Four Years After GateHouse, Brad Dennison Has Become a Local News Rover
There’s a new nameplate in hyperlocal news publishing, and just about everything about it is boldly different, including the name—Rover.
This combination digital daily and print monthly was launched in suburban Nashville last week. It comes from American Hometown Publishing, the media company that’s led by longtime news publishing executive Brad Dennison.
In this Q&A, Dennison talks about why he and his team at rapidly growing AHP threw out everything that’s traditional about local news and created a community-based product he calls “the news of the future.”
You left your post as one of GateHouse Media’s top executives in late 2014 to go to a much smaller news operation. What drove that decision?
I had a great eight-year run at GateHouse and did a lot of different jobs from running news to being responsible for newspaper operations. I loved the company and the people I worked with, but I had a strong desire to go do my own thing in a private setting and really own the opportunity. I had the chance to take over American Hometown Publishing and jumped on it.
It was a very small company with newspapers in four states—I think at the time we were literally 80 times smaller than GateHouse, and that number must be three times that by now—but it was a great base to start with, and a great opportunity to grow and build my team.
How has the decision to lead American Hometown Publishing played out for you?
It’s been a rewarding three years. From a pure performance standpoint, I inherited rough revenue trends in 2015, and we were able to continually turn things to the point that 2017 was our best year of the past five. Our print performance has been really good and stable, and we built our own digital marketing services company called Hometown Digital Solutions, which has been hugely successful for us.
Actually, at the end of 2016, our performance was strong and we had big plans to grow, and our original Nashville private equity owners decided the time was right to sell. We were attracting a lot of attention and had offers inside the first month.
We ended up falling into a conversation with another Nashville private equity firm called West End Holdings, and we seriously hit it off. They loved the executive team, the performance, and the road map. We closed that deal in the middle of 2017, and they have been brilliant partners.
You’ve been in an acquisition mood since you arrived at AHP, right?
Oh, for sure, but the current situation is more conducive. In Q4 last year we bought two competing newspapers around Lake Norman, which is a booming area near Charlotte. Before that, we bought the Islander News in Key Biscayne, Fla., a highly affluent market outside of downtown Miami. We’re focusing our acquisition efforts on media properties in very select markets where we feel community engagement is predisposed to be higher than average.
The criteria we’ve built are fairly narrow, but in summary, we like lakes, mountains, and beaches—places where people have worked really hard to live and deeply care about absolutely everything that goes on there. I also love free publications with good home delivery already in place because we can build a better product that readers and advertisers want, and I don’t have to lie awake at night worrying about subscribers.
You’re very upbeat about your performance and future at a time when we don’t hear much positivity in the local news industry. Why is that?
Losing can penetrate your culture to the point that it is the culture. You start kidding yourself that revenues being down only 5% this year is a win because last year they were down 10%. But if you’re not organically growing, you’re not winning. I’ve tried to clearly define what winning looks like to our team from Day One. Our view is [that] we can grow the business, period. And it drives everything from how we talk to whom we hire for every key role.
We have our blemishes, but we’re organically growing revenue and profits. That’s winning. I also have to give a ton of credit to my COO Clarissa Williams and the sales infrastructure she has built since coming on board two years ago. Clarissa just has that can’t-lose vibe. Nobody runs sales quite like we do. We have our go-to-market strategy down and all the mechanics to support it. She’s coaching everyone up every single day. It’s inspiring. Our sales reps go to market well prepared.
You’ve just launched Rover, something you’re calling the next-generation hyperlocal news product. What exactly is it?
Rover is a hyperlocal digital news experience and a free monthly print companion that saturates the market via mail. What I love about this is we designed the content strategy and the mobile product first, then later we built a print product based on that mobile experience. We wanted to create an absolutely beautiful experience across all platforms and knew we had to have the eminent newspaper designer Mario Garcia involved.[Chief Strategy Officer] David [Arkin] and Mario knew each other from past projects, and as we presented the concept to him it was clear we had a winning idea on our hands. The end result was a stunning line of products.
We are able to take a single story and think about all the ways we can tell it and present it that are helpful and engaging for people. That’s how people want content, in chunks, and the design we have developed is really set up for this.
Mario was critical on the UX side of things, but our CMS partner TownNews was equally important on the technology side. In a brief time frame, they were able to grasp and build out our vision. The website is clean, easy to use, and has some next-level features around notifications and user accounts that are pretty smart. Someone told me last week it was the best news mobile site they’d ever seen. I’ll take that.
Where in Nashville did you launch Rover?
We launched Rover in Green Hills, which is a community of about 60,000 people just south of Nashville. The web and mobile products went live in late April, and the print product was mailed out to about 22,000 households in early May. It’s very early, but the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
The things we were saying as we built the product are what we’re hearing readers say now: “It’s everything I look for on my phone, but can’t find,” and, “There’s so much information here I didn’t know about.”
How will Rover.com help people “live their lives,” as you say?
In a booming market like Nashville, there’s a crush of things happening with taxes, construction, businesses coming and going, things to do, but a scarce amount of content from a reliable source to help you understand and navigate it all.
Think about all of the local things you might Google on your phone in a given month. Rover is all of those things above. But how do you find credible information that you can use? That’s what Rover does, and positioning the experience as mobile-first allows us for fast and efficient delivery of that information.
While much of the local news industry is stuck between its print past and the emerging digital era, there are new news providers that are working hard to bridge that gap—Jim Brady’s Spirited Media in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Denver, Ted Williams’ The Agenda in Charlotte, and John and Jennifer Garrett’s Community Impact in Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, and Houston, which also includes a monthly print product. What’s the main difference between Rover and them?
On the business side, we’re doing both print and online and are expecting good revenue returns from both platforms. We’re not putting our eggs in one basket. While the three you listed are all doing well and are good products, they all have picked a path, print or digital.
We believe we can have unique experiences and successful products on both platforms. I’d also say the content experience is very different. Take a look at the amount of content we’re writing that is highly layered and formatted for busy readers, likely a mobile reader. That’s a big difference, I think.
Many daily newspapers are starting digital subscriptions—a move you pioneered when you were at GateHouse. But Rover will be free. Why?
I love free. And with Rover, we have a suite of products that will reach a very concise, specific audience daily online and every month in print. Keeping the digital products free and open and giving everyone the print product will allow us to deliver a large, concentrated audience to our advertisers right away and in a sustainable way.
I think we’ll be as valuable to our advertisers as our readers so long as we’ve succeeded in being very engaging. I’m confident we will. With anything new, brand awareness is important, and getting the brand in front of as many people on numerous platforms is critical.
When you put up a paywall, you’re automatically limiting your audience potential and thinning out the audience you already have. I lived that. Situationally, it can be the right move. But I’m betting I have a truly great local product that is going to resonate broadly across a community and that advertisers will want to draft off that dominance.
Will Rover be a niche site or seek a broader audience?
We’re aiming to hit a really wide audience because we think the content is really applicable to everyone. I think millennials and boomers will be equally drawn to this.
How about wanting to make their community better—will that be part of Rover’s content strategy?
Definitely. Before we launched, we met with grassroots organizations and sought their feedback and partnership as we built out our product. And we’ll continue to do that. In addition, we’re launching a reader advisory board in June to ensure we’re hearing from readers and advertisers on issues important to them. That listening ear will be important to ensure we are covering topics that are advancing the community. We’ll also get involved in events and initiatives that we think will make Green Hills and Belle Meade better places.
What’s your goal with community advertisers?
We have built a line of beautiful products, and that includes the advertising. We’re hiring designers who can do it all so we can really lean into our custom ad design. We don’t want paint-by-numbers ad design, so we’re trying to push the envelope on creativity. The ads need to be as lively as the rest of the content. Ads are content. We need to treat them with the same respect. And we believe our advertisers are our partners.
How do you justify the big expense of free circulation?
Our Lake Norman, N.C., newspapers are free weekly home-delivered products. You can opt out, yet nearly 50,000 people still choose to get them. It’s a more expensive way to build a local media business, but why encumber yourself with a subscription model?
This is what the digital-only local news models miss—having that occasional print touch. And I think the only way the print component works is if everybody gets it and it’s very compelling. For what we’re doing with Rover, once a month feels like a good frequency, and we’ve built a product that can hang around the coffee table and be useful for that amount of time.
What’s different and better about your newspaper company model?
I don’t read a lot about the industry that I identify with, and I don’t really think of us as a newspaper company. I think of us as a hyperlocal content company that picks up where newspapers and so many others are leaving off. We’re engineering everything we do around delighting our readers and customers with our products.
That’s what we spend the majority of our time on—that’s exactly what’s different. Product drives every decision. You won’t see anything that robs load times on our websites or smacks readers with pop-ups. We’re jealously protective of the user experience.
Next Thursday: A followup Q & A with American Hometown Publishing’s chief strategy officer, David Arkin, who is masterminding Rover.