Plenty of start-ups have tried to stake claims to “hyperlocal” news markets across the United States. Some have failed (Backfence), while other endure (YourHub, Topix). Now comes OurTown. The site claims 70,000 hyperlocal websites across the country, seeded with content partnerships, and an interesting business model. Local editors, who oversee the content of their sites, keep almost all of their local ad revenue (which they will sell) and a 40 percent cut of the national haul. Will that “taste of the action” be able to lure professional journalists into local editing positions? Will the OurTown network be able to attract enough national and local advertisers to endure?
OurTown does have at least one former print journalist on board, and a prominent one, at that. George Blake is the former editor and 20-year veteran of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Now, he is working as chief news officer for OurTown. OJR interviewed Blake, and an edited transcript follows:
OJR: What is OurTown’s level of commitment to providing quality journalism? Do you feel your local audiences are looking for more of a social and entertainment site than a news portal?
George Blake: I would suggest that the best definition of “hard news” is the news most important to your readers. OurTown will provide the big national and international story – but we won’t be where readers go to get that news. We’ll be where they go to get the closest-to-home news he or she wants most.
So the question becomes this for the local editors: what do people want to read? If it’s local entertainment and activities, we’ll have community calendars that address this. If it’s school, church, kids sports or other news, we’ll have the links to their specific-interest site. We’ll have chat rooms that let them discuss the local issues that affect them most.
OJR: With all the different markets, is it difficult to remain consistent and build a brand throughout the local sites? If a particular site is not very good, do you feel it hurts your credibility and brand?
GB: We believe that the better a local editor’s site is, the more money he or she or they will make, so the incentive should be to make the site the best it can be. Some sites will be better than others, though, and we will provide guidance to local editors who need improvement. As an example, we already are providing links to Roy Clark’s writing tips from Poynter.
We also have a first-class advisory board of top journalists.
We monitor the sites and can see what works in an area and what doesn’t and will give our editors updates on what is working and what is not and what can be done to make their sites better. If a site is not updated regularly or contains content that is inappropriate, we retain the option to pull the editor’s license.
OJR: How do you recruit editors and do you have any specific requirements you’re looking for? What kind of incentives do you offer?
GB: Editors are recruited using contacts in the industry, family and friends and advertising on Craigslist, Poynter and similar sites. We have had very good response to our ads. We go through a screening process which each of the replies we receive to ensure that we have people who are interested in the process and competent to represent us well.
We are offering a free one-year license to the first 1,000 people who qualify and sign up to be local editors. We encourage them to tell their friends and we extend their license for one month for every local editor that they bring on. We encourage people to sign up as a team. One member of the team may be better at posting the news; while the other might be a salesman… husbands and wives, two neighbors, etc.
OJR: On your site you claim than an average local editor covering two zip codes can make between $45,000 and $60,000 a year. Is that still the case? Is your revenue model completely ad-supported?
GB: Our model is completely ad supported (including local classified ads) and we believe that a good local editor can make between $45,000 and $60,000 each year once they have built up a regular clientele in their area. We will continue to sell the national ads, which we will split with the local editor, but the local editor retains all revenue generated by local ads after paying a monthly fee to the company for ad serving.
We give local editors the tools they need for ad sales and ad placement. We bill the advertiser for them. Success is very achievable because the local advertisers want to build their close-to-home business and the OurTown websites offer a new opportunity for them. Unlike the daily newspaper that needs to sell the $100,000 ad contract, OurTown editors can sell $100-a-month contracts and create significant income.
OJR: Who keeps the editorial control in all the local sites? How do you handle a situation when something inappropriate or inadequate gets posted? How do you ensure the content keeps journalistic quality?
GB: The company retains editorial control. While we do not want to interfere in the minutia of how a local editor runs his site, each local editor signs a document agreeing to adhere to company policy regarding content on the site.
We are not censoring the sites, but if something inappropriate or something that violates our company standards appears on the site, the local editor will be asked to take it town immediately and should he or she continue to violate company and community standards, the local editor will lose his or her license.
OJR: How are you competing with bigger local sites like Yelp? What makes you different?
GB: What makes us different is our “feet on the street.” We have local editors who are residents in and interested in their community. They know what’s going on. This makes the information we display on OurTown very granular, very local and very interesting to the people in that community. You want to know about the local festival 10 minutes from your home, not the one 50 miles away. When you go to your OurTown website, you will read stories about places and people you recognize in your community. You will be directed to businesses that you actually can use, not someone in the next city.
OJR: How are you marketing your site and who is your target audience?
GB: Because we have a broad target audience – anyone interested in news from the area in which he or she lives – we will have our local editors gather the news from neighborhoods, schools, churches, athletic leagues, shopping centers and more. Much of our traffic will come from those news subjects asking others, “Did you see me on OurTown.com?”
As always, “word of mouth” will be our best ally. We also are marketing the site though Google, Yahoo, Craigslist and other websites.
OJR: And finally, where do you see OurTown.com going? Any plans to enter the social networking world?
GB: We see OurTown expanding to more than 70,000 communities in the next year. Everyone will be able to go on their OurTown site to see what all those sirens were about last night, or if their neighbor’s kid threw the winning pitch in that little league game. While we have no plans to enter the social networking world per se, OurTown will bring together people with common interests and common goals. It would only be natural that these people begin to interact with one another through OurTown.