The top 10 key lessons for hyperlocal journalism startups from ONA10

If you are dreaming about your own news site, you are not alone: hyperlocal sites are popping up everywhere. At ONA10 last week in Washington, D.C., veterans of the hyperlocal scene shared they experiences, both successes and failures. Here’s the top 10 of the recurring topics during the three-day conference.

1. Successful doesn’t mean beautiful

Take a look at the award-winning The design is pretty much out-of-the-box WordPress. Instead of fancy graphics, WSB has concentrated on more important things: great content and selling ads. As a result, the site is has provided income for Tracy Record and her husband for two years. Sometimes you don’t even need a site:, a news site that claims it’s close to $100,000 revenue per year, started as an email newsletter.

2. Legal stuff isn’t rocket science

If you plan to do proper journalism on your news blog, you probably will piss someone off. Or somebody in your very informal blog network will, and you all get sued. Citizen Media Law Project offers advice how to protect yourself and what to do with nasty comments or copyright infringements, how to create a “Terms and Conditions” policy, and what to do with DMCA (for those not into the jargon yet, that’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notices.

3. There is no such thing as free content

Running a neighborhood website where ordinary citizens produce content sounds tempting, right? You just gently advise the amateurs and wait for the stories to come in. Wrong. Read J-Lab report New Voices: What Works and learn how much work it requires to keep the contributors active. Less than 1 in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors.

4. Follow the data

When your resources are scarce, it is good to know where to concentrate to attract readers. Web analytics, such as Google Analytics, help in this case. Founder Susan Mernit from Oakland Local said that they thought people would read normal feature-like news stories. It turned out that the really simple stories about a new coffee shop or the heavy, investigative pieces were the most read. So they stopped doing features.

5. Focus on money from day one

Michele McLellan, Knight Digital Media Center consultant, leadership blogger, said her research at Reynolds Journalism Institute as a fellow last year showed that those who think about revenue at the beginning usually succeed, even if the business model changes. Mike Orren, publisher, reminded that advertisers don’t care how big you are if they don’t know you. It takes a long time to build a brand in advertising community and it matters, because ad buying decisions are not made rationally. If you have a three-year grant for your startup, you can’t focus on content the first two years and hope you figure out the money part in the third and last year.

6. Advertisers are buying your audience, not funding your stories

COO Ben Ilfeld from Sacramento Press reminded the future startups that you are not selling words or publication to the advertisers but the idea of being at the center of the community. That’s why you have to be everywhere in social media and get rid of the idea that your site is a publication. It’s only one way to reach and interact with your community/customers. Evan Smith, the Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief, went even further, saying destination websites are dead.

7. Grants don’t come for free

Foundations are lot like other VC’s: they expect return on their investment. If they have a mission, make sure your mission matches it. Jim Cutie, COO of CT Mirror, explained that foundations are very much like any other investors: they expect you to have a strong business model, partnerships, management team and board from day one. And some expect you to be self-sustainable in three to five years.

8. Focus on multiple revenue models

Seeing the different journalism startup presentations at ONA10 made one thing very clear: being sustainable requires much more than selling ads. You can get some funding through crowd-funding platforms, such as or through ad networks, like Sloan. offers Design Services, Texas Tribune makes money on events. Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement, has made a good list of revenue streams.

9. Technology should be fast and cheap

Mike Orren from Pegasus News nailed the platform discussion: If platform isn’t what you sell, don’t waste your time on building one. Use WordPress or Drupal. Let nerds take care of the code.

10. Stop whining and just do it

Rafat Ali, the founder, said journalists spend too much time talking about the 50 different available business models or complaining about the lack of micropayments instead of doing stuff. And the lack of big media access can be a blessing: Georgetown didn’t like the way sports blog Casual Hoya wrote about the team and got their press passes revoked. Blogger Andrew Geiger said that it was the best thing that could have happened. Now they don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone and the casualhoyas can write whatever they want – and readers like that.

Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media> and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.

About Pekka Pekkala

Pekka Pekkala is a freelance writer and Visiting Scholar at USC Annenberg, writing a book “How to Keep Journalism Profitable” on a grant from Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.


  1. says:

    These are great points. However, I’d like to add Joomla to the list of ready-made platforms.

  2. says:

    I will choose wordpress for its simplicity and speed. You don’t have to know any coding language and still able to run a website (a good one)

  3. says:

    Point 6 says ‘destination websites are dead’. What is a destination website?