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.

Freelancer Jennifer Jean Miller on Launching a Local News Site

Jennifer Jean Miller by Katie Demott540

Photo by Katie Demott

Jennifer Jean Miller of Newton, New Jersey, recently went from being a freelance writer for several community newspapers and websites to managing editor and CEO of online-only local news site The Alternative Press of Sussex County. Ebyline chatted with Miller about this transition. Excerpts from that interview follow.

When did you begin freelance writing, and why?
Writing had always been a love of mine, along with acting, and vocal performance. I had worked in Corporate America, however, and, found it didn’t suit me. After my children were born, I decided I must not give up on my dreams, or, what would it teach my children?

I submitted a writing sample to a company that published biographies and was seeking writers. I wrote a tribute in memory of my grandmother, Jean Miller. Until I actually started writing, I never knew she had wanted to be a reporter herself, so my submission could not have been more appropriate, and was accepted immediately.

I ended up writing articles for various publications, and then writing for a sunglass company. When I became a single parent in 2008, I started writing for Straus News as a beat reporter (later adding photography), then The Alternative Press in 2009, and added LH! Weekly to my list of clients in 2010.

I have been so blessed in my career, have met so many wonderful people, and have been connected to such unique stories, which have added to my life experiences exponentially. In 2010, I was awarded the Media and Entertainment Award from the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma, and, one of my photos was nominated for a National Newspaper Association Award this year. I am so grateful, know I’m where I’m supposed to be in life, and, look forward to more.

What do you like most – and least – about freelancing?
People look at me all the time and say, “I can see you love your job.” They’re 100 percent correct. For me, I love the variety and the newness each assignment brings each day. It fuels my creative fire. It’s not the same spin on the same hamster wheel day in and day out that I experienced in my corporate life, though I still retain a part of the corporate culture within me. I also am blessed by the flexibility of my job, that I can work from anywhere, as long as I have my phone, notepad, camera and Internet connection. It is a blessing as well as a mom on her own, as it provides me an opportunity to work, while having my children nearby, and being available for them.

The downside is how I see many publications exploit freelancers. Forgive me if I sound like I am complaining, I am grateful to have work in such a difficult economic climate when so many are struggling. Yet, I see this is an area, which really needs to be reformed in the industry…having been on the receiving end already (obviously not with the organization I have chosen to represent). I plan to do what I can to provide the best that I can and be as respectful as possible for my freelancers when I hire them.

Tell us about The Alternative Press of Sussex County. When was it launched, what is its mission, and what are the opportunities and challenges of starting up an online-only site? What kind of competition do you face in the region?
Like our parent company TheAlternativePress.com, The Alternative Press of Sussex County LLC, a license holder of the site, started the site with a number of goals. Among the goals of The Alternative Press of Sussex County LLC: to provide impartial and very local online news coverage to the areas they serve, to develop a strong revenue-based organization, to be community-oriented, and to be able to be a source in the county where talented journalists and marketing consultants can find freelance work to earn a living. We want to be a part of the community while helping to grow the local economy.

In terms of coverage, I have found much of the current local coverage in Sussex County has been substituted in many cases for news off the wires, rather than what is happening in our own backyards. This has been a disservice to our residents, who are always grateful for very local coverage. We will be providing coverage, including local sports, which is very important to residents of Sussex County. And I keep my finger on the pulse of what’s truly happening in my community and get the word out about it.

There are great opportunities for starting up an online-only site. This is the route many news organizations are taking, and, while most print publications have downsized since 2008, TheAlternativePress.com started with two towns, and has now grown to 17, with the publication remaining profitable.

As for challenges, I do not shy away from them, and have found instead the response to our arrival in Sussex County with our Newton site has been very positive. We “soft-launched” our site on March 1 and will be having our official launch in the very near future. Prior to March 1, we started our Facebook page and news coverage, and, have already developed quite a following. Many of the articles written have gone viral already, and have been shared on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google +, and Twitter.

Yes, I will say the work is not easy. As a writer and photographer, I still work very hard, yet, as an entrepreneur to boot, I work even harder. I love the challenge, I love the work, and I love the payoff ahead for me, so bring it on!

What advice would you give to other freelancers who want to start up their own journalism venture?
Freelance writers need to make a decision: either stay where you are now if you’re comfortable, or step out of your comfort zone, grab the next ring and let go of the previous one. I say to do the latter: you won’t regret it. Do your research into your venture, work with partners who have similar visions and work ethics, make a plan, then execute it, and don’t look back. Instead, go all the way, and keep running. American innovator Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.” I concur with Mr. Wright – and I add, “Conceive it, believe it, then achieve it. Close your ears to the naysayers, surround yourself with positive people and circumstances, be brave, and have faith; head onward and upward as my grandfather used to say, and, your dream will become your reality.”