The Secret to Innovation in Local News? Never Standing Still

Transition continues for 10-year-old CTNewsJunkie — and that’s a good thing

Connecticut News Junkie has been around for just over a decade, making it one of the longest running of a new generation of local news sites in the country. The newsroom, run by husband and wife team Christine Stuart and Doug Hardy, is constantly testing big ideas to build new revenue strategies around serving their readers.

Over the last few months I have been emailing back and forth with Doug Hardy about their experiments and what they are learning. In addition to CTNewsJunkie, Hardy partnered with Lon Seidman to launch the Independent Media Network in Connecticut, offering a range of services to support other digital news startups in the state.

I’ve long been inspired by Doug and Christine’s openness to thinking big. What follows is an edited version of those emails.

Q: Congrats on 10 years in business. My sense is that you’ve lasted this long by never really standing still. You are constantly testing new ideas and pushing the envelope on how you can build sustainable local news. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in ten years? Tell me about some of the recent changes you’ve made in the site in terms of revenue strategies?

A lot has changed in 10 years and you’re correct that we’ve had to change our business model quite a bit. We’ve always had display advertising, but it was seasonal, arriving only during legislative sessions and elections during statewide ballot years. So in an effort to even out that seasonality, we have revamped our model quite a bit to diversify revenue. To that end, we built a parallel site for commerce around a directory. We started out targeting political agencies and consulting firms for directory membership at $1,000 a year. They get some display visibility on our main news site for their brand along with their listing, and a 25% discount on an ad campaign for a client.

In many cases, that discount can cover their directory fee for the year. The idea is to partner with these agencies more closely to encourage them to buy more comprehensive ad campaigns through us, and by doing so we hope to even out our revenue beyond the seasonal advertising that supported us for the first 9–10 years.

Q: That’s a different kind of ‘membership’ than a lot of other newsrooms are exploring. How did you identify the need for this type of program and how is it going? How are you weaving together a diverse set of services into this program?

We have 13 members so far and we’re seeing some pretty significant ad buys arriving through our directory members. At some point we realized that most of the ad buys coming our way weren’t coming directly from clients or the origination organizations that were paying for them. Our main customers were the communications firms, ad agencies, ad buyers, and lobbyists who work with politicians and special interests who hire them to manage their campaigns. We realized that the more relationships we build with those middle-men firms, the more business we’d get, and it seems to be working.

Along with the directory, we’ve added a calendar for events and we are promoting those events free of charge in the lower portion of our daily email blast — with the option to pay us to promote more aggressively (in CTNJ’s Extra Extra column for example, as well as display ads and social media pushes). There’s also a job board — not a whole lot of interest in that yet, and I’ve tried to integrate Indeed job listings but it’s not bringing in much $ at all, so far. But posting a job listing or an event in the Extra Extra column on our homepage was our first foray into paid content. Pretty limited, but we think it’ll fly. We’re also offering sponsored op-eds now as well, and sponsored links out to other sites.

Q: The directory focuses mainly on businesses as members, do you plan to have a membership option for individuals?

Actually, as of this year, the directory’s focus isn’t entirely on businesses. Aside from those political firms, this year we offered a new tier of directory membership for other organizations that want to support us as well. In particular these are organizations that traditionally haven’t used middle-man firms to help them execute their ad campaigns. We provide them with some of those same middle-man services ourselves, and we provide that same discount for advertising in our marquee ad positions. We help them with planning their ad buys and with their websites, etc. We are trying to be flexible with respect to directory membership to make sure we have more potential members.

In terms of individual reader supporters, we have have always tried to generate some dollars through those kinds of small donations. We gave away coffee mugs for a long time. Last summer we launched a new effort with a membership program rooted in coupon mailers — similar to the Bungalower Bundle in Orlando. The concept was working well for the Bungalower so we tried to create a version of that ourselves.

We launched our “Capitol Gains Club” with a big fundraising push last year and brought in more money in a week than we ever had on reader contributions before. We created new membership options, offered CafePress schwag (mugs and more) for higher dollar values, etc. … We got several contributions of $500, including a $500 contribution plus another $1,000 for directory membership from a lawyer who reads our site.

So there was good overlap between the reader contribution ask and the business directory.

But the labor involved in getting other businesses on board to offer deals to our readers — even free of charge — has been a barrier. It’s hard to spend a lot of time on calls, emails, and visits to businesses to get them to offer a deal that we would then market to our club members for them, free of charge, in the hope of drawing in new readers as paid club members. Too much time and effort for too little reward. Sad to say, we’re back to the drawing board on that.

Q: When community news sites are looking for support, the community comes in all shapes and sizes. For a first time effort these sound like good results, how did you reach out to people and make the case for supporting your work? Are you picturing any other membership benefits over time beyond T-shirts and such? Are there other creative rewards you might test?

Short answer is yes, we’re going to try new concepts for reader membership for sure. But looking at this space, the best model appears to be NPR, which has the heavy-handed ability to cut off content during pledge drives. On the web we can’t really do that, particularly because we have newspaper clients that expect the coverage and the op-eds. But similar to NPR, the thing that gave us that best fundraising week to date was a denial of service in our daily email blasts.

Our Morning Coffee & Politics email is a tip sheet on what to expect at the capitol each day, and apparently people really depend on it in planning their day.

We essentially cleared out the daily email blasts except for the “ask,” and we did several different versions of the ask as well… republishing those asks daily at the top of the site in a “featured” mode that we seldom utilize. And it appears to have worked really well. That said, during that weeklong push we had just 88 transactions, which is well below 1% of our weekly unique readership. That goes to show how difficult this really is. We need to do the ask more often.

Q: This stuff is tough. It would be tough even if we had it all figured out, but when you layer on all these experiments, on top of the day to day work, it can be exhausting I’m sure. How have you been able to manage building these new parts of the site with doing the ongoing work of keeping the site going — writing, selling, marketing, etc…?

Truth is, it’s really very challenging all the time. I regularly hit up our partner Lon Seidman and other colleagues with tech questions to try to get things working the way we envisioned them. Our mantra is “nothing is ever easy.” And then, just as often, the technology works but the business aspect doesn’t fly or draw customers. So there are plenty of late nights, nonstop work weeks juggling multiple projects. Not to mention a 13-month-old baby as well.

But now that we’re past the basic learning stages of running CTNewsJunkie, I’m a bit gun shy with respect to sharing our “successes” as it were, because the reality is that even when we are successful, we are always struggling. And sometimes, when I’m feeling the occasional wave of uncertainty about these revenue experiments, I wonder if we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. And my wife is continually busy on the news side — continually. I don’t believe we work harder than any hyperlocal, per se, but the 24/7 political news cycle is different from a typical municipality or county. There are billions of dollars at stake at the state level instead of the millions at the local level. With more money, there’s more complexity. Hundreds of different bills are proposed every year. During the legislative session in the first half of the year, there are far more news stories than we can get to. So it’s nonstop on the news side and burnout is always a concern.

On the revenue side, it is easier to innovate when you can count on at least one revenue stream as a sure thing, but today there are no sure things.

Traditional revenue sources (display advertising, reader support) are never really steady or guaranteed. Display is showing signs of being a bubble that’s about to burst. And right now, on the business side, we don’t have a salesperson or even a part-time bookkeeper. I’m it. Christine is really the only full-time person on the news side and she juggles freelancers and interns both as editor, copy editor, and lead reporter. And I’m the backup copy editor and backup social media operation. Like a lot of small business owners, we are drastically overtasked. Can we keep going? Absolutely. Our revenue has grown little by little just about every year. Will we keep going? Best answer I can give is that we’ll do it as long as we want to do it.

We certainly are cognizant of the mission as well. Our democracy needs professional journalism. It doesn’t need clickbait.

Thanks for sharing what you are doing and what you are learning. I think a lot of people can relate to this tension of trying to build something lasting even while you are constantly trying to rearrange the pieces at the same time.

Congratulations to you and Christine what you have built, and for the ways you’ve constantly looked for ways to support other local news entrepreneurs in Connecticut and beyond.

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