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Digital startups see opportunity in local journalism

Laura Benshoff Jul 24, 2019
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A tablet displaying a news website is shown on top of print versions of the newspaper in 2016.
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

While the journalism world was reeling post-Great Recession, then-college student Tom Sofield experienced his first taste of digital media success.

“We started an online blog for a class and people started reading it. It was kind of accidental,” said the 28-year-old.

That blog was the precursor to his first hyperlocal news website, one of many rising up to try to fill gaps in coverage left as regional newspapers cut back. In Pennsylvania alone, more than a dozen “promising” media sites have cropped up, according to the digital startup tracker Michele’s List.

These digital news disruptors are trying to create sustainable business models, while competing with Google and Facebook for diminishing advertising dollars. In Sofield’s case, it took a couple of years before he was ready to hang out his own shingle.

After taking journalism and communications class at Bucks County Community College, north of Philadelphia, Sofield worked at Patch, an online media company. He was assigned to cover the Levittown area, which has a population of more than 52,000 and is one of the first planned suburbs.

These tightly packed communities, with cul-de-sacs and cookie-cutter houses, turned out to be a perfect place to start a local news site.

Tom Sofield, founder of the news website LevittownNow. (Credit: Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I looked at how many local businesses there were, and then I looked at the population, the income, and Levittown really seemed to be that sweet spot where there will still a lot of small local businesses,” said Sofield.

Those businesses were potential advertisers, and the wider population were potential readers.

Sofield’s first site, LevittownNow.com, is now six years old. It averages around 700,000 page views a month and, while he would not share specifics, Sofield says it is profitable. He recently started another site covering a nearby community.

As the company grew, Sofield reorganized, cutting two full-time reporting positions and hiring more freelancers instead.

“That’s the thing about the news business, you’re always trying to weigh what works, what doesn’t, what you can afford, what you can’t afford,” he said.

Staying small keeps costs down, but new media companies must grapple with how to make enough money to survive.

“Many of these startups are still supported by advertising. And we know that advertising is not a growth area for news,” said Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook have been gobbling up ad dollars that used to to go media companies. A recent study by the News Media Alliance found that Google also made $4.7 billion dollars in 2018 by just passing along local news content. The company contested the figure.

Amid this seismic change in advertising, new and old media outlets are looking to diversify their revenue streams.

For Kevin Tierney, founder of Pennsylvania-based news and opinion site More Than The Curve, that means hosting a steady stream of events.

On a recent Saturday in Conshohocken, a borough west of Philadelphia, he checked in attendees of a Mexican-food-themed pub crawl, Tacohocken.

About 200 people paid $20 a ticket in exchange for a free drink, T-shirt and food specials like cheap tacos. Tierney convinced a local real estate business to sponsor the event, with proceeds going to More Than The Curve.

Offering people a good time is “one of the ways we raise revenues to support the site,” Tierney said.

The company has other ways of leveraging its name and local connections, whether it’s a membership card offering discounts at local businesses, or t-shirts riffing on the borough’s distinctive name.

“We can go make a shirt that says ‘It’s Always Sunny in Conshohocken’ and sell 200 shirts right away,” he said. “The brand of Conshohocken is very desirable, and people want to be associated with it.”

Tacohocken participant Patricia Powell said she reads More Than The Curve to keep up with new real estate developments and the what the borough council is doing.

Powell says she doesn’t really know how else she’d get that information. The dollar tacos are an added bonus.

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