Howard Owens shows how journalists can become successful news entrepreneurs

Howard Owens was starting online-only news sites back in the dark ages of the Web: 1996. Starting with a “hyperlocal” in San Diego (before that was a buzzword bingo staple), then moving on to several communities devoted to RVs (that’s right, the big campers), Howard eventually found his way to E.W. Scripps in 1999. We met then, when I was editing the Rocky Mountain News’ website and Howard was helping build the Ventura County Star’s site into one of the best small-newspaper websites in the nation.

From there, Howard grabbed more industry attention by helping establish the Bakersfield Californian as one of the nation’s leaders in news convergence, finally making his way to GateHouse Media, where he started his latest project, a hyperlocal news site called The Batavian.

Howard’s split from GateHouse earlier this year, and took The Batavian with him. Today, as he has for the past decade, he remains a model for the next stage of journalism – this time, for print industry veterans moving out on their own, as journalist/entrepreneurs.

I swapped e-mails with him last week, discussing his journey in website publishing.

Robert: The element that most seems to freak out journalists thinking about striking out as a local news publisher is the business side. What in your previous experience most helped you in running the money side of things at The Batavian, and what new skills did you have to develop for this gig?

Howard: Maybe to my embarrassment, I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. I’m not one of those people who came out of high school or college with a clear vision of “this is what I’m going to do with my life.” I’ve worked in Law Enforcement (USAF), politics and sales, in addition to my journalism career. I started in journalism, really, in elementary school, and then drifted in and out of it over the following decades. My online career has included two Web start ups (three, now, if you count The Batavian), freelance Web development, programming and executive positions at three different newspaper companies (including two with revenue responsibility).

Billie, my wife, asks me all the time how many people could do what I do. It’s not that I’m so great at it. It’s that I just have a broad skill set.

I can report and write news, sell ads, build ads, keep books and formulate and follow a business strategy.

But those are my abilities. I’d ask any aspiring publisher: What do you have going for you (read between the lines in the following to help you answer the question)?

Great reporters are resourceful. They don’t take no for an answer. If one official won’t answer a question, they’ll go find a document or dig a little more until the official feels compelled to answer. What ever it takes to get the story. No wall is too high or too thick once a good reporter sets his or her mind to reporting a particular story.

That drive is the first pre-requisite to being an entrepreneur.

Let’s not forget, my wife helps me, too.

What I do probably isn’t a one-person operation. I might be able to do much on my own, and not many people may have the same skill set, but many pairs of people do. Find a partner.

At a minimum, you and/or your team needs to be able to handle content, sales, ad building, community relations and bookkeeping.

You probably don’t want to start with more than two people. And it’s best if the two people are married or living together to save expenses.

If you’re a boot-strapped start up, you’ve got to keep expenses low and be willing to sacrifice. Also be prepared and willing to put in long hours.

One last thing I want to say about what I can do vs. what others might be able to do: Many, many aspiring publishers are going to have a tremendous advantage over me — they’ve probably lived in the communities where they might start their online news business for a lot longer — if not their whole lives — than I lived in Batavia before starting The Batavian. I’ve been fortunate that the community has embraced Billie and as I as they have, but for a well-connected journalist in a town he knows well, he’s greatly going to cut the marketing arc of his business and probably know several business owners who will start early with advertising just to help him or her out. Plus the coverage will just naturally be better from the beginning.

The other thing I would encourage any aspiring publisher to do is study Clayton Christensen and Michael Porter. Having a firm grasp on disruptive innovation and competitive advantage will serve any business owner greatly in fashioning and maintaining a strategy.

All said, none of this is hard. It’s just hard work. Be prepared and willing. Slackers won’t prevail.

Robert: It’s hard enough for a lot of journalists keeping on top of sources while covering a single beat. How do you keep track of your news sources *and* your advertisers *and* potential news sources and advertisers as a local online publisher?

Howard: Well, first off, I make mistakes. I’ve not made too many factual mistakes on the news side, but I’ve missed appointments or not followed up as quickly as I should have with advertisers. This has undoubtedly cost me money.

But I just try to be organized and I get better at it all the time.

I don’t’ work out of my home. I have an actual office I go to. I know a lot of people want to make a virtue out of telecommuting, but I think it’s very important to first, have a place to go to work; second, have an office downtown where you’re showing a commitment to the community and the business community. I can’t stress enough how important our downtown office is to the perception of The Batavian in the community. A lot of people tried to discourage me from opening such an office. I’m more convinced than ever it was the right thing to do.

But that’s getting off track: An office helps me be organized, too. I may be just one person, but I have two desks — one is the newsroom and the other is the business/sales office. Depending on which hat I’m wearing, I sit at a different desk. Different computers. That way I’m not distracted with other tasks and I have a clear perception of what I’m doing at any given moment.

I use spreadsheets, Quickbooks, calendards and my iPhone to keep track of accounts, sales, appointments and stories.

A small thing, but I have a backpack that serves as my mobile newsroom and I make sure it’s always ready to go, batteries charged, tape in the camera, extra of everything I might run out of, etc.

As for sources — it’s a small town. I just get to know people over time. Sure, I keep some lists and have my directories, etc., but I just track things as I always have. The news side of it feels no different than when I was a reporter at a small daily paper. There was never a time in my career where I wasn’t doing some cop reporting as well as city government, schools and water agencies, etc. Maybe guys at big metros haven’t experienced that, but it’s not hard.

The other thing is, I no longer feel obligated to do watchdog, investigative, enterprise journalism. I realize that’s important, and I’ve done some of it with The Batavian, but as I’ve come to better understand my own disruptive strategy, I concentrate more on what I call cheap news. While we’re in our “building a business” phase, the most critical thing we can do is post frequently. If I’m working on a big story that will lead to one post, I might miss an opportunity to post 12 other things, and those 12 things will do more to build audience than that one big thing. If I’m successful, eventually the business will be big enough that we can afford more enterprise reporting, but we’re not there yet and I no longer feel guilty about it.

So I do a lot of scanner reporting, meeting coverage and one-source stories.

Cheap news.

Also, our content partnership with the local radio station, WBTA helps. I don’t have to get to everything. The station’s owner and staff cover things too. It’s a great relationship, too. We have a sort of budget meeting at least once a day and share what we’re working on and divvy up the work if necessary. It also helps to have a professional colleague and fellow small media business owner to commiserate with.

Robert: Who are your role models as an independent online news publisher? Why?

Howard: Obviously, Baristanet and West Seattle Blog are great inspirations. Mike Orren is a friend and mentor of sorts. But a site that doesn’t get a lot of attention but figured prominently in planning The Batavian — and I’ve spoken and written about this site many times — is NewzJunky. Both the idea that we could build a strong local audience and the ad model we use were inspired by NewzJunky.

Rob Curley is a good friend and we’ve talked about local journalism many times over the years. We share a strong mutual interest in William Allen White. White and the small town independent newspaper publishers of the late 19th and early 20th Century are also an inspiration. I got a glimpse into the bio of many such men while with GateHouse. I loved traveling to visit the small dailies GHM owned and learning about the history of the papers. They were all started by entrepreneurs. People forget that few if any papers started as chain-owned entities. These were people who took great risk, experimented and bootstrapped their way to success.

I think about White, in particular, nearly every day as I go about doing what I do.

Robert: What’s the biggest mistake that you see other independent online news start-ups make? And conversely, what is the biggest mistake that you see traditional newspaper companies make in trying to defend (much less expand) their space in these markets?

Howard: The worst mistake any news publisher can make online is to try and recreate the newspaper online. Newspaper publishers have been doing it for more than a decade, and I had a role in my previous jobs of perpetuating that mistake. Many former print journalists who think their future is online want to build sites that emulate these newspaper sites. And they want to do journalism just as they always did it in print.

If you’re not striving to be 100 percent web native in your operation, you’re going to diminish your level of success.

I’m not saying we’ve hit this perfectly with The Batavian, but it’s certainly our goal to be web native and throw out everything from newspaper think that we can.

For start ups, the other big mistake is not having a business plan. If you don’t know how you’re going to make money, you’ll eventually fail. You need to have executable ideas that are sure to work on the revenue side and then work the revenue side of your business just as hard, if not harder, than your content side.

Robert: What’s been your most satisfying moment running The Batavian? And the most frustrating?

Howard: Well, it’s always a thrill when you’re out in public and people rush up to you and say, “You’re The Batavian guy! I love your site. I’m addicted to it.” Nobody ever told me they were addicted to my newspaper reporting.

But one single moment — getting this picture:

http://thebatavian.com/blogs/howard-owens/4th-challenger-baseball-season-opens-blast/7169

Challenger Baseball is run by Genesee ARC for special needs kids. I went out to their opening game this year because a local friend of youth sports was going to get an award and I wanted to get a picture. I got there just at the start of the last inning of the last game and thought I’d take a picture or two. I walked around the batter just coming to the plate. I happened to snap my picture of the first pitch with just the right timing to catch the ball connecting with the bat. It was the first over-the-fence home run in Challenger Baseball history.

It still thrills me that I happened to catch that moment in a picture.

Robert: How do you identify and pitch a new, potential advertiser? What do you need to have in order to make that pitch successful?

Howard: This could be a seminar — I started going to the businesses first that were advertising the most. These are people that understand the value of marketing and want to get their name out there as much as possible. With them, it’s just a matter of convincing them you have the audience they want to reach. You don’t have to sell them on advertising or on the Web.

My pitch has changed and evolved much over the months.

I started out with a pitch that emphasized all the free ways a business could promote themselves (none ever used these options, but it was a great conversation opener with people I didn’t know).

Now I start by talking about our commitment to local business. We don’t take chain-store advertising. We do all we can to promote a “shop local first” attitude among our readers.

Many people talk about hyperlocal news, but they never talk about hyperlocal advertising. For the same reasons you don’t put national news on your home page, you don’t put national businesses on your home page. It’s the wrong message. You have to be about promoting local business.

That’s one thing the various national plays in they hyperlocal space, from Patch to GrowthSpur* don’t get. There’s no substitute for a local media business owner going into a local business and talking directly with the local business owner and being able to connect on a shared interest in promoting the local business community (and you can thank William Allen White for teaching me this).

*Update from Howard: After an e-mail exchange with Mark Potts, it’s obvious I wasn’t clear on what GrowthSpur was about. Early on, I saw mention of GrowthSpur as an advertising network and took that to mean GrowthSpur would make as part of what it offered publishers was access to non-local advertising revenue. Mark assures me that isn’t the case. I apologize to Mark and the rest of the GrowthSpur team for lumping GrowthSpur in with non-local provisioners. In fact, one of the GrowthSpur team members, David Chase, has been directly helpful to The Batavian. David’s experience and knowledge in strategic local ad sales is unmatched.

Robert: What do you see as the key in growing your audience at The Batavian? Would that translate to other independent online news sites?

Howard: Wish I could afford marketing.

The first rule of disruption is to find a job to be done for a consumer that isn’t being done. Find unmet needs and meet them.

We have done well going after the local news audience that wanted free, frequently updated, very local news and getting them involved in the site. But these were people who were already news consumers or otherwise invovled in their community.

The next disruptive challenge is to find a way to appeal to non-news consumers. I firmly believe that if more people who have been ignoring newspapers and even television news found The Batavian, they would get hooked in because they would see so many names of people they know on the site, or so much about their community presented in a way that is easy and entertaining to consume. One of my goals is to increase community engagement/social capital (in the definition of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone), and we can only really be successful at that if we start attracting the people who were turned off by traditional journalism.

That’s a tough nut to crack.

For aspiring publishers, they’re going to have to find a way to market what they do. There are inexpensive and even free ways to do this, but they will need a plan and work that plan hard. It can be done, though.

Join us on OJR Friday, when we talk with the folks at Newsday about how they put together an ambitious multimedia package they just published.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.

Comments

  1. 70.179.69.143 says:

    Howard Owens mischaracterizes what GrowthSpur is doing. In fact, we agree with him 100 percent that local site operators are best suited to selling ads to their fellow local businesses, and that’s what we’re providing support for. GrowthSpur helps local sites with tools, training and networks to sell ads to their local businesses. As Howard says, that’s what works best in the local advertising marketplace, and that’s what we’re doing. We don’t sell ads–the local sites do. Period. – Mark Potts, CEO, GrowthSpur

  2. Perry Gaskill says:

    Owens has some very perceptive comments going on here. I’m not sure I would have built The Batavian in the way it’s put together, but that’s strictly personal opinion. Nor is it particularly important in terms of the sound fundamentals of how The Batavian does what it does. Point being that if the foundation is good, it’s okay if the cosmetics are a little ragged.

    What’s also interesting about The Batavian is that it is moving against a seemingly broader prevailing trend of pushing out local news websites under a franchise model. Gina Chen over at Nieman Lab wrote about an effort of this sort recently (http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/08/wikicity-aims-to-tap-hyper-niche-markets-for-news-and-information/) with a post about WikiCity. Her reasoning is that the scope of what it takes to put together a news website in smaller communities is beyond the capability of, for example, small-town newspapers. I don’t agree, and think Owens’ effort at The Batavian is an example of why there doesn’t have to be a franchise dependency.

    In an even broader societal context, it can be argued that the franchise business model, in general, is one of the things killing the character of small towns and neighborhoods, and causing a loss of sense of place. Which leads to bowling alone. Local news websites, if they want to engage with readers, should be fighting the templated franchise model and not adopting it. William Allen White would probably understand this; it’s doubtful if Sam Zell or Rupert Murdoch would.

    The Owens interview provides a thoughtful facet for what is starting to emerge as a rational new business model for journalism. For interesting reading, yet another facet can be found in the form of a an essay (http://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/content?oid=1179766) last week by alternative-press publisher Jeff von Kaenel in which he ponders a future without metro dailies.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that most of the real innovation which needs to happen in journalism is, and will be, coming from people such as Owens and von Kaenel, and not from corporate media boardrooms. What we should be on the hunt for now, for example, is not big-is-always-better but instead appropriate and sustainable economies of scale.

  3. 82.4.209.88 says:

    Finally! The entrepreneurial journalist has arrived! The UK is trailing behind in the dark ages when it comes to evolution in news technology and especially with regards to entreprenurial journalism. Thank you for helping me see that a marriage between the 2 is possible. Maybe I won’t be forced to shred my press card now.

  4. 71.227.254.138 says:

    Totally agree with previous commenter regarding the deadening effects of franchising – I call it templatizing – neighborhood news. It is the flavor of the month and needs to go away, now.

    Around here we are dealing with it in the form of a local TV station that has decided this is the way it will scrape out a few more ad dollars here and a few more ad dollars there – they have launched 43 cookie-cutter, clone, templatized sites pretending to be “neighborhood”-centric. It’s not hurting us but there are some smaller but promising indies in other neighborhoods who might get rolled before they have a chance to really gain traction – particularly because this TV station is having salespeople hounding local businesses to advertise, day in, day out. Unfortunate.

    But I mostly wanted to say that I enjoyed reading about Howard, with whom we do have some things in common. His remarks on having a physical office might make me think twice, if I could get reasonable rent. Interestingly, our weekly community newspaper is closing its physical office here and consolidating its operations – along with those of another Seattle neighborhood it serves – in its headquarters outside city limits.

    One last thing – in addition to NewzJunky, a “hyperlocal” success story that continues to fascinate me is that of Paulding.com, whose proprietor I met at a JTM conference in Minneapolis in summer 2008. The site is built on forum software and heavily plays up video, in TV-newscast style. Nothing like what the conventional rules would recommend. But I think it’s further proof that there is no way to templatize or franchise this. Every community has a different personality, and different needs. Good luck to us all, and those who are out there dreaming up the next rev.

  5. 71.227.254.138 says:

    I didn’t sign my previous comment because I didn’t realize there would not be a field to add name/URL before publishing – Tracy from West Seattle Blog