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Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
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Oct. 5, 2015, 12:25 p.m.

The LION Summit for local independent online news publishers took place in Chicago on Friday and Saturday. In two days of panels, there was plenty of focus on ad-selling strategies and other revenue-generating ideas, but one thing was largely missing: mobile strategy.

That’s problematic, considering how many people are getting news on their phones. Jesse Holcomb, an associate director at Pew Research (and recent Press Publish guest) presented on the state of local news, based off this Pew report from the spring.

“The local news experience for American audiences is mediated on the social web,” Holcomb said. “Younger news consumers are getting news about their community on their mobile phone and they’re doing so at rates just as high as other groups, if not higher.”

Local publishers’ reliance on banner advertising is “scary,” said Michele McLellan, the founder of Michele’s List, a database of local news sites. As she put it in a wrapup post on the conference:

There were encouraging, if fledgling, signs that some sites are looking beyond banner display advertising. Supplemental sources include crowd-funding, membership programs, sponsored content, and events. For now, however, banner display advertising is a mainstay…

That’s a vulnerability. If any source falters, companies with diverse revenue sources have others to fall back on. Online display advertising is taking a lot of hits these days, including ad blockers, concerns about impression fraud, and concerns that people simply ignore banner ads.

Some publishers are expanding in this area: Scott Brodbeck, founder of ARLNow and a network of hyperlocal sites in suburban Washington. D.C., described the new sponsored advertising methods he’s using.

And Joe Hyde, founder and publisher of the Texas-based San Angelo Live, created a custom ad size for his email newsletters — they’re 570×216, to match the size of an iPhone screen and a finger.

Site founders often develop for the desktop web first, with mobile-optimized or responsive sites sometimes an afterthought. Brian Wheeler, the executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow, discussed three crowdfunding projects the site has done. Two, where people saw a “pain point,” were successful, but the third — a project that aimed to enhance Charlottesville Tomorrow’s mobile site to make it more similar to the Texas Tribune’s — failed, raising less than a third of its $15,000 goal.

“We thought it would be an easy success via Kickstarter,” Wheeler said. “It did not get anyone motivated to help us. It was too backroom, too infrastructure. People said, ‘I don’t think your site’s that bad on my phone.'”

You can find LION’s blog here, video of some of the presentations here, and the Twitter stream here. In addition, conference attendees took notes in shared Google Docs — here’s the combined coverage of the Friday and Saturday sessions.

A previous version of this post referred to Brian Wheeler as founder of Charlottesville Tomorrow. He is executive director.

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