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Oct. 20, 2015, 1:42 p.m.
Business Models

With the online ad market dominated by large players such as Facebook and Google and under threat from ad blockers, many in the news business are looking beyond advertising as a means to make money.

The local news startup Charlotte Agenda, however, thinks it can build a sustainable, and ultimately profitable, ad-supported business aimed at the North Carolina city’s growing young, professional population.

The Agenda said Tuesday that it’s signed up 17 advertisers to sponsor the site through the first six months of 2016, and it’s planning to launch a jobs board, events calendar, and other products in the coming weeks.

“From a business model standpoint, the last thing you can do is copy The New York Times’ strategy or copy BuzzFeed’s strategy. It’s just dumb. At the same time, there’s more opportunities locally than it seems, because most people are just copying nationals there,” Ted Williams, the Agenda’s founder and publisher, told me.

“If you just sit down and talk to brands and business owners and you try to figure things out from scratch, you come up with a different result than if you go and say, ‘I’m going to do the BuzzFeed model in Charlotte,'” he said.

A number of sites around the country, such as Billy Penn in Philadelphia, have taken a similar approach to reaching younger local news audiences.

Though these types of sites will likely never replace the editorial or business heft of a major metro newspaper, it’s possible they can support a small staff with a focused editorial approach that makes up part of a local media ecosystem.

The Agenda says it averages about 165,000 unique visitors a month and has 6,700 daily newsletter subscribers with an open rate of 63 percent. Its most popular story ever — “Charlotte’s top 11 dive restaurants: The American comfort food edition” — got about 76,000 pageviews.

While its audience isn’t huge, Charlotte Agenda says more than 70 percent of its audience is between the ages of 18 and 44 and that 94 percent of its readership is college educated. That’s a demographic that’s appealing to advertisers, and Williams said the Agenda is trying to craft ads that are relevant to its reader as well.

“If you create advertising that stinks, and that’s painful, that’s a crappy business,” Williams said. “If you look at the way we merchandise our site, especially compared to a lot of local TV, we have far fewer ad units, we don’t do gimmicky slideshows, we don’t type in AP content to juice up page views…we’re not annoying. We will never use an ad network or something like that. It’s just really stupid for us. We’re not going to put Google AdSense on our site.”

The Agenda is not Williams’ first attempt at building a local news site. Last year, he led the team at The Charlotte Observer that built Charlotte Five, a similar site that publishes five stories that go out every morning in an email newsletter and on its website.

Williams left the Observer and launched the new site this April because he wanted the “freedom to move really fast.” Williams got Charlotte Agenda off the ground with $10,000 of his own money, and the site now has four full-time employees, who each have an ownership stake in the company. Williams said he expects the company to become profitable next year, though he wouldn’t share specific revenue numbers.

Like Charlotte Five, the Agenda only publishes a limited number of stories each day. Though the sites publish similar editorial content, Williams said he expects the Agenda to diversify what it covers. In August, the site hired Andrew Dunn, a former Observer reporter, to be its editor-in-chief and to “bring in-depth reporting” to the site.

Williams said the Agenda plans to start mixing in some events, a podcast, or even a print product. He mentioned looking to Street Dreams, a magazine made up of Instagram photos, as inspiration for what an ink-on-paper Charlotte Agenda might look like.

“As crazy as that sounds — we wouldn’t go like a typical magazine style, but there’s some really interesting stuff,” Williams said.

Photo of the Charlotte skyline by James Willamor used under a Creative Commons license.

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