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Nov. 18, 2016, 9 a.m.
Business Models
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This Vermont-focused nonprofit news site is looking to podcasting to add new revenue streams

The seven-year-old VTDigger, with a stable readership of Vermonters, eyes the booming audio space as an opportunity to expand underwriter support.

There’s enough of the podcasting pie for everyone.

At least, that’s the hope of VTDigger, a Vermont-based nonprofit news site launched in 2009 to cover public interest issues and policy, with a focus on enterprise and investigative reporting (started by Anne Galloway, after she was laid off from another Vermont outlet). Among local-focused digital news nonprofits, the site is holding its own, with an annual budget of over $1 million and up to 150,000 unique readers a month. It has a solid statehouse presence.

“We had a desire to expand beyond the printed word, written media,” said Mark Johnson, VTDigger’s senior editor and reporter who has been helming the editorial end of its foray into podcasting (Johnson had a radio talk show for 25 years before joining VTDigger). The team had tried out video interviews during Vermont’s legislative session, but the videos never caught on with readers. “Who has time? But people listen to audio in the car, in their homes. We wanted to add something that might be broader general interest, a little less inside baseball.”

The Digger Dialogue series is its flagship podcast and testing ground for everything from format to length to guests to technical improvements. On the revenue side, VTDigger is hoping to ride the growing popularity of the podcasting medium and bring new sponsors and individual donors on board.

“We’re hoping to expand our audience, and hoping to expand our revenue sources,” VTDigger director of underwriting Theresa Murray-Clasen said. “We’re heading toward 40 percent of our traffic coming through mobile, and we’re in the midst of a major mobile redesign — which podcasts are going to play a big role in. Sixty-four percent of our readers are 45 or older, but we’re [working to attract a younger audience], and podcasts may be a segue into that new audience, too.”

“We’re trying to broaden our audience beyond the political junkies, trying to make these more conversational than what would be in a news piece,” Johnson said. “We want to try to get out of Montpelier. Sometimes we can be really inside the beltway here. We’re still pretty early in the ballgame in trying to figure out how to even logistically make all of that happen and cover all the other news that we do. It’ll find its own rhythm eventually.”

The podcast has covered topics like Planned Parenthood and the state’s opiate crisis — all of it deeply focused on Vermont issues, featuring Vermont lawmakers and residents.

An earlier test run series featured Johnson interviewing various lawmakers and was sponsored in full by a local business in Montpelier for $5,000. Murray-Clasen said the current series hasn’t yet found a sponsor. (The project was initially supported through the INNovation fund.)

“I would be really happy getting, say, a $20,000 annual contract for sponsorship. But we haven’t promoted this as hard as we could yet,” Murray-Clasen said. “We wanted to give Mark the latitude to really feel comfortable and proud of this product. If we happen to pick up a sponsor along the way…but we’re not pounding the pavement too hard.”

Murray-Clasen said she’s made soft pitches to, for instance, the Vermont State Employees Union — “they turned us down” — partly to tease out why potential sponsors might or might not be ultimately interested in sponsoring a podcast on the wonkier side.

“It’s about the match, about figuring out who might be interested in sponsoring this type of beast,” she said. “We can provide Mark’s audio branding at the beginning and at the end of the podcast, and we provide visual impressions on our site. It can be a wonderful opportunity for businesses.”

POSTED     Nov. 18, 2016, 9 a.m.
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