With 66 Franchises, TAPinto Is Ready to Expand Up and Down Coast

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It’s uncanny — when dark clouds descend on local news, invariably I get a sunny, but fact-filled, status report on the franchise network TAPinto from founder Mike Shapiro. His new report, consistent with earlier ones, is how pure-play TAPinto keeps getting bigger and better.

TAPinto, which Shapiro started 10 years ago next fall out of his family’s home in New Providence, N.J., has grown into a network of 71 sites, 66 of them owned and operated by independent franchisees and Shapiro’s overall TAPinto company owning the other five. Most of the sites are in North and Central New Jersey and five are in New York City suburbs in the Westchester area north of the city. Now Shapiro is eyeing expansion to a much broader geographical landscape from Massachusetts to Florida.

TAPinto last week received the “Partner of the Year” honor from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey in the center’s 2017 NJ News Commons Excellence in Local News Awards. The network was also runnerup for the “Collaborate Local” award.

Expansion and awards don’t by themselves define what make a local news site successful, and TAPinto’s Shapiro knows that. In this Q & A, the litigtion attorney-turned local publisher talks about the real indicators of local success — best practices as exemplified by TAPinto:

What is quality news, as you and your franchise publishers define it and produce it?
Quality news is objective original local news coverage, from coverage of government meetings to high school sports and everything in between, that meets or exceeds the ethical standards of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Is it costly to produce this kind of news?
Producing original local news at TAPinto is not costly financially because the franchisee or their partner is the reporter covering the news. There is cost is mostly time and effort.

There’s new talk in local publishing about newsrooms doing more “listening” with their audiences. Is that a priority with TAPinto? If so, how do you do your listening?
Because our sites are locally owned and operated, each of them has a good grasp of the issues of relevance to residents of the particular town. In addition, through social media as well as other communications, our sites interact with readers to obtain story ideas, be informed of issues that may be under the radar screen and receive news tips.

What’s happened to your inbounds from Facebook’s News Feed since the social platform’s recent de-emphasis on news and other publisher content in favor of content generated by FB subscribers and that’s “more meaningful” and highly interactive?
There has been no noticeable reduction in traffic from Facebook since the announced changes. If anything we see an uptick in both Facebook traffic and overall traffic. Since before we began franchising TAPinto sites to local owner publishers approximately four years ago, we have been committed to providing meaningful original local news coverage and interacting with our readers through social media, including Facebook.

No news organization should be fixated on Facebook or significantly altering their model because of Facebook. The platform can change its policies and practices regarding news anytime it wants, with or without notice, so it’s best to have a broad diversification in distribution models for your news content that cannot be upended by a decision made by Facebook.

Local merchants are increasingly using Facebook for their advertising and promotion because they can target exactly whom they want to reach at relatively low costs. How do you compete effectively with that kind of power?
I think the recent changes made by Facebook regarding small businesses that reduce the “play” posts of small businesses receive on Facebook is a perfect example of why businesses should not be spending large chunks of their marketing budgets on Facebook.

Facebook can change their practices with or without notice, leaving businesses, particularly small businesses, holding the bag after significant investment of their marketing dollars building up Likes and followers for their business’s Facebook page. Instead, they should be investing their marketing dollars locally with marketing platforms like TAPinto that are locally owned and operated like they are.

This, in turn, enables the locally owned and operated TAPinto sites to help the businesses with their marketing, provide more news coverage for the community, and assist nonprofits and community organizations.  This in turn, encourages the community to be more supportive of local businesses.  It’s a virtuous circle.  Facebook and other large multinational marketing vehicles do virtually nothing to improve the communities that they claim to serve.

Beyond all of this, spending marketing dollars on ads on Facebook is only a short term fix to a long term problem and does little to address the business’s long-term viability, reputation and ability to be found online through search engine optimization.  Publications like TAPinto can address both the short-term and long-term needs of businesses by yes, providing advertising, but more importantly, providing content marketing, email targeting, sponsorship opportunities, and branding/reputation management.

What’s the breakout of your revenue – display advertising, sponsorships, events, etc.?
Pure display is a small part of our revenue — approximately 5%.  Display coupled with content marketing is approximately 70%.  Sponsorship accounts for approximately 15%. Email marketing accounts for the much of the rest.

Most daily newspapers have adopted digital subscriptions. Some independent pure-play sites are doing the same. Your plans?
We currently have no plans regarding subscriptions.

You have considerable competition in North Jersey, including from Gannett and the pure-plays Daily Voice and Patch, as well as entrepreneurial single digital sites and small clusters, both for-profit and nonprofit. Is there room for all this local news publishing activity?
There is a need for as much local news as possible. There is certainly room for multiple publishers in a given area, particularly since there are so many businesses and an efficient publication with minimal overhead only needs a small percentage of them to market with them to be profitable. For publications that have significant overhead and have done little to adjust to the digital age, their days are likely numbered.

Mike Shapiro, founder and CEO of TAPinto

What are some of the best and perhaps surprising insights you’ve learned from your franchisees that have become best practices in the TAPinto network?
Our franchisees have provided and continue to provide valuable insight that we have learned from and in most cases, implemented here at TAPinto.  Mostly in the realm of “feature” requests regarding our custom platform, but also regarding policies, practices and procedures.

For example, recently at the suggestion of a franchisee, we went from distributing revenue to franchisees via check to ACH [Automated Clearing House].  This change has enabled the franchisees to receive their revenue much quicker and reduced workload at TAPinto. These benefits have far outweighed the minimal expense to make the change.

One of your franchisees, TAPinto/Cranford in North-Central Jersey, was runnerup with Cranford Radio in the “Collaborate Local” category of the Center for Cooperative Media’s NJ News Commons Excellence in Local News contest. How important is collaboration to TAPinto sites in producing quality news that engages readers?
Collaboration is key to TAPinto’s business model.  On the content side, TAPinto franchisees can share content with each other with a click of a button.  This makes our content model as efficient as possible.  For example, a football game between Westfield and Scotch Plains in New Jersey can be covered by one site but published by both sites. Or if the Essex County Executive opens a new park in a town in Essex County, all 10+ TAPinto sites in Essex County can provide that story to their readers.

Our unique franchising model in which each TAPinto franchisee is an owner/publisher also allows them to forge partnerships, including content partnerships such as between TAPinto Cranford and Cranford Radio.

Is “branding” important for TAPinto?
Branding is important to TAPinto.  We promote the brand through social media, email marketing, and through the site itself.  We also are the media sponsor for many statewide and regional events and encourage our franchisees to sponsor local events.  We keep up a solid speaking schedule in front of groups and organizations and encourage our franchisees to do the same locally.  We also attempt to promote the brand through earned media.

How many of your franchisees are profitable? Are you profitable as the overall company?
Nearly all of our franchisees are profitable.  The overall company was profitable for 2016 and I expect it be profitable for 2017 but until our accountants finish reconciling our books, I do not want to provide inaccurate information.

What’s next – expanding to other markets or selling TAPinto?
Next up for TAPinto is expanding to other markets in the U.S., including Florida, and working to develop TAPinto as a platform that can partner and collaborate with other media-related companies.  We should have more on that by the end of 2018.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.