Sustainability and Success for Local News Startups
We talk to a lot of local site operators who hit a point of frustration a few months in: They’re busting their ass covering their local communities, but they aren’t making any money at it. That’s because while it’s easy to start a local site, it’s hard work to keep it going, and even harder to make it a success.
What you’re looking for as the proprietor of a local site is sustainability. That’s the point where you’re bringing in enough money to make the site something more than just a hobby—and maybe even start making a living off it. Many local journalism entrepreneurs assume this will be easy: Start site, cover town, wait for advertising to roll in. It doesn’t work that way. Not by a long shot. And many journalists, frankly, are a little naive about this. They’re great at journalism, but not necessarily at business. So it’s important to put as much time into the business of your site, and making it a sustainable success, as you do covering stories around town.
Alan Mutter has some smart things to say about this in his post, “Journalists running startups face tall odds.” Alan writes:
I fear a good many journalistic entrepreneurs are doomed to fail because they are not objectively confronting the steep odds they face – or putting nearly enough thought and effort into giving themselves a fighting chance to succeed.
Unless they invest as much deliberate effort in building audience and revenues as they do into chasing stories, the journalists run the very real risk of going broke and/or wearing themselves out before they achieve the critical mass necessary to ensure the long-term viability of their ventures.
Working without a proper business plan and hoping for best is a well known recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that’s what most start-ups are doing.
That’s hard for a lot of aspiring local media moguls to hear. But it’s really important to understand.
There are many elements to running a site with an eye toward sustainability:
- You need to have a business plan and budget—a realistic one, and even then you’re probably too optimistic. Apply the same sort of cold skepticism to your own claims and numbers that, as a journalist, you’d apply to somebody else’s. Be ruthless—the marketplace will be.
- You need to pay attention to marketing your site, really getting the word out in the community, over and over and over again. And then a few times more. Just because you and your family and friends know you’re covering your town, odds are most of the rest of your potential audience has never heard of you.
- You need to control your costs. This is a biggie: Many startup local sites dream of hiring all their journalist friends and paying strings of correspondents to cover the local news the way it really should be covered. That’s instantly expensive and probably not sustainable for the vast majority of community-focused sites (as some high-profile startups—we won’t name names—already know quite painfully, or are about to find out). You’ve heard of “too big to fail?” Your operation needs to be too small to fail: keep costs to a minimum while you scramble to bring in sufficient revenue to keep the lights on.
- You need to be out aggressively selling advertising to local businesses. That’s the revenue that’s the lifeblood of your site. A simple “Advertise on this site” link ain’t gonna work, not by a long shot. Advertising is sold, not bought, and you need to go out and sell, or find somebody who will sell for you. (This is where we make the plug for what we’re doing at GrowthSpur, which includes training site operators to sell ads, giving them tools to help bring in revenue and getting them into local ad sales networks in which you and other local sites can all help each other make money. Drop us a note at info (at) GrowthSpur (dot) com and find out you can make money running a local site. End of plug.)
Starting a local site, as we said, is easy. Getting it to sustainability is hard. Making it truly successful—to a point where you can make a living doing it—is extremely hard, but not impossible: We know sites that are doing it, and bringing in six-figure annual revenue and turning a profit. The common denominator among them is hard work, aggressive ad sales, ubiquitous marketing and realistic expectations and budgets. Over the next few years, we believe many other sites will attain this level with GrowthSpur’s help. But it starts when the site founders avoid pie-in-the-sky dreams and take a smart, realistic view of what it really takes to sustain a site and make it successful.