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July 14, 2015, 10:32 a.m.
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LINK: towknight.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Madeline Welsh   |   July 14, 2015

Results are in from a survey of 94 local news websites, and while revenue and reach remain concerns for many, the sites say they are doing okay.

Conducted between March and April of this year on by Michele McLellan, the survey looked at the sites on Michele’s List, a database of local sites produced with CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. The goal: to get a sense of the financial health and stability of the local news ecosystem.

McLellan’s results include some heartening results (revenues up!) and some that are less so (nearly half of the publishers are not paying themselves any salary). Here are a few of the key figures:

Two-thirds (66 percent) make $100,000 a year or less in annual revenue and more than half (53 percent) make $50,000 or less. About a quarter (24 percent) make between $100,000 and $500,000. Nine percent make more than $500,000.

70 percent reported revenue increases in 2014 compared to 2013, including 17 percent (15 sites) who said it nearly doubled.

Few report much diversity of revenue sources and they are highly dependent on local advertising that they sell directly (as opposed to network ads). Seventy-two percent listed local advertising as their primary source of revenue (defined as half or more of their total revenue). Another 22 percent derive some revenue from local advertising. Other sources include membership, sponsorship, foundation grants, donations, and events.

Just over a third (36.5 percent) have full-time paid staff as content contributors. Two-thirds rely on freelance or part-time paid staff. (Survey asked them to identify top two contributors so percentages add up to more than 100.) About 45 percent rely on volunteers as a primary source, including 11 percent that rely exclusively on volunteers.

On the business/marketing/sales side, 46 percent have full-time paid staff, 70 percent have part-time staff or paid contractors, 23 percent rely on volunteers, including 15 percent that rely exclusively on volunteers, nearly all of which have revenue of $50,000 or less.

Only about a third of the publishers draw a full-time salary from their site. 40 percent of the publishers are not drawing any salary and 24 percent only draw a partial salary.

Most of the sites have limited reach. Two thirds have fewer than 50,000 unique visitors each month. Only two sites reported more than 500,000 uniques.

McLellan notes that because local sites are often founded by journalists with little or no business or sales experience, the ventures can struggle to develop revenue and establish a stable business. One proposed idea for future research? Track the trajectory of the sites that have broken the $100,000 mark: “A study could identify those sites and chart the actions and best practices that helped them progress.”

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