Funding local news: Who are you going to serve?

It’s one of those stories founding LION members tell over whiskey, gin, and beer every time we gather: The first Block-By-Block conference, organized by Michele McLellan, brought together a wide array of local news publishers and aspiring local news publishers. At an open discussion on the first afternoon, one person stood up and said, “can’t we all just agree right now that advertising is evil?”

My response then is much like it is now: selling advertising is as much a part of serving your community as writing news. Small business owners need our support just as much as any other segment of our communities. Selling advertising, far from being evil, is a noble endeavor.

But some journalists turned publishers continue to struggle with the idea that it’s OK to sell advertising. Reader revenue — through memberships or subscriptions — is seen, for some reason, as untainted.

But as Bob Dylan explained, “You’re going to have to serve somebody.

Whether your primary source of revenue is a journalism foundation, well-heeled residents supporting your non-profit, teachers and accountants buying subscriptions, or pizza shop owners and real estate agents buying ads, or targetted Google Ads, you are going to find yourself shaping your coverage to serve the needs of your funding sources. Journalism foundations have their special interests they’re trying to promote, local donors have are only with you as long as they think you’re meeting their needs, and even readers can operate with a hive mind that will help bend your perception of what you should prioritize.

There is no ethically pure revenue stream whether you’re a for-profit or a non-profit.

One point I made about advertising in Chicago is if you have dozens local businesses supporting your coverage no one business owner is going to control your coverage.

At The Batavian, our policy for coverage of local business is we have no hesitancy to cover a small businesses’ “happy story” — grand opening, milestone anniversary, or significant expansion. This too is part of serving a community. In fact, some of our most popular stories are about new restaurants opening. If you’re giving readers the information they need to enhance their lives, aren’t you doing the ethical thing?

The flip side is, we will also cover the less pleasant news that befalls a small business or its owners. There have been a handful of local business owners in Batavia arrested over the past 12 years. On three occasions we’ve lost ad accounts because we published the arrest report of the business owner as a part of our police blotter. Last year a friend called and gave me a heads up that one of our larger advertisers had been arrested and it might be wise not to publish his arrest. “Nope,” I said, “we’ve got to publish it.” No fear. No favor. The first time we get caught shading coverage for an advertiser we jeopardize our credibility. (We published the arrest and lost the account).

We can afford to take the high ground because losing any single advertiser isn’t going to put us out of business. A wide array of small businesses supporting us, with their diverse and competing interests is the invisible hand that keeps us on the ethically straight path.

When you’re serving advertisers you’re also serving readers because if can’t attract and retain readers you won’t have advertisers. The diverse and competing interests of readers and advertisers are, again, the invisible hand at work. Of all the single-source revenue streams, advertising is the least ethically compromised.

I often wonder about the ethical compromises non-profits might need to make to keep two or three major funders happy. News sites supported by dozens of advertisers need not make those compromises.

The best way to fund journalism is the method newspapers have traditionally employed: With multiple revenue streams. The long-standing struggle of The Batavian, a bootstrapped operation, has been to find a revenue stream that isn’t retail advertising. We only we could have funded some of our better ideas … and, as I’ve said before, one of the bigness mistakes we made early on was not starting with a membership or subscription option.

Still not convinced? Look at it this way: If you succeed wildly with subscription, generate, for example, $250,000 in reader revenue, you can afford to hire X number of people. What if you added to that revenue stream another $250,000 in advertising. Now you can afford to hire X + Y number of people. And it’s a good bet, you will be in a position to hire people who can help you generate even more revenue, which means employing X + Y + Z members of your community.

I don’t understand new publishers, whether profit or non-profit, who forgo advertising. Generating reader revenue sufficient to support a modest news organization at the local level is far from a proven model. It’s a long, hard slog to build a subscription revenue stream. Local advertising? Slam dunk. If you’re serving a small business community with enough locally owned businesses, selling ads is the obvious path to supporting yourself and a small staff, at a minimum. Some LION publishers have done even better than that on advertising alone.

You’ve got to serve somebody. If you’re doing local publishing right you serve both readers and small business owners in your community. You sell advertising.

Aspiring local news publishers: Just Launch

If you’re thinking of becoming a local online news publisher, the hardest questions you face have little to do with whether there will be an audience for your journalism or how you will make money doing it. The hardest questions is: Can you handle it?

This is a topic left unaddressed in a paper published today by the Google News Initiative, the GNI Playbook. The project was launched in collaboration with Local Independent Online News Publishers, an organization I initiated and co-founded but I had no part in this GNI project.

The primary mission of LION is supporting — as the name says — local, independent, online news publishers. It’s not an organization of niche publishers, though there is a place for specialty titles if they have a geographic focus that coincides with that niche interest.

The Playbook is full of advice however for people who might be trying to figure out a niche or some innovative approach to news that may have a doubtful path to success. But the path to success in local news is not hard. The work is hard. The path is easy.

My concern is that would-be local publishers are going to go through this playbook and get bogged down in market research, building an MVP, writing pages-long business plans, financial projections, finding advisors — all the things you might do if you were building a startup aimed at attracting Silicon Valley investors. My concern is that many aspiring publishers will get derailed from their ambitions by following the Playbook.

The hardest part of a local news start up is that it is difficult, stressful, time-consuming work. You will only succeed if you have a passion for what you are doing. If you have passion, you are likely to succeed. If you lack passion, nothing in the Playbook is going to help you.

If you’re an aspiring publisher — and I hope you are — I’m going to give you some advice.

I’m going to begin with a couple of assumptions: First, you’re an experience journalist. Second, you some experience in business (hopefully, sales but at least some management-level experience). If you don’t possess both of these qualifications yourself, then you have a partner who balances your experience.

The first question you need to ask yourself is: How hard are you willing to work? Are you prepared to put in 12, 14, 16 hour days? If not, a start-up, without the Playbook, isn’t for you. Every small business owner, from the pizza shop owner to the mobile app builder, puts in these kinds of hours to get a new enterprise going.

Starting a business, any business, is hard work.

That’s why you need to have a passion for what you’re doing. You need to love local news. You need to believe your community needs you even when some people in the community are telling you how much they hate you (you’re in the news business, you don’t expect to be universally loved, do you?).

If you still want to do this, you need to figure out a couple of basic data points about the community you want to cover: Is the population of your proposed market area at least 60,000 people? And are there at least 300 locally owned businesses in that community? Your market research doesn’t need to go much beyond answering those basic questions. The Playbook talks about interviewing potential consumers, ensuring there is a need to be met, etc. Forget it. Don’t bother. Every community loves local news. The question has already been answered by the couple of hundred LION members who are successfully serving their communities.

The Playbook suggests you launch an MVP (minimal viable product). Don’t. First, the MVP concept comes from the Silicon Valley start-up culture and is intended as a low-cost way to test complex, innovative ideas. It’s also intended to demonstrate viability so you can attract investors so you can build your dream product.

With an installation of WordPress, you’re going to build your dream product in a day or two.

Skip the MVP and just launch.

The Playbook also tells you form an advisory board. Again, don’t. This is hard work. An advisory board is going to fill your head with noise, conflicting advice, and the members won’t be people who share your passion, your sense of mission, or your deep understanding of what you’re trying to do. They won’t be deeply embedded in your business.

If you know journalism and you know your community, you’re going to know what to do. You don’t need an advisory board. Your community is your advisory board. They’re going to give you plenty of feedback, usually unsolicited, sometimes unwelcome, but all of it valuable in some way. If you’re covering your community the way you should be covering your community, you’re going to be out in it and you will know what is working and what isn’t. An advisory board will create undo pressure to do things that may conflict with your instincts and what you’re hearing directly from the community.

Another reason you don’t need an advisory group is LION. You will want to join LION and get into our Facebook Group, LIOIN’s Den, where there are experienced publishers happy to help you and offer their advice. The Den is far more valuable than any advisory board you could put together yourself.

The Playbook discusses several options for generating revenue. You should read and consider these options but let me tell you what works: Advertising. Good, old-fashioned, retail advertising. If you have a small business community in your town, you can sell advertising.

Do not start out with Google Ads or some other ad network on your site. Position yourself as a champion for local businesses. Before you publish your first story, you should have a rate card and a one-sheeter about your business. When you’re not covering news the first few weeks of your start-up, you (or your partner) are dropping in on local businesses and introducing yourself, and letting local business owners know you are there to support them.

Your small business community is its own social network. If they like what you’re doing, they will talk among themselves about your publication. This will help you build an audience and build the perception among business owners that everybody is reading your news.

If you serve well the needs of your local business owners, you will build relationships that will sustain your business.

From the start, you should also consider some sort of membership program or subscription model (so long as it doesn’t prevent audience growth). We didn’t do that from the start of The Batavian and I consider this our biggest mistake that we can never correct. In the early days of your publication, your audience is going to be enthusiastic about what you do. That is your best opportunity to garner their financial support. If you wait a few years, you will find that to some degree, they take you for granted and will be less willing to open their wallets.

So, all that said, here’s your real playbook:

  • Decide that you can be a local news publisher and that you want to be a local news publisher and are ready to put in the hard work to make it work.
  • Create your rate sheet and one-sheeter about your business
  • Find a place to host your WordPress site, build your site and get it ready to launch. You don’t necessarily need an ad server at this point but you will eventually need Broadstreet.
  • Launch. Start covering news. Visit local businesses. Go to community events.
  • Join LION.
  • Start thinking about ways you can grow your business.
  • Work hard every day.

The GNI Playbook overcomplicates this entire process. Don’t let it bog you down. Just launch. And don’t be afraid of hard work. It’s worth it if you love what you do.

Country Dick Montana: Last of the Grown Men

In high school did record reviews for the student newspaper, the Foothill Echos. I thought maybe I could be a music writer someday.

At the time, the punk and new wave scene in San Diego was just emerging and at the forefront was The Penetrators. Dan McClain was the bands drummer. He had graduated from Grossmont HS a year or two before I arrived. As a GHS alum, he would be the perfect subject for a feature story, I thought, so I arranged an interview with him. I went to his apartment with my tape recorder and recorded our conversation.

Then I never transcribed the tape. I never wrote the article. I eventually lost the tape. These are regrets.

Dan went on to become Country Dick Montana, the larger-than-life leader of the Beat Farmers, a band that got record deals, appeared on David Letterman, had a couple of minor hits, toured the world, and gained a reputation as perhaps the greatest bar band in the nation. When Dan died in 1995, I was an editor/writer for a group of weekly publications in eastern San Diego County and co-owner of East County Online. So I finally wrote a feature story about Dan. His obit.

Through various moves, technology changes and failures, server migrations, I lost the original online posting of the story and it hasn’t been available on the web for years. A while back it occurred to me that the Way Back Machine ( might have a copy. After some searching, I found it. I grabbed the HTML and have reposted it on this domain. You can read it by clicking here.

Beatles Denialism

Tonight, I finished listening to Tune-In, a book about The Beatles from the beginning through Dec. 31, 1962.

I was a little hesitant to download the book: 36 hours of details about The Beatles, or anybody, seemed daunting.

It was surprisingly entertaining throughout. Mark Lewisohn is a great writer and natural storyteller. He never loses your interest.

Whereas Rich Cohen asserted in The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones that the Rolling Stones were the greatest band ever, Lewisohn lays out a compelling and pretty irrefutable case for The Beatles.

The Beatles were musically advanced, well beyond their peers. They quickly evolved into a self-contained group (writing, arranging, performing their own songs). They were skilled entertainers with quick wits and winning personalities. They were blessed with great collaborators in Brian Epstein and George Martin.

Near the end of the book, Lewisohn tells the story of their last week in Hamburg — a gig at the end of 1962 that they didn’t want to play but Epstein insisted because they had signed a contract. There was another group arriving in Hamburg that week (I forget the name). The members were all about the same age as The Beatles. They felt pretty cocky. They had three records out but none had been hits and along come The Beatles and their first single have just cracked England’s Top 20. An unheard of accomplishment. The guys in the band were prepared to hate The Beatles. But when they saw them, they were blown away. One of the members said they realized, “we were just boys and they were grown men.” They played many of the same hits from U.S. artists but had worked out new arrangments with three-part harmonies, and they were tight, confident, and engaging.

The Beatles changed music — from making the LP more important than singles to being a self-contained group, to pushing other musical artists to innovate themselves (including the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones). The Beatles created the 1960s as we know it.

Since I’ve been going through this book, I’ve posted about them in various social media forums and there’s always some person who wants to brag about how he or she, usually he, doesn’t like The Beatles. I’ve seen them called talentless and unimportant and boring. What these people are telling me isn’t that they have bad taste — we all have our own tastes in everything — but that they are ignorant about music, history, and culture. You don’t have to like The Beatles but you must respect them.

This rejection of The Beatles without a basis in fact or reality is really just trying to make yourself out as being smart by being a contrarian. But it’s really not smart. It’s a position that denies facts and reality, like climate change denialism. So I’ve coined a new term: Beatles denialism for people who reject the Beatles not because it’s not their cup of tea but for factless assertions such as they’re boring or lack talent or don’t matter.

The night Dwight Yoakam rocked my world

So, it’s 1987 or so; you’re a 26-year-old male; you’ve spent six months or so living in an apartment bedroom, a roomer, after breaking up with your girlfriend, whom you should never have gotten involved with in the first place.

When not alone in your room or working, you’ve spent your time, usually evenings, at the local bars drinking and listening to the jukebox

Then you’re forced by economic circumstances to move back into that ex-girlfriend’s apartment while she’s overseas.

While living on your own, during those lonely days in your room before this change in circumstance, you’ve spent your time listening to the Stray Cats, Carl Perkins, Sonny Burgess, and Hank Williams. You’ve been thinking, “Man, if I could combine the pure honky tonk sound of Hank Williams with some rockabilly, that would be some music, man.”

In your first week of living back in this ex-girlfriend’s apartment, while she screws another guy overseas, you’re totally depressed about the change in circumstance but still longing for some rockin’ honky-tonk. 

One night, with no cable, you’re flipping through TV channels, a video comes on from an out-of-town TV channel that you never get usually — suddenly, for no explainable reason, you’re watching this video, grainy and distorted, on a black-and-white TV screen. Wow.

You’ve never heard of this Dwight Yoakam dude.

— this would rock your world, don’t you think?

The best new songs of 2017

I listen to a lot of bad new music so you don’t have to, always searching for great new songs. I keep a constantly rotating playlist of my iPhone of Top 50 New Songs. When I decide a song is worthy, I move it to my Best Downloads playlist. Tonight, I culled the 2017 entries on that list and picked out what are the best songs of 2017.

Rhiannon Giddens – At The Purchaser’s Option

Dead Pretties – Confidence

Ron Gallo – “Put The Kids To Bed”

Hurray For the Riff Raff: “Rican Beach”

Coal Miners, Andrew Joslyn

Priests – JJ

Greta Van Fleet – Highway Tune

Shilpa Ray “Morning Terrors Nights Of Dread”

*repeat repeat – “Girlfriend”

White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band

Father John Misty – Ballad of the Dying Man

The Orwells – Double Feature

I didn’t do a list in 2016 and the song below came out more than a year ago, but the Soft White Sixties dominated a lot of my listening time in 2017, so I wanted to share. Great band from San Francisco. They did release a new album at the end of 2017, but I’ve not absorbed it all yet.

The Soft White Sixties “Sorry to Say”

If I were going to go with a best new band of 2017, I’d pick the Dead Pretties. Only two songs out so far. I can’t wait to hear more from these new Brit punks.