Introducing Spirited Media 2.0

The crowd at The Incline’s inaugural Who’s Next Bash in Pittsburgh. Photo: James Knox

Helping figure out the future of local news is hard. We knew that when we formed Spirited Media in 2014, and we’ve ridden the ups and downs every day since. But no week was as difficult and painful as the week of October 30th, when we laid off five people as part of a major expense cut.

We watched friends and valued colleagues depart our sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Denver because our business hasn’t grown the way we’d planned. Being a startup doesn’t mean we’re immune to the same pressures companies ten or 100 times our size are staring down. In fact, since we’re smaller, we may feel those effects even more acutely.

So if you’re looking for talented salespeople in Philly or Pittsburgh, or some kick-ass journalists in Denver, please let us know at contact@spiritedmedia.com and we’ll put you in touch with them.

So why did we need to get smaller? It’s pretty simple: Runway is crucial for any startup, and we wanted and needed a longer one than we had at a larger size.

Part of the reason we needed that longer runway was that success in display advertising in early 2017 led us to plan for revenue goals we didn’t achieve. We had other challenges, too — we’ve never spent money on marketing, and relied on all-organic traffic, which left us subject to the whims of algorithms that determine how often our articles get seen. So our sales staff wasn’t given the best conditions to operate in, and, all things considered, did pretty well. But it became clear to us that chasing advertising dollars — which has never been our primary revenue source — wasn’t producing a very good ROI for us.

As a result, we’re making a few major changes to our revenue model:

  • We’re walking away from direct-sold display advertising. There’s no point in us going head-to-head with Facebook, Google and a slew of local competitors. As the Wall Street Journal notes, our ad revenue is 20 percent below projections thus far in 2017. Yes, we’ll still have advertising on our sites — we’ll primarily use networks or resellers — and will still offer direct-sold ads as part of broader revenue packages. But we want it to be — need it to be, in fact — a secondary revenue stream.
  • We’re re-focusing on what’s always been a key revenue line for us: events, which encompasses sponsorships and ticket sales. Our sites held more than 40 events in 2017, and it’s one of the ways we’ve built the intensely loyal audiences we have. We need to attract even more people to events in 2018.
  • We’ll also be launching membership programs in all our cities in early 2018. We’re going to be asking for the communities we’ve built — people who’ve stopped us on the street or in restaurants to tell us how much they love we’re doing — to help support our work. We’re working with the News Revenue Hub, a non-profit that has helped a number of smart newsrooms launch membership in this perilous time for journalism, including PolitiFact, Honolulu Civil Beat, The Intercept and many more. There will be more details coming soon on pricing and the elements of our membership packages.
  • We’re also exploring a new line of business, and that’s offering consulting services to companies looking to reach audiences like ours. We’ve proved three times over that we can attract young, engaged audiences — something legacy media outlets can still find vexing. This may mean that Spirited Media can help shore up companies’ existing products; offer white-label versions of Billy Penn, The Incline and Denverite in other cities; offer our platform to others looking for a head start; help launch a successful events strategy, or simply provide advice. We’ve gotten a handful of unsolicited requests for services like these in recent months, and believe it’s an opportunity worth exploring.

This refocusing of our efforts is what led a group of investors to fund the work we’re setting out to do. We recently closed a $1.8 million round from investors including Gannett, Patch, Horan MediaTech Advisors and Spirited Media founders Jim and Joan Brady. That funding extends our runway through 2018 as we continue to work to turn our efforts into a sustainable business.

None of the progress we’ve made to this point or the exciting opportunities ahead change the fact that last week was a setback for Spirited Media. Those who lost their jobs last week helped us tremendously, and the fact we couldn’t remain the size we were is a bitter disappointment to all of us.

But we didn’t get into the battle of trying to find a solution for local news because we thought it was easy. Last week was a reminder that it is indeed hard. But it was also a reminder that we are still here, and still fighting the hard battles necessary to help win the battle for local news.

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