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Five steps to take before giving up on publishing a local news website

Robert Niles
Published: January 10, 2013 at 12:46 PM (MST)
Jim Romenesko this morning posted a rather depressing headline: PUBLISHER: A SET OF STAND-ALONE NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS SITES CAN’T MAKE IT IN CHICAGO. Typically, whenever another "you can't make money on local news websites" post appears, I just let successful local news publishers such as Howard Owens shoot that fish in a barrel. But since I have a book out now teaching readers how to publish profitable community news sites, I think I'll take a shot at this one, too.

First, let me acknowledge that I don't know Mike Fourcher, the subject of the Romenesko post, nor have I read his Center Square Journal site before today. I do think his exit strategy of bringing together community members to talk about his site's future is spot-on, though that's the sort of community discussion I recommend publishers invite before launching their site.

But I'd hate to see this morning's link convince any potential local news publishers that this can't be done. So let me offer a contrasting view, in the form of some advice. (Again, this isn't directed toward Mike, or toward his situation. It's general advice for any local news publisher.) Here are five steps I recommend to any local news publisher who is thinking about throwing in the towel and giving up:

1) Stop paying so many people

If you're not bringing in enough money to keep your publication going, you've got two ways to address that: bring in more money, or spend less. Let's start with the spending.

The smaller the community you cover, the fewer income opportunities you'll have. So you must work to keep your expenses to a minimum. Don't borrow money to launch; bootstrap your publication instead. Build an action team of people who can help your publication in any way -- from tech to sales leads to story tips. (I talk about building action teams in Chapter 5 of my book.) Don't pay others to do work you can do on your own.

If your community only generates enough ad income to support a one-person website, then that's what you'll have to be. Don't be afraid of handling your own tech, or selling your own ads. After all, if you can master English grammar and the AP stylebook, a basic WordPress template's nothing. And I would much rather ask local business owners to support a publication that will bring them new customers than interview a parent who's just lost a child. Journalism's the hard stuff. Adding the rest really ought to be easy.

2) Lower your income expectations

If you worked your way up to a large daily, maybe at a senior reporter or mid-level editing position, you probably were making a decent salary in that job. You wouldn't expect to make the same amount of money working at a 5,000-reader daily. But that's the sort of publication your local news website will be. If you really need to be bringing in major-metro money, look instead toward running a more lucrative global niche-content site, instead of a geographic-niche one.

If you can lower your income expectations, while still earning enough to get by, you can establish a solid business base from which to expand and potentially earn more money in the future. But you're just killing your career by putting your business in debt to pay salaries the business can't afford.

3) Redefine your community

If you're trying to run an ad-supported local news site, you must identify your local advertisers. Note that I didn't write "local businesses." Local businesses that don't advertise or that don't control their advertising decisions (such as outlets from big national chains) aren't your target customers. Find those local businesses that do advertise and learn from them what neighborhoods -- block by block -- that they need to reach. That is the community you'll need to cover. Don't draw your coverage map to serve your interests, or those of your sources. Draw the map to serve the needs of your customers -- your advertisers.

4) Refocus on need

We talked about expenses -- now let's talk about income. Redefining your coverage area to meet advertisers' needs is the first step. Now, let's think about what needs you are meeting in your community. You have to meet a need if you're going to convince anyone to read your website, much less pay money to support it. As I wrote on page 8 of my book:

Don't cop out by saying you'll alleviate your audience's need "for information." People are drowning in information. They don't need more. If they have any need for information, it's for better and more focused news. Dig deeper. What specific information does your audience need? Why does it needs that information? For what reasons are your potential readers using information? What is it doing for them? That gets at the needs and pains in your readers' lives. When you start thinking about how and why people use information in their lives — whether it be information on schools, food, jobs, community businesses, questions of faith — then you are on the path to finding the specific needs that your publication can meet.

How does this relate to income? You can bust your rear end going on sales calls all day and night, but if you can't show potential customers how advertising in your publication will help meet their needs to reach more customers, you'll never collect those checks. But if you are meeting real needs in a community, building a large-enough audience that you can meet advertisers' needs to connect, you'll find that making sales becomes easy, and you're earning enough money to keep your site running -- and growing.

5) If all else fails, be ready to embrace activism

I have no doubt that many communities in America lack the economic activity to support an ad-driven local news website. But the problem there isn't with the publishing business -- it's with the lack of any business in the community. If that's the community you find yourself covering, you need to find ways to change that community.

Embrace your role as a community organizer and get together with other community leaders to work on ways that you can bring economic activity and growth back to your community. Embrace activism, and look for funders who are willing to invest in people who will work to force the zoning, commercial and social changes necessary to reignite economic activity in your community. I don't know what those changes will be -- that's why you'll need to work to build an action team of other concerned residents who'll help you in the journey to rebuild your community. But you're journalist -- a person trained to find information that others can't see. You're the perfect leader for this type of effort, so if you want to be the one to cover your community, sometimes you have to be the one to inspire it to be (literally) worth covering first.

Robert Niles is the author of How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online [$6.99 from Amazon.com].

Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

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