This former Patch reporter launched his own thriving local news site
Levittown Now is proving that indie local news can thrive.
|Simon Owens||Oct 26, 2020|
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Patch was never the cash cow that former-AOL CEO Tim Armstrong predicted it would be. When he bought the company in 2009, he hoped its network of hyperlocal sites would, in aggregate, generate enough reach and revenue to transform it into an advertising behemoth. Those plans didn’t pan out, however, and in 2014 AOL sold Patch to an investment firm. Patch went on to become profitable, but only after significant downsizing and reduced coverage.
But even though Patch as a whole didn’t flourish, a lot of its individual sites found traction, and this opened a lot of entrepreneurial journalists’ eyes to the potential for lean local news sites in underserved communities. One of those journalists was Tom Sofield. After reporting for several years at a Patch site in Levittown, PA, he saw there was a real market for the type of news he was providing. So in 2013, he launched Levittown Now with a business partner.
Within a year and a half, the site was breaking even, and it’s now a well-regarded news source in the area. I interviewed Sofield about what he learned at Patch that he later incorporated into his own business and how he’s found success in a market where other local news operations have struggled.
So before you launched your own local news site, you started your career working at Patch. What was your role there?
At Patch, my role started as a freelancer working pretty frequently while also going to college and working a part-time job in the evenings and weekends. Between the jobs and classes, I was working about 80 hours a week, but it was a great education on how journalism organizations through real-world experiences. As time went on and I had support from my editors and managers at Patch, I moved to covering more and more before eventually being put in charge of growing the Levittown Patch site. During my time there, I grew traffic substantially, increased the site's reputation in the community, and led it through Hurricane Sandy, which battered the area. The hurricane was the thing that proved to me that Patch was having some serious challenges, but also that there was such an appetite in Bucks County and Levittown for hyperlocal news. It was around that time that I started brainstorming starting a locally-owned outlet that became Levittown Now.com.
While you were at Patch, did you begin to form any ideas of how you would do things differently if you one day launched your own site?
Yes, I was able to see what works and what doesn't. Being the editor in the field, I was also able to get real-time feedback. At that time, digital-only outlets were just starting to come up and find out what works. I also looked at the local print papers to see what they did. As someone in my 20s, I felt their focus, at least at that time, was so print centric and not as much online. During Sandy, the live updates and tips and photos from readers were a great resource no one else matched. As I planned Levittown Now, I worked with a colleague who helped launch the site to do some market research. We figured out what towns to cover, what stories were most important, which ones would grow the brand and traffic, and how to make money.
When did you leave Patch? And how long after that did you launch Levittown Now?
I left Patch in February 2013 and launched Levittown Now on March 13, 2013. The 13th was for good luck, obviously. Although, I had been working on Levittown Now in the weeks leading up to my final days at Patch. My idea was to build off the momentum from my time at Patch and keep the news rolling. I did have interest from a TV station for a job in their web operation, I talked to a person interested in launching a news outlet in the city, and also from Patch for a position outside of New York City, but I wanted to keep covering my community. With Patch's business slowly falling apart, I knew my time at the company would eventually end, so I wanted to make it on my terms and chose to leave when my contract ended on February 28, 2013.
How did you launch your site? What kind of coverage did you prioritize? Did you have funding?
We launched with a basic WordPress design and a hope things didn't break. They did, but we worked through it and fixed it as we went. It really was like building a plane while flying. The whole operation was bootstrapped and done with some savings I had from working at Patch and my part-time job. One early focus was breaking cops and fire department news to draw readers in. From working at Patch, I knew that was a huge draw. We used that breaking coverage -- often beating the competition or including photos and video when they had none -- a great way to bring in an audience. The idea was to bring in those readers and hopefully they stuck around for local government, schools, business, and other news. The good news is they did. The Levittown area is a busy place that sits minutes from Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from Trenton, and commute from New York City so there's always something happening. As the years have gone on, we've grown our coverage and really become a local news destination for "everything you need to know," as our branding says.
How long was it before you really felt like you were growing an audience?
March 2013 was a busy news month. While there wasn't any earth-shattering event that gained a ton of national attention, there were a lot of small-scale stories ranging from serious crashes to fires to a kidnapping that fueled our growth early on. Within a month we have thousands of Facebook 'likes.' We quickly were getting stories cited by Philadelphia TV stations and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and we still have a great working relationship with some of their reporters to this day.
How and when did you start monetizing?
Within the first month, we sold our first ads. They both came from people who knew of the site only because they kept seeing it shared by their friends on social media. It took about 1.5 years to fully monetize the site and cover all our costs. Sadly, within weeks of launching the site, our former co-publisher began heading down a dangerous path that led to him stealing from the company and him being forced to leave. Weeks after he was no longer with Levittown Now, he was caught trying to steal from former advertisers by giving the impression he was still active with the business. To be honest, one regret I do have is getting into business with the wrong person and I've talked with several business people in publishing and retail who have run into the same problems. Sadly, in a haste to get off the ground, I made a huge mistake in picking someone to help me launch the business. However, it provided a good lesson to me and our transparency on the issue, I've been told by readers and advertisers, only helped build their trust.
So it's monetized primarily with advertising? What kind of ads have seen the most success?
Levittown Now is monetized largely through advertising. We also have a membership program which helps fund investigative reporting, in-depth projects, and fees that go along with those efforts. Our revenue breaks down to about 80 percent advertising, 12 percent events, grants, licensing content, consulting with small businesses, and 8 percent membership. However, I would like to keep growing the membership and consulting portion of the business. I do believe for our market the content should be free for all to read, and I'm trying to focus our membership around telling readers the importance of local news and how support is needed. In the past few years, Gannett has gutted our local daily print paper and shifted their focus to more longform and regional stories. That's allowed us to double down on day-to-day local news, while also providing big scoops on government and business and investigative stories no one else has.
Talk to me about distribution. Where are you seeing most of your traffic come from today? What platforms are you most prioritizing for future growth?
Facebook was king, especially when we launched in 2013. And to be frank, I've talked and interacted with their Facebook for Journalism team a number of times over the past few years, and I've felt they've been a good partner. I don't agree with everything, but the folks I've dealt with have been reasonable and very responsive. About 2017, we started to see a bit of a shift away from Facebook. While Facebook is still our biggest referral source, homepage visits grew following the 2016 election and the overall backlash against social media. We've seen that steady out, but search traffic has grown and Twitter is a major driver for our political coverage over the past few years. Our newsletter remains strong with about 4,000 subscribers, but I'd like to focus more on that the rest of this year. Going forward, I'd like to improve our Instagram game. We never really did much with Snapchat or TikTok, as I didn't see them as having a major benefit for the business.
How big have you grown since launching? What's your headcount and reporting capabilities?
Sure. Our site has been averaging between 700,000 to 1 million pageviews per month with about 180,000 readers who live within or within a few minutes’ drive of our coverage area. The pandemic certainly drove up traffic. Some of that was for articles that went viral across the state and country, but I don't see much of those out-of-town readers sticking around. We have two reporters in the past who were full time reporting, but both left or scaled back their duties due to new opportunities and family commitments. We're currently at myself as the full-time reporter, a part-time business manager, commission sales help, and about four regular freelancers with several more who contribute time to time. By the end of the year, I'm looking to add a more steady reporting position again, but wanted to hold off during the uncertainty of the pandemic, which we've weathered pretty well so far.
We had plans to launch a high school sports section for the first time since we launched but held off this fall due to COVID-19 and schools making last-minute decisions on whether to hold fall sports. Right now, we're aiming at seeing how things look in spring and for next fall.
So it's been pretty dire times for local news, especially these last few years. Do you think that your lean, bootstrapped approach would be relatively easy to copy in a lot of other areas across the U.S.?
I think that different ideas work for different markets. I have to say, I've received a lot of ideas and support through fellow publishers and many from LION Publishers. While I always say that starting a small business is the "best worst thing that I've done," it's a challenge and even more so running a local news operation. For me and for Levittown Now, the bootstrapped and lean model has worked, but we also were able to ease our growth as more and more readers turned online. For an organization launching now, I think there would be more of a focus on being a full-scale newspaper replacement that would require more funding. One thing I like about this industry is how different and also how similar smaller news operations all are. There's also so much sharing of information, news tips, slide decks, and sales pitches.
I also think one problem is that so many larger organizations are seeking one size fits all approaches and that is not what works, as we've all seen. News organizations and all small businesses are successful when they represent their community.
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It’s actually excerpted from an ebook of case studies titled “The Next Media Moguls, Volume 2: Lessons from 10 successful media innovators.” You can download the PDF over here.