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In suburban D.C., a network of hyperlocal news sites expands and bets on local advertising

“If everybody’s focused on the billion-dollar opportunity in local, they’re going to be missing out on a lot of other opportunities, because this isn’t a billion-dollar space.”

When the Curbed network of websites — local outlets focused on dining, real estate, and fashion — was bought by Vox Media last month for around $20 or $30 million, Digiday’s Josh Sternberg asked founder Lockhart Steele how a media company so laser-focused on local could grow to be a company of that value when, as we all know (or think we know), local doesn’t pay.

Said Steele: “Although we build audience locally, we monetize almost exclusively through national advertising. Eater publishes in 29 markets. But fundamentally, advertisers buy Eater, not Eater Detroit or Eater Miami. Whether we show that impression or takeover to readers in Los Angeles or in New York, most of our advertisers are agnostic about that.”

Building a scalable media business that generates revenue through local advertising has proven a challenge — just ask Patch.

But there are still believers, like Scott Brodbeck. Brodbeck is a local news publisher in suburban Virginia. At a recent conference on hyperlocal marketing, Brodbeck discussed how he had turned hyperlocal news site ARLnow into a profitable business, allowing him to launch Reston Now, his third local news site, in October.

There are, of course, quite a few independent local online publishers who’ve been able to build sustainable for-profit businesses covering a community — The Batavian, Berkeleyside, West Seattle Blog, and more. The membership list of LION (Local Independent Online News Publishers) includes more. But for the most part, those success stories have remained focused on a single community. Brodbeck wants to expand across the region.

reston now homepage final

“If everybody’s focused on the billion-dollar opportunity in local, they’re going to be missing out on a lot of other opportunities, because this isn’t a billion-dollar space. This is a $1 million space,” he says. “If you can make a million dollars a year doing something in local, that’s not bad.”

That’s why Brodbeck is betting on a scalable local-local strategy — local audiences and local advertisers. “Everybody wants to be the next Foursquare or Instagram,” he says. “Nobody wants to be the guy going to community council meetings and selling ads to Joe Smith.”

Brodbeck, in the beginning, didn’t want to be the guy going to city council meetings, either. He got his start in journalism working for local TV stations in the D.C. area, and says chasing fires was more his thing — but he quit when he felt the stations weren’t pursuing digital enough. He started Arlington Now in his apartment, focusing on providing news that would be useful to his upper-middle-class suburban neighbors. The next step was finding local advertisers.

“‘If you build it, they will come’ is definitely something that does not work,” says Brodbeck. “You really need to be putting content out there that’s quality, that people want to read.”

The site now turns a profit, enough to lead him to expand his project, first to Bethesda and then to Reston, where he’s hired as editor Karen Goff — somewhat ironically, a former Patch employee.

“Local publishing is unsexy,” says Brodbeck. “There won’t be another Patch. I think that lesson has been learned and people have realized that it’s not something you can do on the national scale right off the bat.”

Brodbeck on a panel at the Street Fight Summit in October. (He starts speaking at 5:00.)

Indeed, one of the central tenets of this success has been to focus on — and to expect — slow, incremental growth. “We are a very local site. Everything you need to know about our audience you can learn by reading the demographics of Arlington, Virginia,” says Brodbeck of his flagship site. “You don’t have to use an IP address to figure out where someone is. The fact of the matter is, by and large the only people are people who live in, are from, or work in Arlington, because that’s the only thing we write about.”

When someone writes a comprehensive history of local online news, northern Virginia will play a significant role. As is also true in suburban New Jersey, another early hyperlocal hotbed, the demographics of the D.C. suburbs has made them alluring to those trying to build businesses. Old-timers will remember The Washington Post’s LoudounExtra, which the paper launched in 2007 but ultimately deemed unsustainable after a mere two years. And the late TBD.com was also trying to cover local-level news at a metro-level scale.

Brodbeck saw a digital news gap in Arlington and in other well-off suburban areas and said he was trying to avoid the lessons of something like Loudoun Extra: “the costs were too high and the area it covered was not so much a community as a collection of communities, thus reducing the potential for engagement.”

He’s also chasing that tantalizing white whale of monetization — sponsored content. For Arlington Now, Brodbeck found revenue opportunities in convincing a local liquor store owner to write a sponsored column about beer, and a local accountant to write branded tips around tax season. A friend of his, Brodbeck learned at a dinner party, even bought a house through a real estate agent who wrote sponsored content for the site. (Arlington Now’s “Pet of the Week” is sponsored by a local “gourmet dog bakery and boutique.”)

But finding the right partners and working with them on their brand is half the battle. “There might be places where a local car dealer might have an interesting column, might be a colorful guy and write about cars and be interesting. But we have larger car dealers in Arlington who go through agencies who don’t want to do that. That’s why attempts to nationalize hyperlocal doesn’t really work.”

Sponsored isn’t the majority of Brodbeck’s ad revenue, but the payoff — beyond finding houses for his friends — has been clear. Reston Now is already featuring this type of advertising as well, a frequent sponsored real estate column.

“There’s absolutely a time cost and that’s something that scares a lot of people who are interested in scale away from local,” he says. “It’s a matter of finding a good fit with a good business, and also finding someone who is motivated to write something like that — has the time and ability to write publishable content. It’s not a magic wand where you wave it and then everybody’s doing sponsored content. You really have to approach it on a case-by-case basis to make it work.”

And of course, producing decent journalism doesn’t hurt. Gawker has picked up Brodbeck’s stories before, and he broke the story of a possible Marine Corps Marathon cancellation due to the government shutdown. “The Journatics of the world slurp content off the web and aggregate it,” he says. “It’s not compelling. It’s not something that’s going to get people to check back multiple times per day.”

For Brodbeck, being a local publisher is about pragmatism. If you provide useful content, people will want to read it, and if people are reading it, you’ll be able, with a little patience, to find advertisers who want to reach those people. Considering that Reston Now already has almost 5,000 Facebook followers, it seems like he’s on to something.

I asked Brodbeck who he thought had the right idea in the local space, and he mentioned a few local news sites in the Nashville area.

“You go on Brentwood Home Page — it might not look like the flashiest website in the world, but they’re selling the shit out of it and their advertisers seem happy. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s all an academic exercise unless you get support in the long run,” he says. “This world is a better place when you have more locally focused news outlets that give neighbors a chance to know what’s going on in their community and talk about it. My goal is to keep doing that, and I think there are going to be other entrepreneurs looking to do that. It’ll come — it’ll just be slow.”

                                   
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Ken Doctor    April 24, 2014
At a few smart legacy news companies, there’s digital advertising growth and smart strategy. But most newspaper companies are finding the important numbers are still headed in the wrong direction.