How to Start Your Own Local News Site: Tips From a Berkeleyside Co-Founder

The prospect of starting your own news site is more viable an option than ever in the current media climate. Traditional news organizations are plunging left and right, the tools for publishing are free and easy, and communities are finding a new desire to access and share information.

In Berkeley, California, the circumstances were similar in 2009, which led a group of journalists to fill the need by starting their own dedicated site, Berkeleyside. I recently did an email interview with Tracey Taylor (@tktaylor), a co-founder of Berkeley’s news startup, Berkeleyside, to find out what it takes to start your own news organization.

A few notable points from that exchange:

  • Berkeleyside was founded in October 2009 by Lance Knobel, Tracey Taylor and Frances Dinkelspiel, who all have backgrounds as editors and writers.
  • The site is run on WordPress
  • Their main revenue stream is advertising (and they’re starting to build membership revenue)
  • After 18 months of existence, the founders have only recently begun to pay themselves a “very modest monthly salary”
  • Berkelyside.com currently has 117,660 unique visitors monthly
  • The Berkeleyside iPhone app calls for user contributions by allowing community members to submit photos from the scene of news events
  • Three tips Taylor offers to others wanting to start a local news site: do it your way, keep it lean and be transparent

The following Q&A covers everything from inspiration for founding the site, to business challenges, to technical details, to tips for others wanting to start a news site.

LR: How long has Berkeleyside been around?

TT: Berkeleyside was launched in October 2009 after Lannce was wondering why there wasn’t a good source of local news in Berkeley and decided to create one.

When it launched, the site was barely more than a hobby with modest ambitions. The response we had from the community was such that we quickly realized there was a ready audience for news and information on Berkeley. Berkeleyside rapidly evolved into a full-fledged online newspaper.

LR: How big is your staff?

TT: Along with myself and the two other aforementioned co-founders, we have an advertising director (Wendy Cohen).

The founders basically do everything: reporting, editing, taking photographs, liaising with contributors, commissioning stories, planning events, attending community events, moderating comments, accounting, business management and deciding on the site’s policies and strategies.

We use a handful of freelance contributors.

LR: From where does your funding come? (Is your site profitable? Private funding? Grant?)

TT: We are a for-profit start-up, launched on a shoestring, and the founders have only recently begun to pay themselves a very modest monthly salary.

At the moment we rely on other sources of income for our livelihood.

We began to offer advertising on Berkeleyside to local businesses six months after launch.

At around the same time we were approached by a private investor who offered us investment funding. We brought him on as a partner and used the funds to hire a part-time advertising director and we engaged a designer to redesign the site. The remainder was used on a limited amount of marketing.

Our main revenue stream is currently advertising. We are also beginning to build membership revenue (from subscribers and donors); and we get a very modest amount from editorial syndication (San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Citizen).

Our goal is to build diverse revenue streams that will include events (sponsorship and ticket sales); fundraising; merchandising; and other forms of advertising (sponsored editorial, network ads and classified).

We are also exploring whether to create a nonprofit arm in order to create a fund for local journalism and enable us to apply for certain grants.