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”
  • 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.

LR: What CMS are you running? Any other notable software/collaboration tools I should know about?

TT: Berkeleyside is on the WordPress platform. We are looking into using Disqus to manage our Comments section and MailChimp to manage our e-newsletters. We’re on Twitter and Facebook.

LR: What need were you seeking to fill?

TT: Although Berkeley is a dynamic, good-sized city (pop 112,000), with a world-class university and a highly educated demographic, the city had limited dedicated news sources before Berkeleyside.

A local weekly newspaper folded its print edition shortly after Berkeleyside launched; the UC Berkeley student paper, The Daily Californian, covers some city news, but not comprehensively; and local media such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News cover Berkeley stories only sporadically.

We felt there was an audience that would appreciate up-to-the-minute, authoritative and unbiased news and information about what is happening in Berkeley, conveyed in an engaging, lively way.

We also wanted to create a forum for Berkeley residents – somewhere they can gather to debate the issues they care about.

LR: What strategy did you use to get started (e.g. cover a specific niche, focus on breaking news, investigative?)

TT: We started by reporting breaking news and encouraged the community to participate by sending us tips, story ideas, stories and photos.

At least a third of our stories are the result of tip-offs from readers.

Our iPhone app allows readers to send us photos and news directly from their phones if they are on the scene.

Although we encourage citizen journalism, the majority of our content is written by the three founder-editors.

We mix hard news with features on food, lifestyle, schools, local businesses, city policies, science and the arts, as well as photo essays, video reports, and whimsical micro stories on the weather, yarn bombing or a beautiful tree in bloom.

LR: Would you happen to have any numbers about your traffic/pageviews? Is traffic increasing?

TT: Our visitor numbers have increased steadily, sometimes in dramatic leaps, since we launched.

Current numbers (Google Analytics):

  • Monthly pageviews: 340,000
  • Monthly unique visitors: 117,660

LR: Editorially, what are the biggest challenges?

TT: Covering all the news is a challenge – there’s a huge amount going on and the three founder-editors are writing the majority of the content.

(The flip side of this is that, as owner-operators, we get to decide what we want to cover — we are at liberty to cover stories that appeal to us. As a result the site reflects, to a certain extent, the voices and interests of its founders.)

Retaining community contributors and freelance writers – not least because we are not yet able to pay for most of our contributed content.

LR: Business-wise, what are the biggest challenges?

TT: Being cash-strapped, there are restrictions on what we can do. We have a wealth of editorial and publishing ideas that we cannot yet implement because we lack the resources to do them.

Although we are building a steady advertising base, it can be challenging to sell an online news product. There is an education involved in talking to local business owners, some of whom have never have advertised online before.

LR: What has been the most inspiring aspect of what you’re doing?

TT: It’s has been hugely gratifying to see how rapidly our readership has grown (we currently average 120,000 unique visitors a month).

We have immense goodwill in the community, which is very inspiring and urges us to keep plowing the furrow. People thank us for what we do all the time.

We get great feedback from our readers when we break stories and bring them news about aspects of the city they did not know about. Our most popular stories can produce dozens and dozens of comments and go viral on Facebook and Twitter.

We have been able to effect tangible, positive change in the community too. Two examples:

  1. Small business owner Hugo Cornejo, whose auto repair shop was going to be shut down by its leaseholder, Chevron, but after an outcry in our comments section from his loyal customers, his contract was renewed.
  2. Our report about the imminent closure of a much-loved toy store, which had been in business since 1962, caused a San Francisco couple to move to Berkeley to buy and re-open it.

In November 2010, we conducted a readership survey and received 900 responses. The feedback we received was extraordinarily positive and encouraging. It was a huge boost for us to hear directly from our readers that we were on the right track.

LR: What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Short term:

  • Find ways to fund more stories.
  • Implement a membership drive.
  • Increase number of advertisers.
  • Organize second Berkeleyside event – this time for profit
  • Face time in the community– attend fairs and community gatherings.
  • Find a way to manage our Comments section more effectively.

Long term:

  • Build our revenue base sufficiently to make Berkeleyside a sustainable business that provides livelihoods for its three founders.

LR: What are the top 3 tips you would pass on to people wanting to start an independent news site in their communities?

  1. Do it your way. Make the site your own with voice and personality while meeting the needs of your readers.
  2. Keep it lean. An independent online news site can be launched on a wing and a prayer. There’s no need to accrue big debts at the outset, or hopefully ever.
  3. Be transparent. Do the best you can, but if you a make mistake come clean. There’s nowhere to hide with a community site and you rely wholly on your readers’ trust for your reputation and hence survival.