Scott Brodbeck built a thriving local news company in the DC suburbs

Arlington Country, Virginia is a suburb of DC. It has over 236,000 residents, thousands of local businesses, and an average household income north of $100,000. With those sorts of attributes, you’d think it would have a vibrant daily newspaper, but instead its citizens mostly rely on the Washington Post metro section and a few weekly newspapers to get their news.

Or at least that’s all they had up until about a decade ago. In January 2010, a former TV news producer named Scott Brodbeck launched Arlington Now, an online only news site dedicated specifically to Arlington. It quickly grew an audience and revenue base, and Scott has since launched several other sites covering Northern Virginia.

I recently interviewed Scott about the founding of Arlington Now, how his journalists approach their coverage, and why he doesn’t consider Google and Facebook to be much of a threat to his advertising revenue.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Scott launched his first local news site

Scott left TV news in 2009 and embarked on an MBA program at Georgetown University. While there he began thinking about the future of local news and how the internet would make it much easier to launch competitors to legacy newspapers. “I decided just to up and launch my own site, and that's what I did with a laptop, a police scanner, and a camera.” It certainly helped that he lived in a highly-populated place with very little news presence. “I definitely think that Arlington is a very attractive market to be in, and I was very fortunate to happen to live there and to see the need for better coverage of the entire county. When I launched the site, there were two weekly newspapers that were the main sources of coverage in Arlington. There's also sort of fly-by coverage from the TV stations and the Washington Post and some other outlets, but when I launched the site, everybody thought Arlington was boring because they never heard of anything going on there. I had the feeling that there was actually a lot going on here of relevance.”

In those early days Scott didn’t have much of a business model, nor did he know if anyone would actually read the blog. “I started out covering things that were probably more in the shallow end. There were some big snow storms when I started out. We covered things like crime reports. If there was a fire, I'd go to that fire. Eventually we started getting tips. We started doing more in-depth county and government coverage.  If we weren't covering it ourselves, we were linking out to the other news sources that might've been covering it.”

Much of the blog’s early audience growth came from Google. “What I saw was that when we covered a story that was important to a lot of people, but it wasn't being covered by anybody else, we would get Google traffic, with people Googling phrases like ‘fire on North Harrison Street’ and they would find our site and they would either bookmark it or subscribe on RSS.” 

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Why he decided to expand to other counties

Eventually, Arlington Now became sustainable and Scott turned his eye to other DC suburbs as potential targets for expansion. He launched sites in Alexandria, Fairfax, and Bethesda. He even started one within DC itself. Not all of these publications were successful. “Bethesda was our first incursion outside of Arlington and we faced some tough competition from a very smart guy who runs a Bethesda magazine out there. We went head to head for a while and eventually he bought our site. In terms of our DC sites, we tried to cover individual communities in DC. I'm very proud of the journalism we did there, but like our Bethesda effort, it just was not as much of a business success as we enjoyed in Arlington, and as a result, we eventually made the decision to shut down those sites. This is a totally bootstrapped operation, and if our sites are not making money, then we can't keep them going.”

But Scott’s company still has a presence within DC; he partnered with a popular blog called Prince of Petworth by operating its publishing CMS and advertising sales. “They say if you can't beat them, join them. And [Prince of Petworth founder Dan Silverman] was a very tough person to scoop. He just has an amazing pulse of the neighborhoods he covers and a huge following. And so we made the decision to close down the sites. I had been in touch with Dan and we explored the possibility of working together, and a couple of years ago we made it happen. And so we run the advertising and the technology side for him. It's been a great arrangement for all sides.”

How Scott monetizes his sites

It probably shouldn’t surprise you that most of his business is dependent on local advertising. “We do get a little bit of reader revenue at the moment from a Patreon campaign and through PayPal donations -- that was something we emphasized during the pandemic, as we lost a significant part of our business -- but advertising is it. We don't have a paywall. We don't really have memberships per se at this point. We are very fortunate to have built a very strong advertising business.”

Half of the company’s direct sold advertising is devoted to branded content. “The advertiser can write it themselves or opt to have us write it for them. We do that through freelancers. The reason it's popular is because it actually works for clients. Our clients have had some really significant success because it's providing useful information to readers in a format where they know it's an ad, but they don't care because they're getting useful information that’s relevant to them, whether it’s lists of open houses in the area or it’s our local beer columnist who runs a local beer and wine store. I think the sponsored content, when really done in partnership with local advertisers -- rather than keeping them at arm’s length and taking whatever they write and publishing it -- I think is a great monetization method for local news online.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Wikimedia Commons