Behind Home Page Media’s Growth in Nashville: Change and One Big Constant

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Entering its ninth year as the major independent news provider in metro Nashville, Home Page Media Group continues to expand. Now it has leaped beyond big and affluent Williamson County south of Music City to northerly Sumner County for its sixth site. It has also launched site No. 7 in the midsize community of Bellevue in Davidson County adjacent to Williamson.

Behind all this growth — within the shadow of Gannett’s Nashville Tennessean daily newspaper — is Kelly Gilfillan, who co-founded Home Page Media with friend and business colleague Susan Leathers in 2009, but then decided to go it alone in 2014 for expansion beyond the original two sites.

In this Q & A, CEO Gilfillan, who is also a longtime leader in the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers’ association, talks about what she changed and what she didn’t to maintain Home Page Media’s credibility as a news source for its communities, keep growing and stay profitable:

With all your expansion, how has this affected your editorial and revenue models?
We are constantly evolving but the general premise remains. We try to have a dedicated reporter to each beat, but over time we have started getting creative with sharing beats for smaller sites or having reporters share covering parts of the county. For example, the Franklin Home Page reporter also covers the Williamson school board and the Brentwood Home Page reporter covers the smaller town of Nolensville that is the focus of Nolensville Home Page.

Our sports editor covers all of Williamson County and has a part-time freelancer who is pretty dedicated to us.  We also have freelancers covering sponsored content.

Sumner Home Page is our first all-county site. As of now, we have one reporter covering the county, so we have to be judicious about what she covers. We will expand there as quickly as possible,  but we must be conservative and not add staff too quickly.

Our model is to pre-sell in a market and cover the reporter before we launch. We were not able to do that with the last two models [Sumner County and Bellevue in Davidson County] and it has been much more difficult. Earlier expansion within Williamson County was much easier because our reputation preceded us. The new markets were anxious for us to be there and cover their town.

How important is technology in all your expansion? Do you have any tech “lifesavers”?
My lifesaver is having a good web developer. We don’t have a tech person on staff so especially with our change to WordPress last year, I rely heavily on my vendor, Web Publisher PRO.  In the past, we were with Bondware and they were a great support system as well.

We use a WordPress hub system for all the sites. This allows us to publish some content across all sites or a group of sites. For example, a Williamson County school board story can go across all four of our sites in Williamson. If we have a state story, we can also put that in Sumner Home Page

Do you utilize analytics very much to measure engagement?
I look at our analytics almost every day. Formally, on Monday mornings, the editorial team meets to go over what we did and didn’t do. We take a deep-dive look at different factors every week, but we are always monitoring our top 25 weekly stories, pageviews and visitor numbers.

For example, one week we may look at a year-over-year comparison. The next week we may look at the top stories on social as well as in Google. Right now we are going in to a study with Facebook, and so we have spent more time looking at how readers interact with us there.

How important is Facebook in your overall strategy to connect with your existing and potential audiences?
Very important. Social media provides 35% of our traffic on most of the sites. We were chosen to be part of the first cohort with the Facebook Journalism Project. We are thrilled and cannot wait to see what we learn. I’m impressed Facebook’s mission has changed to meet journalism standards and help spread credible news.

We have started reaching out to Facebook groups. Hip Facebook pages are becoming an integral way to reach new readers. It has really helped grow our newest site by focusing on getting our original content on those sites. You do have to be respectful of that space and not overuse it.

We’re hearing less about unique visitors and pageviews and more about user “dwell time.” Your view?
That is not true for us in ad sales. We use analytics to sell and unique visitors and pageviews are our most commonly used statistics. The advertisers have learned over time that these are the factors that show success with a site.

However, time on site and pages during a visit are very important factors in newsroom management. It helps us see how the reporters are connecting with their community. If a reporter’s beat is getting three to five pages per visit, obviously this indicates engagement and trust is high. If not, we can focus on that with the reporter and develop a plan to address that goal.

Gannett, with its recent spinoff, has been “reinventing” its newsrooms and creating “multi-platform products to grow audience and engagement.” Are these efforts making Gannett’s The Nashville Tennessean more competitive with your sites?
I have not seen any impact on our sites due to Gannett’s changes.

We hear, again and again, that display ads are disappearing. But you have many display ads on your sites. What’s going on?
Display is still a very strong part of our revenue. However, we are learning how to package differently, and that is increasing sales. We are looking at what our readers are clicking on and the engagement we have when they do. For example, our readers’ pageviews are trending toward home-improvement content.  So we are creating a new section geared toward that audience and have advertising built around it. This helps the advertiser reach a very targeted interested audience.

One change we made in the first quarter was with Broadstreet Ads. Their rich media dynamic ads are making a big difference in reader engagement. Click-through rates are rising dramatically and the customers are happy with the new products. We can use social media, video, interactive ads, and all that is exciting to the customer. The key is to not overuse the products and you must charge a premium for that product.

What about alternate sources of revenue like sponsorships, events, digital subscriptions?
We have done sponsorships around content for years and there is a certain group of advertisers who prefer to buy under those terms. Again, we are meeting the advertiser where they are and meeting their need in a unique way.

I am looking at several membership/subscription options. But for now, we are a free service to the community. We have worked hard to grow our audience and it is important to our advertisers that we maintain that interaction.

Your merger with Source Local Media last year didn’t work out. Why did you decide to return to your one-company structure of Home Page Media Group?
The goal with the merger was to gain funding and roll up the two companies. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to gain the funding. I felt after eight months our cultures had not meshed enough to continue forward and the finances for my company needed to be my priority.

The good news is we were not afraid to fail and we gave it a shot. I learned so much from them and I think they learned from us as well. We continue to have clients in common and are working on some projects together. I respect them and wish them the best.

Are you using outside investment to help finance your current expansion?
I am currently working on a new prospectus and plan to seek funding. I am educating myself on looking at alternative sources to private funding as well. I think what we have created here is very important to the future of local journalism.  What we are learning every day, the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, can help other companies succeed.

Are you profitable?

What do you as CEO focus on most?
I keep an eye on all aspects on a daily basis. I’m speaking with the editor every day and we are discussing upcoming content, coverage needed, and personnel. I work on sales every single day, reaching out to the sales team members.

As we have grown our sites, we have also grown our sales team and recently expanded to five members.  We are in a great position to continue steady growth this year as our sales team is loaded with media experience. I’m very excited about the future.

Change is an integral part of digital community news. But are there any constants that do not go away, no matter what?
The importance of being a credible, independent, profitable news product is the core of our being. That has never changed in eight years.

As you look at your company and your seven sites today, would you peek over the horizon and offer a hint or two on what may be next for Home Page Media Group?
Right now I’m focusing on Sumner Home Page’s profitability and creating a higher profitability margin on the flagship sites.  As we try these new products within our already successful sites, we are finding momentum that seems to be propelling us to new heights. Our second quarter sales have been record setting and we are keeping our heads down, working hard every day, and continuing to keep the best news product possible available for our readers and our advertisers.

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.