth. I never want to be standing still. But I do not think launching new owned-and-operated sites is the best path to growth for us at the moment.

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.