Lessons from the launch

Mike Orren is the President and co-founder of Pegasus News.

Over the summer of 2004 we wrote what we thought was a business plan to bring a second newspaper back to Dallas, Texas. 27 months later, with some angel capital and a dedicated team, we launched Pegasus News, an interactive news and information service with no plans for print; with content from staff, professional partners, bloggers and site users; and with designs on rolling out in major markets nationwide. In between, we launched a prototype entertainment site; won an EPpy award; nearly fell to pieces; and made more mistakes than we can count — But we’ve learned some invaluable lessons about local digital media along the way. Here’s a sampling of some of the things that we think we know now.

Launched is better than not. But not launched is better than launched and empty. From inception, we’ve held a steadfast belief that “user-generated” content is the holy grail in terms of authenticity, often in expertise and, admittedly, in price. But we’ve equally held that a site that is not reasonably comprehensive and frequently updated in whatever topics it purports to cover will suffer from an “empty room” problem in which the golden egg of user content never comes to fruition because there is no goose of information and conversation to midwife it into existence. That’s why it took us so long to launch. While we didn’t require megamillions to cover a metro, we were determined not to do so until we could cover all local neighborhoods and niches with enough relevant content to engage our community. That’s why we took a baby step in limiting ourselves a local music site when we had only the most meager resources and why we think we’re getting fairly positive reviews and comparably strong traffic on Pegasus News so far.

That said, we must have seemed to many to be do-nothing blowhards for a long time. And every time we launched something, we were instantly glad we had. It took patience and discipline, but with the myriad Web X.0 services launching by the minute, the market is unforgiving. Launch as fast as you possibly can, but not until you can deliver something you believe is unique and irreplaceable. We think our adherence to this difficult tenet is a primary reason that we’re generating more than 100,000 unique visitors and more than a million pageviews per month at this early stage.

People will display unreasonable loyalty and tenacity for a cause, particularly when that cause is media. Last summer, Ben Compaine interviewed me for a study on media entrepreneurism, and asked what, if any, advantages media entrepreneurs had over entrepreneurs in other industries. “If we were building widgets,” I replied, “no one would work for us for free.” We had more than 30 people work on this project without any paycheck or ironclad promise of compensation. Nearly a dozen of those worked full-time for over a year. They wouldn’t have done that if we were a cement-mixing concern and they didn’t do it because I am a charmer. People want to be a part of the media, particularly if they think they can change it. If not for that fact, our business wouldn’t exist today.

The concept of “citizen journalism,” at least in a pure dogmatic form, is a myth. Myths, however, are critical to our understanding our world. We are often lumped in with the “citizen journalism” movement, and based on that movement’s ideals, I am honored we are mentioned in that context. However, after much reading, arguing and reflection, I’m done with that moniker. There are journalists – people who regularly utilize a set of commonly agreed upon rules to ensure that information is communicated in a fair and truthful way. Some get paychecks for that work and some don’t. And there are human beings who aren’t worried so much about rules or frequency or consistency, but who like telling stories, both visually and verbally. The Venn diagram of the latter completely encompasses the former. Journalists of any stripe are a relatively small portion of the population. They people tell stories with high frequency and are surrounded with others who tell interesting stories when they feel like it. They are a much smaller group, and you can’t count on them day in and out unless you hire them.

Panlocal. Like citizen journalism, another term we’ve started eschewing is “hyperlocal.” Hyperlocal, by nature, means a limited audience. And there are an even more limited number of people in a particular neighborhood who are engaged enough to seek out hyperlocal content. But, when you make that content easy to find (via customization) and deliver it in the context of the citywide news, NFL scores and places to hear music tonight, we think the audience is larger. We’ve taken to calling that sort of broad and deep coverage “panlocal.” On the downside, that means a wider-reaching and more expensive content team. But, by leveraging aggregation, content partners (major media and bloggers), and user-submitted content, we think you can completely cover a metro – and generate more substantial audience and advertising – with about 20 people.

On the local level at least, data is what drives visitors. Stories bring additional pageviews, but more than 75% of our traffic is data – interactive calendar listings, band profiles, restaurant listings, political campaign contributions, drink specials and the like. Most of our listings aren’t found on the other local city guides – something for both traditional media and upstarts alike to think about. We’re always gratified when people dig deep into stories or blogs, but we know that the reason most people come in the door is to find out where to go and what to do. It’s our job to compel them to stay longer with good narrative content.

Local advertisers are hard to reach, but easily impressed. Local retailers, many of whom may not even have websites, are a huge class of business that is not flocking to pay-per-click ad services. And while that presents a huge opportunity, it means the hard work of picking up phones, knocking on doors and feet on the street – just like with traditional local media. However, once you get them on board, local advertisers are amazed at the precision, flexibility and business intelligence provided by online advertising. Restaurants used to paying a flat fee for ad space in a weekly are shocked that their bill is lower if you deliver fewer pageviews. Stores are aghast that you can change their sale ads every day. And entertainment venues love that you can tell them exactly which bands draw traffic on a site – and presumably to their venue.

The more obscure the content, the better. Once you’re playing on the local level, we’ve found (in general) that traffic to a piece of content is inversely proportional to how niche and obscure that content is. If we run an interview with a local band with a national audience, it’s no big deal. We’re lucky if they mention it in their blog. But, when we run an in-studio with a kid we found playing guitar in a coffee shop, he e-mails his friends and family who in turn do the same. He posts bulletins galore on MySpace. He links it in his e-mail signature. Good, but obscure content is great marketing.

Amateurs are bigger perfectionists than pros. One of the surprises I’ve found in working with amateur content providers is that because they are truly doing this for the love of the game and not to make a required deadline or beat quota, they take much greater care than most professionals I’ve worked with over the years. And because they are in the driver’s seat as to when and how their content appears, you can’t count on deadlines. You can’t even count on running the content if the submitter doesn’t think it’s up to snuff. This argues for a hybrid of passionate amateurs and (hopefully also passionate) pros whose paychecks depend on keeping the newsflow going.

Don’t fear user comments. Comments are the easiest, lowest-impact way to get users to participate and are the gateway drug to more prominent contributions. The trick is to really join the conversation and make clear what flies and what doesn’t. Most of the moderation comes on the user’s first comment, and by explaining why we’re moderating we’ve found that most of them reform themselves and become regular posters. We’ve had nearly 6,500 comments and have moderated fewer than 20. It isn’t a burden on our small staff to follow the comments – in fact, we find enough story leads in those comments that I can’t get folks who aren’t responsible for moderation to stop reading them.

The rules of local are different. One of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – in the local marketplace is the paradox of scale. You actually need more resources to cover a more limited geography because, by nature, you have a smaller participant pool. There aren’t enough locally focused users of services like Digg, for instance, to find and self-edit news. And that is magnified on the neighborhood level. But, if you believe that local businesses want and need to reach local Internet users, you have to dedicate those resources. Frugality is key, but I don’t believe there will never be a completely user-generated, user-edited local news and display advertising product without some content resources. We have roughly a dozen full-time equivalents, and we’d add a few more, particularly in sales, if we had the resources to do so. What’s the right level? We’ll tell you in a few years.