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Cracking the Local Market: What Suburban Weeklies Can Teach

Tom Noonan
By Tom Noonan
Published: June 24, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
[Editor's note: Today, Tom Noonan, a former president of suburban weekly chains in Denver and Cincinnati writes about what print veterans in the "hyperlocal" market can teach online entrepreneurs. - Robert]

You've probably seen more than one cartoon showing a row of fish lined up largest to smallest. All have their mouths open and each is ready to gulp down the smaller one in front of it. That's the media business today.

I'm a retired community newspaper publisher. Not too long ago my segment truly was known as "Local-Local." Then the small weekly became part of the community newspaper group, which was purchased by the suburban newspaper chain, which was acquired by a multi-market publishing chain. With some notable exceptions, small private owners relinquished (often at great profit) their papers to publicly held entities.

In many cases Local-Local isn't very local any more. It's hard to devote resources to covering a small town's zoning board meetings and dance to the tune of a 10-Q at the same time. Local papers have given way to multi-community coverage, reporters are spread mighty thin and coverage focuses on what communities have in common rather than the unique attributes of each small town.

A problem and an opportunity.

There's still a thirst out there for very local news and the publisher/entrepreneur who is willing (and able) to think small will find an eager audience for his/her effort. Today many of the chain papers have cookie-cutter websites, with one-design-fits-all pages for each of the communities they serve.

If you truly know your community, you'll design a website that is unlike no other, that really focuses on both your town's strengths and weaknesses. Your neighbors are your audience and both you and they know what combination of things make your corner of the world special. It likely includes local government, schools, architecture, weather, businesses, topography, libraries, local lore and much more.

Start with a basic business/marketing plan. Mission and vision statements are so yesterday—yet you still need to be able to say in a few sentences…one tight paragraph…what you want your site to be. Then spell out how you will manage it, how you will develop content, how you will build an audience, how much it will cost and who will pay for it.

In this post I'm going to concentrate on that last issue.

About a generation ago my then boss had a sign over his desk that read, "Until somebody pays, nobody eats." That means, unless you have easy access to lots of cash, your plan needs to include advertisers and how you will attract them. Over the years many an editor has thought that if they produced an excellent newspaper, advertisers would simply flock in. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way—in print or on the Internet. People advertise for but one reason, to sell something. Whether it's hard goods or nifty concepts, they want to attract buyers.

Prepare and prioritize a list of every possible advertiser who might use your site. If your site serves a geographic community, every local business is a target. If your site is more narrowly focused, like, then your advertiser prospects will be more focused. Whichever, identify "bell-cow" advertisers—those whom others will follow—and plan to contact them first.

When you're ready to launch, prepare a prototype home page which includes "spec" ads for the bell cows. Using census data, determine the size and buying power of your community, projecting what percentage might become your audience. Visit potential advertisers in person, using a laptop to demonstrate both your site and a PowerPoint-type presentation of your impact on the community. Follow up with an e-mail that includes a copy of the presentation.

Start with ad rates that are very low in order to build advertising volume. Let everyone know that rates will increase as your audience grows, but assure your "charter advertisers" that their rates are guaranteed for a year or some reasonable period of time.

At least initially, don't try to profit from classified advertising. Instead, become the local-local free Craigslist, using this ad category to build your audience. When folks realize they can go to your site to find items they can buy within a few miles from home, they'll flock aboard. As your site grows add sophistication and contextual advertising; for example, run information on ethnic dishes and sell ads to ethnic stores and restaurants. Ditto for wine, home decorating, fashions, etc.

And don't sell just ads, sell promotions and sponsorships. Craig Dennis, publisher of the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, recently won a prize from Suburban Newspapers of America for his News Kids feature—a weekly TV style video sponsored by a car dealer. The page features children at local schools reporting on area events. It's a big traffic builder and the sponsor pays a tidy $500 a week.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Final tip: enlist the help of recent retirees. Most are computer literate, they have the time, are deeply interested in their hometowns and, best of all, often will work on the come.

"Cracking the Local Market: It's a Great Time to be a Journalist" by Chris Jennewein
"Cracking the Local Market: The Inherent Difficulty" by Robert Niles

"Cracking the Local Market: Beyond 2.0's Wizards of Oz" by Tom Grubisich

From Lee Fleming on June 25, 2008 at 10:54 AM

You wrote:
"At least initially, don't try to profit from classified advertising. Instead, become the local-local free Craigslist, using this ad category to build your audience. When folks realize they can go to your site to find items they can buy within a few miles from home, they'll flock aboard."

We offer free classifieds and our experience tells us "don't bother." Very few people use it, it's a pain to monitor it to keep the classified spam out and an even bigger time sink trying to help those who would like to post but can't quite grok the directions. People will not flock to the classifieds. We've offered them for about five years now, which should be plenty long enough to test it. Total WOMBAT.

From Diana Day on June 26, 2008 at 10:13 PM

Thanks for all these great tips, Tom. They sure get the creative juices (and hopefully the dollars) flowing.

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© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.