GoLocal24’s Josh Fenton on growing and monetizing local news sites

GoLocal24AOL Patch isn’t the only network of local news sites with grand ambitions, both financial and editorial. Josh Fenton’s GoLocal24, though far smaller in scale, has been stealthily (at least, if you’re not in Massachusetts or Rhode Island) growing its coverage mandate and reach with audiences and advertisers.

Founded in 2010 with the launch of  GoLocalProv.com by Joshua Fenton, a former Providence city council member and corporate communications entrepreneur, GoLocal24 has quickly moved beyond the backyard barbecues and yard sales to undertake investigative reporting that sparked a federal investigation into spending by the City of Providence. Fenton followed up that success by launching GoLocalWorcester.com in February.

Ebyline talked to Fenton about the growth of mobile and online video in local online news, as well as his predictions for news trends in 2013. The following is an excerpt of that interview, edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell us about GoLocal24’s business model.

There’s a void now, especially in midsized markets, in which the daily newspapers functionally go away as the keepers of the community experience. As you’re seeing in cities like Syracuse and New Orleans, significant size markets, the newspapers have gone to publishing three days a week. And as we all know, the news doesn’t wait for 48-hour and 72-hour timelines to go forward. Our model is to build high-value local content and re-differentiate from other models that are hyperlocal. We’re looking to do enterprise investigative journalism, significant stories about the community whether they’re stories in government or politics or lifestyle or business.

What monetization strategies does Local24 use?

It is primarily advertising. It may be a sponsorship, it may be in parallel with the content section, it may be mobile, it may be online video. I think in 2013, we’ll probably be developing more bench around some of the areas that we’re already covering in depth. But it is on the advertising level.

One of the challenges local news sites face is the fragmentation of the local advertising landscape. What are your thoughts on that?

We go after the larger branded advertisers: major banks, hospitals, insurance companies, the largest restaurant groups. It’s not the local pizza place. There’s definitely been a major progression in the last 24 months in the sophistication of advertisers. Advertisers now see that their target is digital and [consumers are] getting the vast majority of their news and information via smartphone, and iPad [or] laptop; and that’s where they need to get their message out. I think advertisers are still disproportionately under-spending in digital, but I think that will [change] in the next 12 to 18 months.

How does mobile fit into all this?

I think everybody’s got to be mindful of the growth trajectory. We see about 25% of our unique visits arrive from mobile. So in Providence, we just launched a new web-based mobile version.

Where do you see local news sites headed in 2013?

I think online video is incredibly important and it’s an incredibly strong way both for the user to experience video … and also a very, very effective way for advertisers to [reach customers]. If I buy a TV, I can DVR through ads. I can get up and go to the kitchen and get something to drink. In the case of online, I think it functionally cannot be ignored. And you’re just seeing tremendous growth in [the] online video experience. If you’re under 30…a significant portion of your television viewing is taking place via a laptop or a tablet.

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.