News Innovators on the Frontline: DavidsonNews.net

Posted on 01. Jul, 2009 by in Hyperlocal, Paid Content, Revenue

In the course of the coming weeks, we’re going to dig into what has worked—and what hasn’t—for news innovators across the country. These journalists and web entrepreneurs have all taken our survey, which we’re using to build the business models and identify the revenue opportunities that will sustain journalism for years to come. Take the survey here.

David Boraks, editor of DavidsonNews.netDavid Boraks, an experienced writer and editor, founded DavidsonNews.net in 2006 as a “volunteer community news website” for Davidson, NC. He and two other writers update the site at least twice daily with news from town hall and the people, churches and non-profits of this small community. Boraks finally cut a check to himself—so far he says the amount is “modest”—for the first time earlier this year. We caught up with him this week while he was on (gasp!) vacation.

What has made DavidsonNews work so far?
We’re moving more and more towards the public radio model. Since mid-2008, we’ve signed up 300 readers paying on average $60-65 a year. Before we’d taken donations, but now I call them “voluntary subscription payments” because I really want to reinforce that people are paying for valuable information.

I see our revenues being split 50/50 between advertising and subscriptions. I would love to have 1,000 people a year give me money—getting to that subscription level, plus the advertising revenue that we’re projecting, would allow me to pay myself and the other writers a regular salary. Then, I’d also think about a paywall. If I could transition from free to pay site, I would. I think that needs to be the way the whole industry moves.

Wouldn’t you lament the loss of readership that might result?
I feel like I provide content that’s of value to people and the readers have shown that they are willing to pay for it. There are 6,500 registered voters in our town and we get over 12,000 unique visitors per month. I look at that number and I see that about one quarter are one-time readers who come off of the search engines for one story. We have several thousand who read once a week or more. So, when I talk to folks I say we have several thousand readers.

At 1,000 subscribers we would have about one-third of the people who read the site right now. I’m confident that, if we asked, a substantial number of the others would sign up.

So, how do you plan to go from 300 to 1,000 subscribers?
We will continue to do promotion and marketing to build our subscriber base. We recently hosted our first public event, which I called a subscriber party, at a well-known coffee shop downtown. Some local musicians donated performances and we had a few speeches. We had a promotional campaign in advance on the site, which cost us a few hundred dollars. We were hoping for 50 new subscribers, but I think we got 90 who donated $50 or above. Some gave more, I think the highest was $250.

Davidson is a small community. Do you have plans to expand your coverage area?
The total population in Davidson is 9,100 people, but when you include the surrounding towns there are several times that, closer to 100,000. In Davidson, you can’t sell one ad and pay for a lot of employees.

My plan is for a network of sites that connects those other towns. I think there is a market for a network of local news sites that are sharing content and advertising. Even if I don’t own those other sites, I could have my ad sales person selling advertising for the network.

What would you need to expand to those areas?
I would need a town editor, someone who could do there what I do in Davidson. Alternatively, I would need someone to take over Davidson so I could report and edit that town. I do not expect to find a volunteer, so I would need to raise some capital – either from myself or from investors – to finance the expansion. That would cost $50,000 or more.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t need much else. I would add to the part-time schedules of both my designer/assistant and my ad sales rep. As for our technology platform, both our editorial software and ad server software can easily be scaled up to handle an additional market, at no additional cost.

Are there any other revenue opportunities you see out there?
I have had offers from local print publications to republish work from DavidsonNews. I haven’t seen an arrangement that makes sense financially, though, and I’m concerned about diluting my readership. What happens to the value of my content if it’s also published elsewhere? Besides, more people in our town read me than read the local daily newspaper. Our reader survey found that more than half of our readers do not read the daily newspaper at all, which was surprising. But, syndication is something I’m studying.

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