It’s not a view of hyperlocal sites shared by Marc Reeves who quit as Birmingham Post editor last November.
After more than 20 years in print journalism he moved firmly to digital launching the West Midlands version of thebusinessdesk.com – a site laser targeted at busy business people.
Sitting in Urban Coffee in the heart of Brum’s financial district he cuts a relaxed figure suited but tieless with a healthy tan.
Without the weight of a print works to keep warm and a 200 year old pension fund to service? No wonder he is relaxed.
To the National Union of Journalists Marc in the past has been a figure of suspicion. To the digital community an inspiration.
He’s here at a Jeecamp fringe event to talk to hyperlocal bloggers and students about his experience with his new start-up.
This event Marc is talking at could just be an exercise of grousing at how journalism is going to the dogs. It doesn’t pan out that way.
Marc carefully explains the thinking behind the site. There’s a few surprises. And some lessons that can be learned by the local government, hyperlocals looking to monetise what they do.
The event was brilliantly summarised by organiser Philip John. No, I didn’t agree with all of it. But there were a few lessons that can be learned by the public sector as well as hyperlocal bloggers.
How does the Business Desk work?
Business people are busy people. They’re at their desk early planning their day. A targeted email with 15 relevant news headlines is sent before 9am. The email links back to the website.
MORAL: They’d looked into their audience. Who it was and how they could best be communicated with. Then they tailored it. They DIDN’T build it Field of Dreams style and hope they’d come.
How do they know what stories are popular?
Google analytics help tell the journalist what stories are popular and which are not. Extra time and effort is then spent on ones which are popular.
MORAL: Don’t work blind. Listen to see what is popular.
Where does content come from?
Refreshingly, it’s fresh copy. Stories emerge from networking, talking to contacts as well as through standard press releases and announcements. They started as a two man team and have increased to six in the West Midlands. With similar sites in Yorkshire and the North West as well as the West Midlands they have a turn-over of around £1 milion. That’s a serious figure.
MORAL: Well written content updated daily can work. Traditional journalism CAN work.
What about paywalls?
What are paywalls? They are barriers to content you need a subscription to get past. They won’t work, Marc says. But they’ll work beautifully to push traffic towards sites like The Business Desk. They won’t work for hyperlocals.
MORAL: Information is free on the web. Think of other ways to be self-sustaining.
So how does the thing pay for itself?
Site advertising pays but increasingly events do too. Niche events that 40 people will pay money for insights on work, for example. They also become ways to built the online community offline too.
MORAL: Don’t look at one way to generate funds.
What about the site traffic?
Unlike newspapers, Marc was hugely free with insights into his site traffic. There’s about 1,200 visitors every day with 2.5 to three page impressions per visit.
This is from a base of 4,282 and 2,400 email subscribers. Small numbers? Maybe. But this is a start-up. And remember, the Birmingham Post used to sell around 10,000 a week.
MORAL: Build a community around a niche.
Email? Isn’t that boring?
It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s big figures. I’ll say that again. It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s not boring. It’s brilliant. It’s not something unique to thebusinessdesk.com. The IDeA Communities of Practice site does something with a daily email update.
MORAL: E-mail is the overlooked communication tool of web 2.0. As late 90s as it is you can reach big numbers through it. It also acts as a tap on the shoulder to remind you that site you signed up to is there.
So, what’s to learn?
I’m convinced there are lessons here, not just for news websites but for web users in general and yes, that does mean the public sector.
1. Think basic. Email may not be sexy. But people use it. In large numbers. Get an email subscription going. Don’t be afraid to be web1.0.
2. Think sustainable (content). Think about how the site will last. Make sure there’s a team not one overworked individual.
3. Think sustainable (finance). Think through how it can last and if not be a not-for-profit at least be a not-for-loss.
4. Research. Put some thought into your audience. Think who you are writing for. Think how and when they’d like content delivered. Be niche.
5. Wear different hats. Be a journalist. Be a marketeer. Be an advertising sales person.
6. Write your own content and develop a voice.