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.

You should only work this hard if you own the business

The list of duties for Patch editors in this Romenesko post is pretty much the job description for every local news site owner I know, at least the ones making a living at it.

When I’ve written about the number of hours I put into my business critics have said I don’t have a business model, my business isn’t “sustainable,” and so on.

Of course, this is coming from people who probably don’t want to work that hard, preferring the good old corporatism days of journalism with secure 9-5 jobs, two weeks paid vacation and dental coverage. Those days are disappearing, but the knock against hyperlocal start ups is that they’re not staffed as bodaciously as the newsrooms they may or may not replace.

To the second point, my response remains: Newspapers started small, cheap and with different standards. No newspaper started with staffs of dozens and a raft of Pulitzers. To hold an online-only start up to those standards is just plain daft.

To the issue of hard work, yes it’s hard work to start your own business, and I figure the critics of the online start ups have never dealt much with small business owners.

I deal with them every day, and for any of them that started their own businesses, they will readily tell you of the 100-hour work weeks, the weeks of just barely getting by and the impossibly long to-do lists. The hardships and sacrifices just go with the territory of starting your own business.

But here’s the thing about the work load for Patch editors: They’re not owners. They are expected to do all of the things they would have to do if they owned their own web sites, but merely in service of building wealth for AOL shareholders. Sure, work hard and keep your job is a nice benefit, and as a former corporate employee I think employees have an ethical obligation to help build shareholder value. That’s what they’re paid to do.

I’ve also been critical of corporate employees who aren’t willing to put in a little extra effort to help a project succeed.

However, if what we’re hearing is true about the Patch workload, I can only ask: Why are you doing it?

Patch editors should know that what they’re being asked to do on salary they could do for themselves far more successfully and with some chance of building a valuable business for themselves and their families.

I’m not writing this to wish Patch ill. I am not one to hope for anyone’s failure. I’m writing this for the sake of the seemingly overburdened Patch editors, and asking, “Why not just start your own local news site?”

Jump on in, the water’s fine.

Best example yet of why paid content doesn’t work online

Here’s what little I know about David Sullivan — he’s a journalist in Philadelphia — I believe a copy editor — and primarily a person of print lineage — and new to blogging.

And in his first week of blogging about the newspaper business — and keep in mind, Sullivan is a newsroom guy, not a business-side guy — he’s pretty much nailed the very issues we’re all grappling with, such has how do we really measure audience, what is our real online audience size, what is our audience worth, how do we compete with free, and where our competitors come from and what they do.

And all of that in this one intelligent post.

Most importantly, he notes that a family-owned paper in Watertown, NY has dropped it’s pay wall on its web site (a significant act to contemplate for the cranky old journalists who think everybody should pay for everything).

The Watertown Daily Times operates in an isolated market — almost an hour north of Syracuse and hours away from anywhere else. Watertown, like most of outstate New York, has had hard times, but the Times as still managed to keep (in 2007 Year Book) a daily circulation near 29,000, down from 37,000 10 years ago — not as hard a decline as a lot of papers, but still in the 2o-to-25-percentish range.

The Daily Times, being a family owned newspaper and thus having neither stock analysts nor corporate overseers, decided to put the Web content behind a wall. Last week it threw up its hands and dropped the wall. Victory for the Web!

In a way. The Times subscription Web site had 1,000 paid subscribers. Which means 29,000 households took the print paper and 1,000 took the Web site, meaning — 7,000 of the circulation loss was people who simply had no use for paying for the Watertown Daily Times in any form.

David points us to a local news aggregation site that appears to be in direct competition with the Watertown paper, It’s success (more on that below) is object lesson for newspaper sites that fail to take the web seriously. dominates the both in audience and advertising. It has way more local information than most local newspaper web sites, and all of it free, and none of it coming from the Daily Times (not a single link to a Daily Times article). has managed to secure obits direct from funeral homes as well as other hyperlocal information. From their it acts as a super aggregator of links to other news sites with stories it believes will interest its audience (not just local news).

As I said, dominates the Look at this chart from

Never before have I seen a get trounced in its own market by any competitor — not even a TV station. has twice the traffic, and is growing faster, than the local daily’s news site.

Sullivan notes that even with giving it all away, there are still 27,000 households in Watertown willing to pay for home delivery. Fine. But according to — which I believe tends to under count audience, but is also measuring non-local audience (and one more caveat to that: numbers I’ve seen from Belden Associates suggests that 80 percent of a’s traffic is local) — more people visit on a monthly basis than subscribe to the newspaper.

If that doesn’t put a nail in the coffin of the “people should pay for our news” argument, I can’t imagine what will.

So if our only chance at survival is to give news away for free, how do we survive? Obviously, advertising is going to be a big part of it (though not necessarily advertising as packaged goods media has traditionally sold). Any such model requires much larger audiences than we’re currently getting. And, so, again, I refer you to this piece by Kevin Kelly about unlocking true economic value online. And here again is my own post inspired by Kelly.

UPDATE: Additional thoughts immediately after posting.

First, I bet NewzJunky has a fraction of the staff — lower overhead – than the Daily Times. It may, in fact, be a one-person operation.

Second, to those who object the idea that sites like this can only exist thanks to MSM (look at all the links to other news sources), well, then, yeah, and your point? Not all local information requires reporters (look at Everyblock) to gather. Even if the MSM sources all go out of business, sites like NewzJunky still have a sustainable business model. And when MSM sites go out of business (if they do), all the more audience and advertising for sites like NewzJunky. More revenue means more staff for original reporting. Even if such a site isn’t staff as well as the daily newspaper it put out of business, the daily newspaper is still out of business. This is how disruption works.

The point is — ignore the concept of sites like newzjunky at your own peril. Feel free to marginalize the threat in your own mind, and say, “it can’t happen here.” Tell that to the publisher in Watertown.

UPDATE: In an e-mail, Jim Romenesko passes this along: “NewzJunky was founded by one of my early tipsters (starting 1999), a guy named Stephen Smith. He *is* in fact a news junkie who, I believe, runs the site on his own. I don’t hear from him as often these days probably because of his increased workload and success.”