Making Sac Press viable was always going to be a challenge, as there are few nuts harder to crack in media than local online-only news. Big newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian have all tried to enter the “hyperlocal” or neighborhood news market with online ventures that failed. AOL made the biggest push with Patch, which despite some bright spots, has proved a dismal failure financially.
The few ventures that are successful, in that they consistently cover their niche and are financially solvent (if not highly profitable), tend to be independent. Many are mom-and-pops with owner-operators, like our friends across the river, The Natomas Buzz. Others are big nonprofits with large coverage areas and corporate backers, like The Texas Tribune or Voice of San Diego.
If you survey the scene, it gets difficult to find other sites like Sacramento Press, or independent operations that make enough revenue to support a small core of professional staff.
One site that does fit that description is a good deal farther west than Sacramento. The Hawaii Independent has been around since 2008 and is run by 35-year-old publisher and editor Ikaika Hussey. The site makes enough revenue to support a staff of about five people, including two full-time reporters.
We might glean a few lessons for Sac Press by studying what makes The Independent tick.
The Independent takes grassroots news a step further than most community news organizations – it’s run partially as as a co-op.
Members pay $10 a month to join, and can periodically vote to elect the governing board. They also get perks like free access to the Independent’s events and discounts with the site’s advertisers.
Membership accounts for 30 percent of the Independent’s revenue, with advertising accounting for the other 70 percent. Hussey would eventually like to see membership’s share of revenue climb to 50 percent.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. For the Sacramento Press to be viable, we need additional sources of consistent revenue beyond banner ads. A membership program could make a real difference. If we’re able to match what the Independent does and bring in 30 percent of our revenue via membership, we could likely afford to hire another staff member, and could bring back our community manager position. At the same time, becoming a co-op would give us a way of awarding our regular contributors, as they could become members and, in effect, part owners.
We’ve considered adopting a membership program in the past, but we were never sure of the right mix of benefits to readers. If you’re coming to the event Thursday, be prepared to answer this question: How much would you pay to be a member of Sacramento Press, and what would you expect in return? Would you want a say in voting for a governing board, or perhaps an editorial board? Would access to events matter to you, and if so, what kind? We’ll discuss these and other benefits we could potentially offer, and ask for your feedback and ideas.
The Hawaii Independent is currently a for-profit co-op, but Hussey is planning on converting to a nonprofit. His reasoning is that, as a nonprofit, The Independent can still sell advertising, but it will also be able to pursue large donors of the type that give to National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service.
This approach is interesting for Sac Press for the same reason. Even if we adopt a successful membership program, it would be unlikely to budge the revenue needle enough to push us into sustainability. The temptation is to look for something “big” to help tip the scales more dramatically, and the idea of obtaining grants or large donations to fund our most civic-minded work seems almost too good to be true. Could we get a grant to cover food access? Would a corporation help fund our citizen journalism workshops? What about more coverage in underserved areas? Does journalism Santa exist?
The nonprofit model is not without its risks, however. Nonprofits that rely on big grants have a habit of shutting down when those grants end. The editor of a nonprofit citizen journalism site I contacted for an interview on Monday couldn’t talk because half of her staff had just been laid off.
I’ll dive deeper into the pluses and minuses of the nonprofit model in a post tomorrow. On Thursday, though, we’d like to hear from readers on a few important questions. Would you be more likely to contribute to Sac Press or join a membership program if the site were a nonprofit? Would you donate to Sac Press if you could direct how your donation was spent, as in on a particular area of coverage, or to fund a certain kind of journalism?
It’s seems unbelievable now, but there was a time, around 2007-2009, when the idea of hyperlocal news was hot. Newspapers had cut back on their local news coverage, so why not fill the gap online with a fraction of the overhead, and support it with local online advertising?
That’s not quite how it happened. If you cover hyperlocal news, you get a hyperlocal audience, and as it turns out, banner ads just aren’t worth that much per viewer.
At Sac Press, we had begun to steer beyond our grid-focused hyperlocal legacy by bringing on writers with topical beats, like farm to fork and soccer.
The Hawaii Independent has also been leaving hyperlocal behind, choosing instead to focus on metro and state issues. Hussey says the intent was to increase the reach and reputation of the site. It also helped bring in larger advertisers.
“The financial part of it was that we were getting little restaurants and little companies to buy ads, but they don’t have the dollars, they don’t have the large ad budgets I wanted to go after,” he said. “I wanted to go after bigger spenders, folks who wanted to reach a statewide audience.”
This will be a tricky issue for us to navigate going forward. We have served a Midtown-centric audience, but to grow, we have to reach beyond the grid. Some topics, say, soccer or bicycling, work well with our core audience in Midtown but can also appeal to readers across the region. We need to know what our readers think – have you visited Sac Press because of our coverage of the central city? How can we maintain our neighborhood identity but also find a way to grow beyond it? Be ready to talk about these issues on Thursday.
Telling a story
While The Hawaii Independent has ditched hyperlocal, it’s going in a direction traditionally thought of as the domain of print: long form. This week, the site launches a new app on iOS for narrative and long-form articles. While the Independent’s other content will still be on the site, the aim, Hussey said, is for the app to be like The New Yorker or The Atlantic for Hawaii.
The grind of trying to stay on top of local online news was a challenge for the small crew at The Independent, and Hussey thinks they’ll be able to provide more quality to readers with a long-form approach.
“I find it easier to manage with our small team because the lead time between stories is longer; I can actually plan out two or three months in advance, as opposed to on a daily basis reacting to what’s happening the city, which is driving me nuts, and I think you know what I mean,” he said.
At Sac Press, we also have to pick our spots, and have had to stop covering breaking crime news, city council meetings and other niche beats. Should we consider publishing less articles and developing more long-form stories? That’s another question for Thursday.
Of course, the underlying question behind all these considerations is: What will become of Sacramento Press? Will we be purchased by an agency, or absorbed by a nonprofit? I worry about both of those outcomes, as a private company may not respect the mission, and a large nonprofit is unlikely to treat Sac Press as a priority.
Hussey hopes we stay independent. I can’t say I disagree.
“I think it would be best if you and your core group of community leaders were able to buy the publication and keep it going as a separate entity,” he said.