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Aug. 27, 2018, 11:20 a.m.
Business Models
LINK: www.nytimes.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   August 27, 2018

Not every local news site can make money by selling stock to its readers. But for those in wealthier areas, it might be worth a shot.

This weekend, The New York Times covered how local newspaper publisher Rollie Atkinson introduced a direct public offering to the readers of his company’s four papers, with a goal of raising 400,000 by March 2019. Atkinson’s company Sonoma West publishes The Healdsburg Tribune, The Cloverdale Reveille, The Windsor Times, and Sonoma West Times & News — covering local news in the heart of California’s wine country. “The D.P.O. just hit all the right buttons,” Atkinson told the Times. “It allowed for longer-range planning. It provides for community ownership, community buy-in.”

You might remember the DPO-for-local-news model as pioneered by Berkeleyside, a seasoned local independent news site based in the liberal land of Berkeley, California. As we wrote at that organization’s DPO launch two years ago:

While Berkeleyside could have chased investment from more traditional financiers, there was something symbolically compelling about giving readers the opportunity to have a direct role in the site’s future. Around 1,200 readers already pay an average of $70 a year to support the site as members, but letting readers invest directly into the site takes that relationship to the next level, giving readers a real financial stake in Berkeleyside’s future growth. (The DPO promises investors a 3 percent annual dividend, a higher return than current 7-year U.S. Treasuries — so long as Berkeleyside maintains its financial strength.)

Chasing investment capital from readers might seem odd for a local news site that, from the outside, already seems to be doing so well. Berkeleyside attracts 220,000 unique visitors each month in a city of 110,000 people. Its business is healthy and comparatively diverse: Only 60 percent of its revenue comes from advertising, with the remaining split between its membership business and cash from its annual event, Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas. Berkeleyside owes some of that success to the city of Berkeley, which is large enough for a small local site to focus on it, but not so large that its daunting to cover. Berkeley, of course, also has a long in tradition of activism and high interest among residents in local politics

The DPO closed this spring, and Berkeleyside ended up raising $1 million from 355 readers. The team helped Atkinson’s company with its DPO.

“We are excited that news sites now have a new model to raise funds to give them a solid foundation to build a long-term future,” Lance Knobel, Berkeleyside’s publisher, wrote in a note to readers announcing the conclusion of the offering. “In this time of diminishing local news — as well as regular attacks on the importance of news — a DPO can allow a small organization to set its own course.”

But DPOs aren’t a direct-panacea-offering for local news. The Times quotes several of the Sonoma investors — two of the three are wine industry retirees and at least one invested $5,000. It’s too early to say that these examples are the exception, not the rule, but it’s also fair to say that the financial backgrounds of typical readers in Sonoma and Berkeley are different from those in, say, Bell, California. The quoted Sonoma backers bemoaned the constriction of the press and their reliance on the trusted local newspaper. We know that many people across the country trust their local news organizations, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to invest in it.

Whereby.Us is another company attempting to raise crowd-invested funds from its readers, including those gosh-darn millennials who’d have some money to spend if they didn’t keep saving for their down payments. In their offering, readers could chip in as little as $500 and the company eventually raised $250,000 from individual followers in a $1.25 million investment round. Whereby.Us looked at supporters in Miami and Seattle for starters, as the company rolls out its newsletters in other cities.

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