How to launch your own local news site in 10 (not so easy) steps

In response to some of the feedback I’ve gotten about my post on Patch editors working too hard, here are some thoughts on what you can do to launch your own local news site in 10 not-necessarily-easy steps.

  1. Pick your community to cover. Ideally, it’s a community where you already live. More ideally, you’ve lived there a long time if not your whole life. Even more ideally, you’ve been a professional reporter for some period of time in this town.  You know the town, you know the people (sources and business owners) and they know you.  Of course, Billie and I are transplants to Batavia, so we didn’t take our own advice and it’s working for us.
  2. Go to the local chamber and similar business group.  Ask to talk with the president/director confidentially (good ones are very used to keeping business secretes (it should be part of their job descriptions).  Get feedback on whether there’s a need for an online-only news site (there is, they may not agree, but the point of the question is to break the ice, not get permission).  The main goal here is to find out how many total businesses they have in their community area (not just how many members, but members PLUS their prospective member list (good chambers already have this in a spreadsheet)).  Typically, I’m asked, “what should the population be where I want to launch a site?”  Wrong question.  You want to know how many LOCALLY OWNED businesses there are. If the chamber can identify at least 2,000 to 3,000 potential member businesses (of which, they may only have 300 to 600 members), that’s a good start, but you’re not done …
  3. Gather up media where locally owned businesses advertise — the shopper, newspaper, radio stations, phone books, etc.  Create a spreadsheet and record the name of each business and check boxes for each media outlet (also addresses, web address, phone numbers).  This spreadsheet will eventually be one of your sales tools, but right now you’re just counting.  You want to get a count of how many businesses in your target market (again, locally owned) spend money on advertising.  You need to identify at least, at a minimum, 150 businesses.  The next number is also important, but something you’ll have to guess at — are there at least 300 locally owned businesses that might potentially advertise with your web site?  If you can meet these numbers, you can make money with your web site.
  4. Make a spreadsheet and answer your question, “what’s your nut?”  Your nut is what you have to meet to break even on your monthly expenses.  For us, our nut, with rent, insurance, food, debt payments, etc., was a bit under $4,000.  I set a goal of 40 advertisers at an average of $100 per month (ad rates our low in our community) signed within three months.  We made our nut in that third month.  (Our advantage, The Batavian was nine months old when we took over ownership, so it we already had an audience to sell against — you may need six to nine months to meet your nut.)  In response to my post about Patch editors, there was a lot of chatter about the need for health insurance. Here’s what I have to say: Yes, insurance is expensive and it sucks.  But plan and budget and this is an expense you can manage.  The biggest issue isn’t that you can’t make enough money to meet your nut, but how long can you hold on while revenue builds to meet basic expenses?  That’s a different situation for each individual.
  5. Pick a publishing platform. There are multiple free content management systems.  WordPress is the easiest.  Drupal is the most robust and has the best user management tools. (I don’t know much about Joomla or Expression Engine).  My IT guy and I offer our Drupal installation and support for a price, but I’m not here to sell our services, because while we can give you a leg up, there are less expensive options if money is tight.
  6. Prepare to sell advertising.  Build a media kit, have information about the site and advertising ready to give to local business owners from the day you launch.  I’ve mentioned this point before, you should start selling on Day 1 — not because you will sell ads, but because you need to start building relationships, and local business owners will become your most networked connected boosters if they like what you’re doing, even if they don’t buy ads for a month or two.  Remember that spreadsheet I told you to make in step 4?  Use it to figure out which business owners advertise in the most places — these are the people who really understand the importance of advertising and the ones most likely to buy an ad from you.  If you know your community, you will know which business owners are deeply involved in the community and respected by other business owners — target these business owners first.  You need to get two or three highly regarded business owners on your site ASAP.  Discount, discount greatly, but don’t give away.
  7. On the same day you start selling ads, start posting stories.  Cover your community with enthusiasm, from breaking news to community events. Take lots of pictures. Show your community love, and it will love you. There’s nothing wrong with being a booster, but you also need to be a trusted, independent voice.  Care about the things your community cares about and cover it aggressively, fairly and thoroughly. Cover the big and the small.
  8. Equipment you will need: A mobile computer (laptop or iPad), a camera and a police band scanner (if you’re not covering calls off the scanner, you’re not really covering your community thoroughly).  Some recommendations, though they equal added expense. Obviously, each person involved in your site needs his or her own computer.  However, I would recommend you, the publisher, have two computers — your mobile computer and your business computer.  For many reasons, I recommend you keep all your advertising information and bookkeeping software on a computer that isn’t mobile — but it’s not just about not carrying around that information; it’s also about not having a single point of failure for your company.  Also, when you have no staff photographer, a point-and-shoot camera doesn’t really cut it.  As soon as you can afford it, you should get a good DSLR and learn how to use it properly.  People love pictures — more than video — and it’s a great way to show love for your community.
  9. Be prepared to market your site.  If you can afford it, buy refrigerator magnets about the size of business cards.  Give them to everybody you meet, everybody you can.  Attend every community event you can and don’t be shy — hand out magnets frequently.  If you can’t afford that, at a minimum buy those Avery business card templates and print out your own cards with your site’s URL to EVERYBODY you meet.  This isn’t a “build it and they will come” venture.  You’ve got to market yourself, but you don’t need a huge marketing budget.  With a little research and imagination you can find other inexpensive marketing ideas.
  10. Only do this if you have a passion for local news, your community and building a business that might someday — but no guarantee — provide a nice pay day.  Love comes first, money comes second.  If you have a real passion for it, you will succeed.  I’m not pretending that being an entrepreneur is for everybody, but I also believe that a lot more journalists could do it than are actually doing it.  However, this isn’t easy. It’s hard work.  There will be times of frustration and aggravation, people who hate you, feelings of inevitable doom, sleepless nights, lost chances to spend time with family and friends, long hours, money worries, and on and on.  But for the right person, there is nothing better than owning your own business and not being accountable to bosses who don’t really get you, plus if you do this right your community will love you — you will be a rock star. It’s all very rewarding, if you can handle the ups and downs.  But as Jeff Jarvis always says to me, “you’re doing God’s work.”  The U.S. democracy needs more local, independent online publishers. I hope you will become one of them.
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  • Patti

    Thank you for your generous advice! Wishing you continued success!

  • BJ Roche

    Howard, this is a great series you’re doing and I’m going to share this with all my Entrepreneurial Journalism students. I’m struck by how similar the process is to running a small weekly newspaper, which I think is probably the best prep for a hyperlocal news site.

    Thanks for taking the time to really lay out the whole process.

  • Dave Morgan

    Great job Howard. I debuted my local cable TV news program back in 1991 on public access tv, graduated to commercial lease access channel of my own, then added a website, sold it all, moved to Oregon where I now two local news websites and have done pretty much what you recommend in your piece. Solid Gold, bro!! I especially identify with your deeper commitment to the civic health of communities thanks to better local journalism. Onward!! The fog is finally lifting!!

    Dave Morgan
    NewsLincolnCounty.com
    NewsYamhillCounty.com

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  • http://www.unicosolutions.com Akhtar Bohra

    Thanks Howard. Though not a journalist geek or a social networking fan (due to lack of time in running operations) the points you have put forward add a lot of value to our thought process and adds up to similar approaches which we had figured out. Your points give us a platform to organize these thoughts meticulously, to augment the performance. Thanks once again.

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  • Anonymous

    Now THAT’S a damn useful post!

  • katzgrau

    Howard, never saw this, and it’s awesome. I’m going to link/quote it on my mini-project BeALocalPublisher.com

  • Stephen Davies

    Excellent, unvarnished how-to guide. I just came across this because I’m looking into doing the same thing in my community, and I think you’ve nailed it, Howard.

    • MM

      Stephen, Where are you planning on opening?

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  • Jose Mathias

    This is a quality freaking post.

  • Peter Eirene Chin

    thanks for this awesome article !! :)
    I’m Peter from Penang, Malaysia. am currently running an independent local news website and forum for our community, look forward to learn more from you :)