BeniciaNews.com and others are moving in on editorial and advertising turf that was once a safe haven for newspapers.
The safe was stolen at the local bookstore. A bake sale is on tap at the church. A local boy won the regional spelling bee. This is the stuff of local news, or news on the micro level of community and suburban newspapers. There's a reason they call these places "bedroom communities" -- you'll sooner be snoozing before anything exciting ever happens.
But while the news might be snooze-worthy to the world at large, there are people who really do care about what goes on in their community. And as newspapers see a readership in decline, online-only news sources are starting to sneak in from the fringes. BeniciaNews.com (in Northern California) has used online forums to kick-start controversial issues the established press ignored. FultonDailyNews.com (in upstate New York) has brought hard news and student involvement into the local mix. And Canada's New Tecumseth Free Press Online -- a one-man operation -- has given the local print media a run for its ad money.
What do these sites have in common? Local roots and a measure of maturity (in Internet time, at least). FultonDailyNews.com and New Tecumseth Free Press launched in 1999, while BeniciaNews.com launched in 2000. And they're all still standing.
Ed Schlenker, CEO and publisher of GetLocalNews.com, launched BeniciaNews.com after serving on the Solano County Board of Supervisors. The site won the General Excellence award (for independent sites with less than 200,000 readership) at last year's Online Journalism Awards. Sister site VallejoNews.com helped shut down a controversial plan for a natural gas plant on Mare Island. Schlenker sold a previous tech startup, RxList.com, to help fund a string of local news sites.
Why go local? "In smaller bedroom communities, you have a monopoly on media -- one paper," he told me. "You don't get aggressive journalism. The government is run by insiders, the newspaper publisher is an insider. People are hungering for independent information."
While other publishers shun the freewheeling nature of online forums, Schlenker said his sites thrive on them as story generators and even fact-checkers. The Mare Island story bubbled up from the message boards, and eventually "the local papers were shamed into doing coverage," he said. Schlenker said the anonymous nature of boards allows people to talk about small things like police harassment or a sweetheart business deal -- but also allows people to slam local businesses without accountability.
Finding the business model
Schlenker said he attracts a younger audience to his site, and hopes to take the concept to a national level, with local journalists using his online tools (and local domain names) and sharing revenues. So far, he has a three-person editorial and advertising staff for the Benicia site, and said that most of his investment has been in programming costs. "If you take out corporate overhead, it would be break even by now," Schlenker said.
Schlenker is a huge fan of Google's contextual ads, and runs them across every page of his sites. Classified ads are free, but you pay for premium placement. He added that he is courting national advertisers to his network of sites, but said he is not a fan of big, rich media ads that are all the rage.
Dave Bullard, co-founder and co-owner of FultonDailyNews.com (and sister site OswegoDailyNews.com), said advertising is bringing in 60 percent of revenues, while 30 percent comes from Web site development work for local businesses and 10 percent from other software projects. With the two sites, and one on the way for Baldwinsville, NY, he said they have hit break even "six to nine months ahead of what we thought." Bullard is a native of upstate New York, with long experience as a radio reporter and TV producer and reporter.
The two sites, which serve a population of about 122,000, get 13,000 to 15,000 unique visits per day, and serve 2 million ad impressions per month. How did he get traffic to sites without offline media adjuncts promoting them? "We found the only thing that worked well was covering the news," Bullard said. "For each spot news story, people talked about it, and we got a bump in traffic -- which stayed up. Word of mouth really works in small communities."
His sites have succeeded by focusing on education, and by going to boring board meetings and county legislative meetings others had given up on. The sites also leverage high school journalists, reprinting their newspaper content and even giving one high school its own page, RaiderNet Daily, for daily news. Bullard would like to add interactivity, but he said he had been burned in the past by too much "trash talk" that tarnished the reputation of his sites. "In a small town, you see people," he said. "It's a great thing, and an awful thing."
Tiny costs, big influence
Tony Veltri is the brains behind the New Tecumseth Free Press Online, and spent many years as a local print journalist. Now he makes enough money to cover his small costs -- "almost nominal" he said -- with ad revenues. It's just him and a part-time saleswoman. The site's most noteworthy aspect is that you have to wade through ads, ads and more ads before you get to editorial. Veltri calls his ad sales "unique" because they are sold by placement on the page instead of clickthrough. Plus, he's even made money selling ads to local government.
"When the venture first started almost five years ago," he told me, "and I was profiled by the Canadian Community Newspaper Association's trade magazine The Publisher, they quoted the publishers of each of those two [competing] papers who dismissed me as a novelty. A couple years later The Publisher did a follow-up and those same publishers had changed their tune. Now I'm siphoning local government ad dollars from each of them, and I'm getting new advertisers who might otherwise have spent more money in print."
Another overlooked plus for these sites is their ability to post news fast, while competing dailies or weeklies are still spinning their wheels. Bullard sees the Web as the "last great hope for journalism in communities," now that local radio stations have been swallowed by giants such as Clear Channel. Ditto for the chains of suburban and small newspapers. Some of them remain in denial. In Benicia, the assistant editor of the Benicia Herald had this to say about upstart BeniciaNews.com: "We weren't affected."
Steve Yelvington, vice president of strategy and content for Morris Digital Works, sees an opportunity for local news sites. "I think there's a real potential for well-funded online-only community sites," he said via e-mail, "particularly if they can identify an underserved market and focus on proven Internet revenue drivers, such as classified advertising. But I have to emphasize well-funded. The Internet radically reduces capital requirements for getting into the media business, but nobody should underestimate the difficulty of building a brand without an existing media partner to provide free help, or the difficulty of covering a community effectively."
Most importantly, these sites will require a person with local ties, an idea of what makes good journalism, and dedication to the community. Yelvington likes the local Village Soup sites in Maine, which were funded by founder Richard Anderson. The idea behind Village Soup was to get local businesses to put their inventories online so you could see all real estate listing or whether the local hardware store had an item you need. A staff of nine reporters for three small communities has weighed on finances and spawned plans for a print publication to help bring in more ad revenues. "Whether these sites produce great journalism will probably have more to do with the quality of leadership exhibited by their founders than anything inherent in the medium," Yelvington said. And that sums up just why these local outlets have made a difference.