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Real publishers, real problems, real opportunities

Here is a copy of my presentation and prepared remarks from WordCamp for Publishers 2019 in Columbus.

Special thanks to Margaret Schneider for her copy edit of this presentation!

What’s up everyone… Great to be back at another WordCamp for Publishers.

My name’s Davis and I’m an engineer at Alley. I see some of my colleagues over there, hey y’all. We are hiring, by the way, please find one of us to learn more.

In addition to obviously loving WordPress, its community, values, etc, I’m here because I am totally 100% head over heels obsessed with local news. Anyone else in the room feel that way? Cool cool…

My personal obsession has come to focus on that question of “What’s next?” What’s next for this vital and historic industry? What’s next for local journalism, the kind of journalism that makes you feel more connected to your community?

How is local news going to look in the future? I’d like to understand: What role will technology play? What’s next? It’s a difficult and broad question.

Local newspapers will face continued transition over the coming years yet as Alley CEO Austin Smith noted in his Lenfest Institute report last year, there is still a narrow path for many of these outlets, a path that doubtless involves cutting some operations and developing capacity in others.

But there are also a growing number of startup local news sites, members of INN and LION, and others operating on their own, that have been filling the gap in community news needs.

Today, almost as many US adults say they prefer to get their local news through the Internet as prefer to do so through the television, that’s according to Pew. And a large majority of those who get their news online, 82% say that an easy-to-use website is an important feature of an online local news source.

For this talk, I wanted to consider this question: What can we learn from looking at startup local news publishers from a technology perspective? What can we say about their stack or business models just by looking at their websites? And how does this tie into the larger question about building better platforms for news in general, and especially local news in particular, as like I said — I’m obsessed, and now I know some of you are too. So let’s dive in, shall we?

By the way, feel free to interrupt or raise your hand or send me tweets during the talk. We are in the workshop space so I want to embrace the conversation that might occur.

I looked at fifty websites ranging from relatively long-established sites like Berkeleyside, Baristanet, and Technically Philly to newer ones like the WhereBy.Us sites, The River, and BKLYNER.

These sites are all newish, last decade or so, native to the web, although some have experimented with print and print partnerships. They are all mostly focused on a specific county, town, or city. I’d like to call out a few of them just so you know the type of outlet in here.

There’s the Charlotte Agenda, one of my favorites in the space, founded by Ted Williams and Katie Levans in 2015. They have 43,000 newsletter subscribers and nearly 150,000 on Instagram.

Technically Philly, a site focused on the Philly tech community, has a business model built on connecting employees and employers. The team also organizes the great Barcamp News Innovation unconferences held annually at Temple University.

ARLNow and Reston Now, founded by Scott Brodbeck, are part of a startup local news chain that operates in the high-growth area of the DC metro. Scott created ARL Now in 2010 and followed up with Reston Now a few years later—he also publishes the popular blogger Prince of Petworth or PoPville—and is currently having his best traffic year ever.

These are just a few of the remarkable startup stories happening around the country in the local news space. What lessons can we draw from what they are doing as a group, specifically with respect to technology? What opportunities can we see with the benefit of a bird’s eye view?

These questions help us establish a common set of facts for what’s happening on our fifty examined websites.

Is WordPress the content management system of choice for startup local news websites? What else is being used?

If the site is using WordPress, what can we say about the stack?

Is there a clear favorite theme being used?

What about the most common plugins?

Which common third-party services are used on the site for functions like analytics, advertising, and membership?

To look at all these sites efficiently I had help from a script that asked each website these questions on my behalf. The script worked by querying the HTML response of each homepage then running a series of tests against the source code.

The major limitation to this approach is that it assumes the HTML response contains all the relevant information we’d want. However, in practice, this worked okay because they are all more or less “standard” web pages — no single-page apps or crazy JavaScript load patterns.

The biggest “gotcha” I encountered was with Google Tag Manager, which is often used to bring over other services like Google Analytics.

I hooked everything up to a Google Sheets dashboard that was powered by a script in Google App Scripts. Although it could have been automated, I currently have to “hit the button” every time I want to update results.

This was a pretty smooth experience overall and I recommend it for anyone trying to build an automated dashboard/crawler of some kind.

(This is a movie showing all sites)

Running the full process took a few minutes and this probably could have been made faster if that was an issue down the line.

Here you can see a loop of the sites I considered for this presentation.

This isn’t really a design-focused talk but you can get a taste for how these sites have more or less standard homepage layouts. Some outliers include the WhereBy.Us sites and and Nooga.com, which have something closer to landing pages than traditional sites.

Another trend is sticking with a blog-style reverse chronological stream. Some sites even put most or all of the articles right on the front page. The Batavian and ARLNow are two such sites.

Many sites use a combination of the newspaper and blog approaches by having a featured content area towards the top of the page, followed by a reverse chronological stream of content below. Multiple outlets are experimenting with putting different types of content in their streams, expanding past the traditional article format. These include videos, sponsored deals, press releases, and other objects.

So, let’s start with the good news. WordPress continues to dominate this market of startup news websites. Fitting, of course, for software built to democratize publishing. As I like to say, if Ben Franklin were alive today, odds are he’d be a WordPress developer, or at least know his way around the product development process. WordPress continues to have a world-changing impact by making it easy and affordable to run your own media website.

39 of the 50 websites surveyed use WordPress.

One uses Expression Engine (CT News Junkie, founded 2005), three use Drupal (The Bridge Michigan, 2011, The Batavian, 2008, and San Angelo Live, 2013), and two are on TownNews (Magnolia Reporter, 2010, and Richland Source, 2013).

What about the Custom Websites?

Five sites are on what appear to be custom CMSes.

The Daily Memphian, started last year, is running on a truly custom build, front and backends done by a local agency/software firm. The Daily Memphian is notable for being the only progressive web application in the bunch.

Other sites on custom builds include TAPinto, State College.com, WestportNow, and the Tucson Sentinel.

There’s a long tail on themes being used. Most themes seen were being used by a single outlet.

Sites with their own theme include Berkeleyside, which is a few iterations into its custom theme, as well as others like The Berkshire Edge, Bethesda Now, the Charlotte Agenda (mentioned earlier), and Potomac Local.

There are also sites like Technically Philly and the WhereBy.Us Outlets where the same theme is used on sites in few different outlets.

The most commonly used publicly available theme was Largo, by INN. Sites using Largo include Rivard Report, Pittsburgh Public Source, Mendocino Voice, and The Lens Nola.

The most commonly used commercially available themes are Newspaper and Newsmag, both by tagDiv.

Sites using the Newspaper theme include Baristanet, BKLYNER, and the Coronado Times. Sites using Newsmag include Madison365 and Riverhead Local. The themes are sold exclusively on Envato.

Note that a couple of outlets are using the Civil theme. These are Block Club Chicago and the River, as in Hudson River, in New York.

I also want to mention that CalMatters is using the theme by The News Project. We’ll talk more about this project in a minute.

OK. Let’s talk about plugins.

As you probably saw on the last slide, a good number of sites don’t appear to be using Gutenberg yet. ARLNow and Billy Penn are among the sites that don’t appear to be using the block editor.

The plugin detected most often on the surveyed sites was Disqus. Close to Disqus in number of uses were Contact Form 7, Visual Composer, and MailChimp for WordPress. The Visual Composer, by the way, is required for the tagDiv themes, explaining its high ranking on this list.

Contact Form 7 and MailChimp for WP are free plugins.

The Hub Connector is a plugin that supports News Revenue Hub integrations with client sites. We’ll talk a little more about News Revenue Hub in a bit, but the sites using it are Berkleyside, Bethesda Beat, The Lens Nola, Pittsburgh Public Source, and the Rivard Report. These plugins are not publicly available or open source.

The Events Calendar and Events Calendar Pro are also popular plugins, built by Modern Tribe. The WhereBy.Us Sites also use Modern Tribe’s Event Tickets plugin for added functionality/revenue from the WordPress site.

OneSignal is worth mentioning as it came up in a few of my interviews held preparing for this presentation. OneSignal makes it easy to offer push notifications through a website. Sites using it included Nooga.com, Planet Princeton, Racine County Eye, and Riverhead Local.

Now let’s drill into a few areas in particular, starting with advertising.

Google Ad Manager, also known as its “old” name, DoubleClick for Publishers, was the most popular ad server in use on the sites examined, but Broadstreet Ads was a close second.

ARLNow and related sites, CT News Junkie, We-Ha, and the West Seattle Blog have both DFP and Broadstreet running on the sites.

Block Club Chicago, CalMatters, The Greylock Glass, the WhereBy.Us Sites, The River, and The Tyler Loop don’t have ads, although CalMatters and WhereBy.Us have sponsorships.

WordPress plugins used for ads included Ads Pro and Advanced Ads Pro.

Next, analytics. Again, Google is the clear leader here, with GA being used on 49 out of 50 sites. CT News Junkie was the only site without detectable use of Google Analytics.

Quantcast was used on 16 of the sites examined. Quantcast Measure is free to use at this point, although enterprise packages are available.

Jetpack Analytics was in use on 9 sites.

Parse.ly was on 5 sites and Chartbeat on 4. Parse.ly clients included Billy Penn, Block Club Chicago, Nooga.com, the Rivard Report, and The Daily Memphian. Chartbeat customers included StateCollege.com, Westport Now, The Lens, and Richland Source.

Membership has emerged as an important revenue stream for startup local news websites, with some outlets generating thousands of dollars a month from these subscriptions.

Memberful is the pack leader here, with 7 sites integrating this SaaS product into their revenue mix. Sites using Memberful included Good Morning Wilton, Levittown Now, Charlotte Agenda, Mendocino Voice, BKLYNER, The Tyler Loop, and the Berkshire Edge.

Civil-affiliated sites The River and Block Club Chicago use the startup Pico to handle membership subscriptions.

CalMatters and The Daily Memphian incorporate Piano.

As mentioned previously, a number of the sites we looked at use News Revenue Hub. These include Berkeleyside, Bethesda Beat, The Lens, Pittsburgh Public Source, and the Rivard Report, which use the plugin, as well as Billy Penn, The Bridge, and others which link to the Fund Journalism site for checkout flow.

Paid Memberships Pro (The Greylock Glass) and WooCommerce Memberships (the WhereBy.Us Sites) were two other tools in place.

  • ARLNow, POPVILLE: Patreon
  • CT News Junkie: Gravity Forms
  • Decaturish, Racine County Eye: PayPal
  • Enews Park Forest: Pigeon Paywall
  • Planet Princeton: Donorbox
  • Richland Source, Riverhead Local: Stripe Custom

Sites without membership include Baristanet, The Batavian, Sacramento Press, San Angelo Live, Tap Into, and some others.

After looking at all these sites, what conclusions can we draw?

Well, first of all, I hope you feel an incredible sense of opportunity.

Across these sites, there is a lot of overlap in terms of the fundamentals.

Many use WordPress, of course. But there’s also overlap in terms of the other vendors in the stack. Google Analytics, Memberful, MailChimp, DFP, and Broadstreet Ads all stand out for their prominent use by sites in this space.

These sites face similar challenges. Whether nonprofit or for-profit, at the end of the day running an online news outlet presents the usual difficulties of journalism along with all the headaches and struggles associated with managing a small businesses. Whether they’re writing grants, pitching advertisers and sponsors, or soliciting membership, publishers of local online outlets have to concentrate on making their outlets work, financially speaking.

Due to the recency of this field, there are many open markets across the country that could use—perhaps even need—outlets like this. It’s not likely we will see head-to-head competition in this space for a while, except perhaps in major metro markets where multiple audiences can be carved out of the overall population.

While the capital needs of online news outlets are relatively minor, compared to their print alternatives, these outlets tend to benefit from positioning themselves as go-to publications in their town, and so once one of these is established the cost of unseating them combined with the low margins of the industry work to discourage outright competition in the sector.

At the end of the day, these are smart operators, making personal and corporate investments to grow their businesses.

Of course there is an incredible opportunity here. I think we are in the greatest industry possible—the work we are doing, really just by being here at WordCamp for Publishers, that work is going to enable an explosion of outlets like this over the coming decades.

Right now. Literally as we speak. There is a great amount of innovation happening now, innovation that will make it easier to launch and manage sustainable local news operations. I’m a big believer in simultaneous innovation, the idea that we draw from a zeitgeist and experience similar sources of inspiration, and it’s clear the industry is trying to create more products and services that would benefit startup publishers like the ones we’ve been discussing here.

These projects share a lot in common, but all are using slightly different strategies to go about their work.

First up, I want to talk about INN, specifically the self-proclaimed Nerds squad. They have been doing this work for a while now, and their Largo Project is now used on nearly 200 websites.

The Largo project has been constructed from the bottom up to benefit newsrooms, with ample documentation and lots of customizable features. Although INN has a broader focus, Largo in particular just refers to the WordPress theme. INN Labs, on the other hand, offers full-service consulting for nonprofit newsrooms. Just to give you a flavor of what this team does for clients, some of the common tools they use include DoubleClick for WordPress, Super Cool Ad Inserter, No-Nonsense Google Analytics, and Google Analytics Popular Posts. Again we see some of our common vendors being integrated in there.

With funding from the Knight Foundation, INN Labs is currently helping NewsMatch sites improve their website donation flows, learn how to use existing tools to optimize campaigns and add supporting messaging and media to their sites. Although this isn’t Largo directly it is in the same spirit as the other projects well look like—providing centralized tech/product expertise.

The Largo project is no design slouch either. An INN member using Largo actually won an award this past June for “best magazine website” at The Press Club of Cleveland’s awards. The list of contributors to Largo over the years has grown to be quite long, hailing back to its Project Argo days at NPR. I see a number of them in the room, and by the way, talk to Kay or Ben if you want to know about this great project.

I want to give a brief moment of recognition to CoPress. Forgive me if I get excited and/or a bit sappy here.

I was a college freshman, maybe a sophomore when I first heard about CoPress. It was a group of college students from across the country trying to help college newspapers break out of the grasp of College Publisher, owned at the time by College Media Network, a commercial content management system that was free for newsrooms in exchange for the ad space.

CoPress had a plan, really a great plan, to develop a hosting play, offer consulting, building tools—I mean, have you heard of EditFlow?—seriously these guys and gals were ahead of their time.

Listen to their mission statement.

CoPress is a non-profit collective of students who believe that college media needs to pool its resources to adapt to the online world. This includes technical knowledge, community building, and physical infrastructure.

CoPress ended up unable to identify a sustainable revenue model but the team assembled during its brief life comprises a veritable cross-section of today’s media landscape. To wit: Greg Linch, data editor at McClatchy; Bachhuber; Lauren Rabaino, executive director of operations at Vox Media; Albert Sun, assistant editor at the New York Times; and a few engineers who phased out of journalism but stayed active in WordPress Core – Max Cutler, Andrew Spittle, Scott Bressler, and even Andrew Nacin, who’s since called CoPress “an incredibly underrated piece of WordPress history” – think of how different WordPress’s development this past decade would have been without Nacin to blame!

Newspack has generated a lot of buzz in recent months, and it’s a very interesting project, being led by Automattic—perhaps you’ve heard of them?

Expectations are high for this project, but Gutenberg-first is proving to be a very good look for news site production. Newspack will obviously be benefitted by its close ties to VIP but how does this offering differ from others on the market? By being much closer to a turnkey solution than most existing WordPress-based options for running a news site. Although Newspack pricing might be tough for a bootstrapped startup, the situation looks different when you compare it to using Town News, Expression Engine, or a managed Drupal solution. Newspack promises a laundry list of features to come:

  • mobile delivery
  • search engine optimization
  • advertising delivery and management
  • feed ingestion
  • headline optimization
  • A/B testing
  • subscription and membership services
  • email marketing services
  • lead acquisition tools
  • advanced analytics
  • social-media and newsletter integration
  • subscription services
  • and features like AMP and PWA

Wizards are expected to be implemented to make site setup easier than it might be with a vanilla settings panel.

Outlets in the first trial include…

  • Baltimore Jewish Times
  • Bangor (Maine) Daily News
  • Brooklyn Eagle
  • The Chicago Reporter
  • The Hechinger Report (New York)
  • The Lens (New Orleans)
  • Oklahoma Watch
  • The Rivard Report (San Antonio)

Applications are currently open for the second trial.

First trial participants The Lens and the Rivard Report are in this sample study. They are both using Largo at the moment, for what it’s worth.

Newspack has been funded with $1.2 million by Google, $400,000 by The Lenfest Institute; $350,000 by ConsenSys; and $250,000 by the Knight Foundation. That’s a lot of money—and we’ll talk more about Newspack pricing in a minute—but at least for now, regardless of whether you’d use the service for a site, we can all benefit from this project by following their public learnings or watching the public Newspack repositories on Github.

I think Newspack will greatly push our industry along towards adopting Gutenberg for homepage/section front layout. Check out this demo of the different options they’ll be able to support. Since the backend logic for this is much more complex than a typical WordPress site, we start to see how the standardization enables more sophisticated product development than could be justified on a single site’s budget.

There’s another pretty similar effort being spearheaded by Merrill Brown, with partner overlap by way of VIP, but The News Project deserves its own time in the limelight. The News Project features a custom analytics dashboard, integration with Piano, access to AP content, and the usual template/distributed publishing add-ons.

CalMatters launched on The News Project’s platform earlier this year. The Cal Matters setup incorporates News Revenue Hub and MailChimp for its core list management/donation functionality.

According to previous coverage of The News Project by Publishers Daily, it costs about $25,000 for a nonprofit news organization to license The News Project’s technology, and about $50,000 for a for-profit org. The publishers then pay a monthly subscription fee around $5,000 a month.

Just for sense of scale, CalMatters made $3 million in revenue last year, and is on track to draw in $5 million this year. It’s definitely larger than most of the sites we surveyed, and likewise the News Project pricing puts it out of reach for many publishers in the local online startup space. Yet it’s still worth watching closely.

Let me fanboy for just a minute. LION is a really terrific organization if you are interested in this presentation topic, and the organization has grown tremendously even in the last year or two. LION, standing for Local Independent Online News, was founded in 2012 by a dozen or so publishers—Tucson Sentinel’s Dylan Smith, The Batavian’s Howard Owens, Planet Princeton’s Krystal Knapp, ARLNow’s Scott Brodbeck, just to name a few—and has remained a go-to resource for aspiring and established publishers in this space.

LION’s annual conference will be held October 24 to 26 in Music City, Nashville, so I definitely encourage attending if you are interested in local news startups.

LION has made some really exciting hires recently, incoming Director of Revenue and Operations Phayvanh Luekhamhan, and incoming Director of Programming Anika Anand, formerly of VTDigger and WhereBy.Us, respectively, along with Executive Director Chris Krewson, who took the job this spring after a four year stint at Spirited Media where he launched and ran Billy Penn, as well as the Incline and Denverite later on.

Expect the three of them to cook up some good stuff in terms of creating a Starter Pack of some kind that will solidify LION’s position as the place to go for help launching a small local news publishing business. Whatever this entails though, it probably won’t include them spinning up their own product development effort, and it is also not likely to include choosing a particular platform or theme as the preferred solution.

With a growing constituency of publishers across the country, LION is very much an organization to watch in the years to come.

Ultimately, technology decisions are going to be about the money for most of these operators..

As these quotes from publishers I talked to while preparing this talk demonstrate, there’s a lot of excitement about Newspack, but some apprehension around the price.

Newspack is also well known to LIONs because Steve Beatty, working on the project, also had a previous career at The Lens, a longtime LION member.

Newspack has revenue-based pricing, $1,000 a month for outlets with a less than $500,000 annual budget and $2,000 a month for those with a more than $500,000 annual budget.

Honestly, my perspective is that the cost is fine. The total amount paid seems reasonable. Especially when you consider the quality difference between a random Envato purchase and what will pass VIP code review muster.

But I think the pricing ends up being a tough pill for most publishers to swallow. Given an outlet where poof overnight there’s tens of thousands in monthly cash-flow and a technology stack is needed, spending $12,000 a year on best-in-class tech seems pretty savvy. But as a bootstrapped publisher, you’d need a really good first few months to get above water on the hosting cost.

There’s a needle to thread here. A really difficult platform development problem. Let me lay it out for you.

In the position of that bootstrapped publisher I mentioned, as we have seen, they will quickly figure it out themselves, or find a local agency to implement something for them. This DIY attitude is a hallmark of hyperlocal publishers, who oftentimes have walk that delicate line between editor and publisher.

The wicked problem is this: Most of these publishers aren’t going to make it past the first few months. This is hard stuff and although you can kind of feel the industry moving toward a few basic models, we haven’t cracked the code yet. Onboarding is typically expensive and it would be tough to offer a lower price point just to have folks attrition out of the service.

But once you miss that opportunity to get the publisher set up in the right way the first time, you create an even bigger onboarding task for yourself later on. Not to mention, a more difficult sales process, as by the point a startup publisher reaches half a million dollars in annual revenue they have likely settled into something that “works” for their market/audience/personal tastes.

I expect that once Newspack is established, a lower price point could be introduced. It could be intentional to hold off from this segment of the market, for now. If we assume there’s a finite number of potential startup local news publishers across the country, I see the argument of waiting for the right time — the right amount of market and product validation— then opening the floodgates on new publishers by offering a volume based pricing formula that allows sites to scale their costs as traffic and revenue grow. We want to make sure their likelihood of success is as high as possible.

Another option would be building in deeper revenue features and charging a percentage of revenue on top of Stripe’s fee. This is similar to how Pico, Memberful, Donorbox, and other vendors in the direct transaction space make their money.

As part of the Newspack project, News Revenue Hub put together a research report looking at the specific pain points users across the company were facing. Amanda Krauss, PhD, a user experience researcher and technologist, led the project, and used a two-step method that began with interviews focused on 8 newsrooms with staff sizes ranging from 3-23 full-time employees. These interviews were followed up with a survey distributed to approximately 1,000 people including INN, LION, and Hub member organizations. They ended up receiving 279 responses and generated some really interesting insights in my opinion.

As you can see here, these can all be characterized as concerns outside of day to day story flow. A few years ago we might have been more concerned with the “snowfall” problem, but at this point that kind of long form presentation is a tried and true pattern (and one that has plenty of room for further exploration within the context of Gutenberg). But we can see here that operating a site is so much more than getting stories out. In a larger corporation, we might have separate teams for growth, social media management, and production, but as a local online news startup, editor-publisher types end up fulfilling these multiple jobs for their sites.

As I send you off I want to just say keep up the great work everyone. I remain incredibly excited about the opportunities we have ahead. The work you’re doing might not be the most public or the most glamorous, and Lord knows especially now we need all the attention on the journalistic aspects of what we do, not necessarily the technology, but the work you’re doing matters. It matters deeply, you are making a difference, and on behalf of publishers everywhere, thank you.

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