In the game of community news, you win or you die.
It’s a 2 1/2 day gathering of about 100 local news publishers from around the country. These are folks like me, who publish community news websites in their cities, towns and neighborhoods. There’s a tremendous passion here, a dedication to good journalism, and a quest for business models that work.
I’m here in a bittersweet role. It’s exciting to be surrounded by kindred spirits in the local online news biz and to share what I’ve learned over the past nine years. But I’m also here to talk about the June 1 demise of my business, Davidson News LLC, which included DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net, two local news websites north of Charlotte, NC.
I joined a panel with Ned Berke and Mike Fourcher, two other publishers who, like me, left the business. Ned sold his site, Sheepshead Bites, to a Manhattan publisher and eventually left for a new venture. Mike ran a couple of now closed sites in suburban Chicago, Center Square Journal and Aldertrack.
This had to be a difficult panel for the audience of new and longtime publishers – imagining the unthinkable about their businesses. I remember reading Mike’s 2013 farewell note and having this moment of recognition – that it might be OK to declare victory and move on in my business. I’m sure there were others in the audience today wondering about their own businesses. But I’d like to think we also had some hard-earned advice for them as well.
I talked about the mixed feelings when my business partner, Lyndsay Kibiloski, and I decided to shut down our Lake Norman news network – sad to see it go, feeling it was time, but at the same time excited about doing something else after 9 years.
So what happened? As I said in my talk it was a pretty straightforward decision for us.
I’m proud to say that we increased revenues 60 percent in 2014 and early 2015, until we hit a rough patch. Our revenues were never as even as we would’ve liked, varying month to month. And competition was intense.
We faced competition from 2 weeklies, 2 monthly Lake Norman magazines, the big daily newspaper, coupon clippers and other circulars, an aggressive local deal site and national deal and directory sites. Even the local chamber of commerce was selling against us, in its own magazines and newsletters and its website. And of course Facebook and Google emerged as major competitors in recent years – perhaps the most difficult since they have grabbed the lion’s share of online advertising nationally. I am wondering: Is there room for community news sites that rely on advertising?
For DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net, the writing was on the wall in so many ways. Over the past couple of years, when new businesses started up in our area, we had trouble winning their advertising business. They were, of course, glad to have us write about them. But we weren’t in their marketing plans. We weren’t on their radar as a place to promote themselves.
So at a meeting over a glass of wine in February, Lyndsay and I asked one another: Are we going to save this thing again? Or is it time to do something new? I won’t lie – the thought of doing something new was pretty exciting for both of us. We picked June 1 and so here I am. You can read our farewell columns from June 1 here:
— davidboraks (@davidboraks) October 2, 2015
It’s sad when a local news outlet folds up. As one of the other speakers said, it leaves a hole in the community.
I’d say for all of us, just like in George Martin’s Game of Thrones book and TV series, there can be glory in the way you go. I am at peace with our decision to shut down. I’m proud of what did over 9 years … and – pardon my French – I know we kicked ass right up until the end.
We did a lot of things right, and we learned a few lessons:
5 things we did right
- We had a business plan. We wrote a plan early on and revised it as we went. There really are two main parts – the idea and market opportunity and the financial side. The financial model was constantly being updated (made more realistic?) And we didn’t always hit our goals – a key point. For those who are starting out, you need a plan. You need to decide, is this a business or a hobby? Think of this as a business and plan that way.
- Hired people to help me – If you want this to be a sustainable business, don’t do it all yourself. Hire people who can help you do what you don’t know or don’t want to do. I hired someone to help me develop and ad offering in 2008, then hired Lyndsay, who basically became a partner … In late 2013 we hired our first full-time ad sales rep, and we added products – including retargeting. In 2014, our sales grew by 160 percent.
- We did marketing – Offline and online marketing helped us grow from a few hundred readers to more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors. When we started, we used to post stories on the bulletin board at the post office and in shop windows (with permission) … We got out into the community, manning tables at community events, sponsoring concerts and concert series, the farmer’s market. We did marketing partnerships with film series and arts festivals.
- We treated it like a job – including time off – I am proud to say that I had vacations every year, in the summer and at holidays. During my time running the sites, I squeezed in trips to Asia and England.
- But most of all, we delivered a high quality product – We gave people news they couldn’t get anywhere else faster than anywhere else. Some have heard me say before – what we do is publish news “for” our communities, not “about” them. We’re not from someplace else, reporting on what happens for an outside audience. We live here, and we have a stake in – and a knowledge of- our communities. And our sites showed that. People loved it. It was mentioned earlier that TV dominates and digital sources are less than 10%, but if the question is about your own community, we dominate. A scientific survey of one of our towns found we were by far the leading source of news about town hall, more so even than the town’s own newsletter, website and other communications.
Bottom 5 things we flubbed
- We didn’t use easy tricks to fish for more page views … photo galleries as separate pages, allow anonymous comments …lists like this one … We didn’t think we needed more page views, but I suppose we did
- We never developed a mobile or responsive site – We didn’t exactly have readers clamoring for this, but I know it would’ve been the smart thing to do. We were daunted somewhat by the problem of how to sell it.
- We didn’t master events – We had mixed results with events, with a few successes and a couple of big failures. I’m convinced that businesses like ours need to incorporate events as part of their strategy.
- We didn’t charge for access the site – Some readers told us after we closed that they would’ve been willing to pay a subscription fee. We did have a couple of hundred who made voluntary subscription payments, as I call them, every year. But the number went down in recent years, and readers were less and less willing to respond to our campaigns, which we did a couple of times a year. I’ll admit, I just don’t believe enough readers would be willing to pay to replace the lost revenue we’d expect from advertising. We did have readers who said they’d be willing to write large checks, but even a $20,000 check would only have paid for a few weeks of our expenses, if we were able to execute our full business plan, which would have included sites in Mooresville and Huntersville, in addition to Davidson and Cornelius.
- We didn’t do enough business to business marketing … We had great success attracting the readers, ending with around 110,000 monthly unique visitors. But our efforts to soften up the ground for ad sales fell short … At the beginning of the 2015 we started a direct mail and phone campaign, bit it was too little too late. It’s essential for new businesses offering an unfamiliar product or service to reach out to customers outside the sales moment, to educate them.
Questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— LION Publishers (@LIONPubs) October 5, 2015