Heading into the launch of the first digital-only news site of The Compass Experiment at McClatchy in the fall of 2019, we had a few guiding ideas on how we wanted to grow a ground-up revenue strategy based on our collective experience in local media and lessons learned from digital news start-ups.
Explore revenue beyond digital display advertising
Collaborate in true partnerships and not transactions
Build revenue at the same time as we developed audience
When Village Media, our technology and operations partner for Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, OH, introduced us to their smart, annual package -- the Community Leaders Program - that rolled up sponsored sections, branded content and digital display advertising, it ticked a lot of those boxes.
Village Media had demonstrated success with the program for their more established local properties - the experiment for McClatchy and Mahoning Matters was to test the waters pre-launch and in a new, U.S.-based market.
As Mahoning Matters went live in October 2019, and with our audience still on the ground floor, we closed our first annual contract with the creative agency of a regional business that understood the value of standing behind community content. A second annual contract followed in April 2020, near our six-month anniversary, in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. In that case, we collaborated with a local business that was closed due to Ohio's stay-at-home orders to provide a standout presence on our site alongside the community-centric stories our audience was seeking. As other news sites experienced a pull-back from advertisers, Mahoning Matters saw local partners lean in, which we attribute to a growing audience with increased news coverage and carefully tended local relationships.
The key feature of the Community Leaders Program (or CLP) is the sponsorship of a featured section on our digital site that finds common ground topically with the editorial team and the partner. The best examples of these content sections are newsworthy and built with the community's interests in mind, while also appealing to the partner's brand.
Annual CLP packages currently range in price up to $2,500 monthly and typically include:
A sponsored section of common interest, which features a business' branding and is exclusive to the vertical and to their industry.
Sponsorship recognition on a weekly article produced by editorial for the section. Articles run in our news feed, are highlighted on social media channels and newsletters, and are archived on the business' directory page.
Quarterly spotlight or sponsored content articles produced by a branded content team featuring a key initiative of the business.
Simple and clear monthly reports demonstrating audience traffic to featured articles and click-through rates to their branding.
At Mahoning Matters, for example, each Monday features a profile piece for the Movers & Makers section sponsored by Farmers National Bank which tells the stories of local business owners and entrepreneurs. On Thursdays, we deliver the story of an everyday hero in the Difference Makers section sponsored by Eastwood Mall. Often these features stories are among the most viewed of the week.
Although partners have no influence on the editorial content in the sections they sponsor, one of the more rewarding aspects of developing new sections is the creative collaborations we've participated in with local teams and CLP partners. At the Compass Experiment's second site, The Longmont Leader, launched in June in Longmont, CO, we've already started those discussions.
The Value Proposition
As a news organization, the CLP product allows our start-up to budget with predictable recurring revenue, support local journalists, and work on providing excellent one-on-one customer service to our founding partners.
In turn, our partners are able to associate their branding and messaging with community content that ranks among our most widely read and shared articles. Because our strategy calls for exclusivity in both sections (Ex: Arts, Sports) and industries (Ex: Financial, Real Estate), CLPs provide a highly-visible, premier marketing tool for businesses and organizations in our local markets.
"With only 10 or so available in a given market, the CLP enables businesses to not only stand out in their competitive landscape as a business that cares passionately about telling important local stories, but to stand out among all local businesses as a pillar of the community," said David Turkstra, Chief Strategy Officer, Village Media.
For a start-up launch, like Mahoning Matters and the newer Longmont Leader, the Community Leaders Program allows our small teams to focus on building long-term, high-value relationships in the community with key stakeholders who are interested in supporting local news gathering efforts. It allows us to build partnerships to support content at the same time we are building audience and readership habits to these nascent digital sites.
"The Community Leaders Program allows us to hire freelance writers and photographers to tell the stories in our community that might otherwise not be told," said Mark Sweetwood, editor of Mahoning Matters, serving Youngstown,OH and the Mahoning Valley. "It allows us to expand our coverage and report unique stories that highlight the important businesses and people that make our Valley special."
As we understand, and from research succinctly distilled by the Local Media Association, consumers appreciate the role of local media for three core reasons:
Trustworthiness --- local media have a vested interest in the community
Relevancy --- local media focus on information that directly impacts consumers
Connection --- local media tell consumers what's going on in their communities
The CLP program pulls on each of these threads, linking our business partners to the value we seek to provide our communities each and every day.
The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google News Initiative's Local Experiments Project. Compass sites include Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio and The Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado.