How mentorship is helping local online news sites reach sustainability

Early lessons from LION's RAMP program

By Matt DeRienzo | Jun. 15, 2018

Shereen Siewert of the Wausau Pilot and Review, left, Jiquanda Johnson of Flint Beat, and Robert Morris of Uptown Messenger in New Orleans talk about early lessons from LION's RAMP advertising mentorship program June 15 in Orlando.

Local publishers from Wisconsin, Michigan and New Orleans shared early lessons from a new program that uses mentorship to help independent online news sites build advertising support in their communities Friday at a LION Publishers summit at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in Orlando.

LION’s Revenue from Advertising Mentorship Program (RAMP) launched in the spring with a grant from the Democracy Fund.

On Friday, Jiquanda Johnson, publisher of Flint Beat in Michigan, Robert Morris, publisher of the Messenger local news sites in New Orleans, and Shereen Siewert, publisher of the Wausau Pilot and Review in Wisconsin said that the program has already led to a significant increase in local advertising revenue.

Johnson, whose goal is to raise $80,000 in annual revenue with the help of the RAMP program this year, said that advertising is an important sector of revenue for her site because she’s not sure the community can afford to support Flint Beat with subscriptions or memberships.

“I’m covering an economically depressed community ...” she said. “Most of my residents are poor. They have to make a decision to be a member of my site or feed their family. What do they do?”

After the RAMP program helped her figure out how to set ad rates based on her annual goal and the size of her market, and develop marketing materials, Johnson said she’s on the verge of closing a $10,000 contract with an advertiser. “That’s more than I made (all of) last year,” she said.

“I knew I needed to generate revenue. I knew I had something of value. I just didn’t know what it was worth,” she said.

Siewert brought in $9,000 in new revenue from new advertisers in the first two months of the program. It’s key for her because foundation seed funding that helped her launch her nonprofit site a few years ago is running out.

“This year is kind of a make or break year for us, and we knew we had to concentrate on advertising this year and get it right in order to sustain ourselves,” she said.

The largest new advertiser on her site is a casino located about 30 miles away. “They had poo pooed us completely in the past,” Siewert said. “(But now) we have a much more polished presentation. We understand how to present that sales pitch and really close that pitch.”

Founded eight years ago, Morris’s three New Orleans neighborhood news sites are more established than the Flint and Wausau startups.

“One of the big things about RAMP for us is that we’ve grown one step at a time and we don’t really step back and ask if it makes sense in the big picture,” he said. “A mentor is really valuable for that.”

Help from RAMP has also been specific and practical, from rethinking ad rates and revamping media kits, to advice on how to find prospects and schedule meetings with them.

After years of managing an advertising account base with a Google doc, the Messenger sites switched to customer relations management (CRM) software (something that the RAMP program helps fund). Now Tyree Worthy, the site’s one-man advertising department, is freed up to make more sales calls instead of wrangling invoices that are now automated.   

Siewert said that being part of a 10-publisher cohort working on similar goals has also been valuable. “That piece is just incredibly valuable to us. We sometimes feel like we’re on an island. We often work in our homes. We don’t have a lot of co-workers,” she said.

“You get that support. You get to share ideas. You get to hash things out with people who are going through the same thing,” Johnson said.

Other participants in the RAMP program include Andaiye Taylor of Brick City Live in Newark, New Jersey, Jeff Wong of DC Commute Times, Dawn Shelton of the Luther Register in Oklahoma, Led Black of Uptown Collective in New York City, Matt Hennie of Project Q Atlanta, Rob Chappell of Madison 365, and Adrian Fernandez Baumann and Kate Maxwell of Mendocino Voice in northern California.

They gathered for a kickoff in Atlanta and stay in touch via Slack. Each is assigned to a mentor, which include veteran local independent online news publishers Kelly Gilfillan of Home Page Media in Nashville, Scott Brodbeck of ARLNow.com in Virginia, Kim Clark of Noozhawk in Santa Barbara, and sales consultant Eleanor Cippel and audience development consultant Ned Berke.

“That is priceless, having a team of people helping you identify best practices in the industry to achieve sustainability,” Johnson said.

In addition to being paired with a mentor who checks in with them every few weeks, RAMP also covers some technology and materials costs for participating publishers, as well as a stipend of $7,500 designed to free them up to be able to get serious about launching or revamping a local ad program.

Siewert is using that money to hire help on the news side, to free her up to focus on sales. Morris is using it for a website redesign to improve the effectiveness of ads that are purchased, as well as some part-time help on the sales side.