Main Street Connect: a Hyperlocal alternative to Patch.com
Most independent hyperlocal startups have the same plan: start a news site, make it profitable and franchise the model out to other locations.
Few however, have been successful in scaling local news. Aol is trying with Patch while companies like Everyblock and Outside.in are taking a more automated approach, aggregating local news through news feeds. Main Street Connect, however, is priding itself on going back to the roots of local news to help rebuild the idea of the America community newspaper.
“Every member of our team has spent many, many years in the community they cover," says CEO and Founder Carl Tucker. "You have to be a member of Rotary and the Chamber [of Commerce] and put your arms around your neighbor and sing the songs to get what community news is all about."
So far, the network has one “mature site” and several newly created sites. Its established site, The Daily Norwalk, receives 15,000 unique visitors a month. Not earth-shattering numbers, but each of those visitors averages over six page views a visit and nearly five minutes on site with each visit.
The Connecticut-based company is slowly building a new news platform to help fill the void left by cash-strapped local newspapers, borrowing their best ideas while leaving behind the print component.
Main Street is still looking to find “affiliates” to expand to towns with populations of at least 20,000 English-speaking residents. The company takes 17 percent of revenues and provides affiliates with a Drupal-based CMS, a Salesforce.com CRM system, accounting and billing systems as well as guide to social media and other content strategy.
The affiliate is responsible for selling advertising, reporting the news and understanding the local community, something Tucker believes is paramount to Main Street’s success and the main separator between his company and the national brands.
NATIONAL NEWS BRANDS
In 1999 Tucker sold his company’s nine local newspapers to Gannett. However, five years after the purchase, Gannett closed down the chain’s flagship newspaper, The Daily Trader (Mt. Kisco, NY) in what Tucker describes as a “mercy killing.”
"That is absolutely typical of big companies,” he says, “not because the Hearsts and Gannetts are stupid, it’s just that they don't have a feel for community news.”
An admitted technical neophyte, Tucker says he didn’t even start reading online news until three of four years ago, and not routinely until the 2008 election. To him, online local news just makes the best business sense.
“Those people with an allegiance to paper must still be collecting a paycheck from someone, and not trying to make their own money," he says.
Currently, Main Street Connect has 27 employees, with ambitious plans to launch 3,000 sites by 2013. The network’s business plan calls for $2 million in yearly revenue with eight mature sites, something that Tucker claims to be “tracking well ahead” of.
The key to revenue growth lies in the company’s “annual visibility packages.” The AVP packages are what Main Street calls its advertising packages, acknowledging that local businesses often don’t understand the vernacular that larger newspapers use when selling online advertising.
The company views the ad packages much like an online consultancy, bringing online marketing to business that likely don’t understand the web.
Business that sign up for an AVP get:
- A “Local Hero” box that honors a local resident nominated by the business. As part of the package, Main Street will donate $50 to the recipient’s cause (see right).
- Suggested profiles. As part of the package, the business can suggest editorial content to the staff. The editorial team then writes a profile. The business has no oversight over the editorial process after the initial topic suggestion.
- “Customers come first” box on the page that businesses can use to honor their customers.
- The assignment of a “designated news gatherer.” Advertisers get the private cell phone number of a reporter to pitch stories to.
- Tickets to the “Annual Gala”
- A display advertisement with link.
Currently, the packages are the network’s only source of revenue, but the company hopes to expand to other offerings, especially e-commerce.
However, much like franchise restaurants can leverage their corporate partners, Main Street hopes to pool back-end resources to help innovate local news. For example, the company has developed a mobile application that allows local parents to enter Little League box scores and automatically upload them to the local Main Street-owned site.
“That information is of intense interest to 50 people, but not to anyone else in the world,” says Tucker.
That app would not make sense for a small local site on its own, but the combined might of Main Street Connect sites may be able to move the local news needle.
“I’m a certain kind of evangelical freak about community news being the heartbeat of a community," says Tucker. "It just turns out that it’s also really good business."