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.

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