Advice to local news startups: Launch membership program, sell ads from day one

By Ricky Campbell | Oct. 1, 2016

Local independent online news publishers are gathering this weekend at Columbia College in Chicago.

Startup news publishers face challenges they didn’t have to worry about working in traditional media, but they have opportunities galore to fill a void those traditional media outlets have left.

That was the message of a "startup roundtable" breakout session on Friday at the LION Publishers 2016 Summit in Chicago, which offered practical advice on first steps, next steps and reflections for the next round of startup publishers. Howard Owens of The Batavian, Sally Fowler Francom of the Lehi Free Press, Jay Allred of the Richland Source, Bill Macfadyen of Noozhawk and Traven Rice of The LoDown NY reflected on their advice to startups, and why it’s important to seize different opportunities.

“There’s a freedom with not being the newspaper of record,” Allred said. “It’s an advantage… we aren’t trying to fit within a box.”

That box – trying to be a news source the old way – is restricting. Local publishers can offer things traditional media doesn’t – or simply can’t – like being a “champion for local businesses,” Owens said.

Owens offered other advice for startups: Look for a voluntary subscription or membership program from the beginning. It’s something Owens said he wished he pursued, and believes startups could benefit greatly from initial supporters.

Owens added how important it is for entrepreneurs, even if they have limited to no sales experience, to start selling advertising immediately. “Local businesses are the social network” a publisher needs to build his or her product, Owens said. “Build relationships.”

Rice, who operates out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said startup publishers shouldn’t spend time “fine tuning” things like their website. “Just get up and go,” she said.

A key, the panel agreed, was to seek out long-term supporters – advertisers who believe in a publisher’s product and who intend to grow with the publication. They are a publisher’s best friend and financial foundation.

Noozhawk’s Macfadyen said startups need to remain laser-focused on what they’re covering. Biting off too much won’t help in building credit or improving the product. His organization started by covering local government and education and then added other topics once they developed a following.

Building on Macfadyen’s point about expansion, Allred said, “controlling your burn rate in the early months is really important.” Once a publisher launches, the clock starts ticking for income, coverage and reputation.

Allred emphasized the importance of going to the local meetings, the Rotary Clubs, the Kiwanis, the Daughters of the American Revolution, because they are the ones who are plugged in, who are engaged – and who might be long-term supporters. And attend them, asking questions with authority.

“Act like you’ve been there for 50 years. That’s what we did,” he said. “You take a back seat to no one.”

Check out more entries in our 2016 conference blog »