This media company merged local news with content marketing

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This media company merged local news with content marketing

The last decade hasn’t been kind to local print newspapers. The rise of platforms like Craigslist, Facebook, and Google has devastated their advertising revenue streams. Private equity firms bought up entire newspaper chains and then bled them dry. Even those newspapers that haven’t shut down experienced massive layoffs and are often running on skeleton crews. This retrenchment resulted in the emergence of so-called “news deserts” -- regional information vacuums where no comprehensive news coverage exists.

As a journalist who covers the media industry, I’ve long been fascinated by the internet startups aimed at filling these vacuums. There’s TAPinto, a network of franchise sites that sprung up out of New Jersey. There’s 6AM City, a newsletter-centric company that operates primarily in South Carolina and North Carolina cities.

And then there’s The 100 Companies. Unlike most media companies that erect a firewall between editorial and advertising, The 100 Companies actually licenses its platform out to local PR and marketing firms. Yes, those firms can promote their own clients, but they’re also incentivized to curate quality local information that their subscribers will find relevant. I recently interviewed its founder Chris Schroder about how each site operates, what value it creates for PR firms, and why he’s expanding into other niches beyond local news. 

So let's start with you telling me about the lightbulb moment where you came up with the idea of launching The 100 Companies. You had recently sold a PR firm, right?

Actually, 10 years ago, I had helped a group of newspaper journalists leaving the daily Atlanta Journal Constitution to launch a website, eNewsletter, and social media platform called SaportaReport and I served as its first publisher, writing a weekly column and conducting video interviews. I wanted to grow it to other cities, but Maria Saporta, the owner, was against the idea. Then I noticed readers were not clicking the Read More button as much as they used to, but were relying on the robust excerpts in the eNewsletter, so I tried to come up with an idea for an eNewsletter where you did not have to click through. 

I had a PR firm and invited our clients to participate. When I designed it, I realized it looked like 100 words, so we called it The Atlanta 100 and had each story and video exactly 100 words and 100 seconds. 

So you're saying the lightbulb moment is when you realized that readers loved to consume all the content within the newsletter without having to click out to an external website?

Yes, but most newsletters at the time were aggregators or links to websites and I wanted to experiment with a different model that leveraged off the short-attention-span trends, such as twitter.

And in the first iteration of this you decided to tackle this at the city level?

So I actually created the first issue of The Atlanta 100 and offered it to Maria to be a part of her enterprise, but she and her team didn't like the hybrid mix of content marketing and thought it would tarnish their journalism brand. 

I was an Atlanta native, had worked at the AJC and later launched and published several neighborhood newspapers in Atlanta in the 1990s, so I wanted to try something to serve the larger metro market, with an eye to expansion.

And when you expanded it into other cities, you used a kind of franchise model, correct? Tell me how that worked.

We had won some journalism and marketing awards and I was interested in launching in other cities. I spoke at a 2015 PRSA Counselors Academy conference with 150 PR firm owners in the room. My topic was Content Marketing and, in the five-minute time frame I was offered, I covered its history from James and Ben Franklin to the rise/fall of newspapers, broadcast, social and finished with SaportaReport and The Atlanta 100. As a closer, I said if anyone wanted help with launching their own newsletter, I'd be happy to help. When I walked off the stage, there were 12 PR firm owners with their business cards saying they were interested in a 100 specifically. So I returned to Atlanta and spoke to a few business advisors who suggested a membership model rather than a franchise, and it's worked great ever since.

Members sign a five-year exclusive contract with one-year renewable options.

How does this work in practice? Let's say a PR firm in Chicago wants to launch a Chicago 100. How do you move forward? What do they get from you?

For the first few years, we worked exclusively with PR firms, though we've since diversified. If they decide they want to launch an owned-media platform but aren't sure how to proceed, we provide an affordable alternative to running your own platform with the benefits of being able to publish the same 100-word stories and videos in our other network markets. We train the PR firm in editorial voice and, if they are interested, in selling content sponsorships. The 100 team handles all background tasks – editing, designing, producing, and distributing to a custom database we develop – so they can focus on building relationships with clients and prospects. We encourage the head of the firm to write a "publisher's column," include stories on history for a sense of place, events for a sense of fun, and the rest can reflect the expertise they and their clients bring to the marketplace, whether it's business, hospitality, public policy, or a mix. They can publish weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. We are in 21 geographic markets now and five, soon to be six, industry verticals.

The 100 team handles all background tasks – editing, designing, producing and distributing to a custom database we develop – so you can focus on building relationships with clients and prospects.

So let me see if I understand the value proposition. Correct me where I'm wrong. I'm a local PR firm with local clients. It would benefit me in terms of brand exposure and also benefit my clients if I have a widely distributed newsletter that covers the city. This newsletter has a roundup of both local news and news about my clients. The PR firm is responsible for writing the copy for this regular newsletter and you provide the CMS and the distribution, and for that value exchange the PR firm pays an annual licensing fee. Is that correct?

That's correct, although some elected to serve a state and not just a city. We let the local PR firm select the geographic footprint that they felt would best serve their clients and be able to stitch together a coherent content offering.

And it wasn't just news, we encourage them to have their clients write thought leadership to position them in their area of expertise. 

Can you talk about some of your most successful cities? How much value are the local residents extracting from these newsletters?

The Atlanta 100 was our first, debuting in October 2013. It launched with 18,000 readers and we now send it to 50,000. For the first few years, my PR firm managed it and we received lots of appreciation from readers for the positive mix of stories on a variety of subjects. The first network expansion was The Oklahoma 100 and we've grown that to 70,000 readers. Each newsletter has an archival website and social media channels to promote it. Jones PR, the Oklahoma PR firm, developed an engaged social media following of 6,000 on Facebook for example. Jones PR has received constant positive feedback since its January 2016 launch and just this year landed its largest ever client with the allure of being able to manage their own statewide media channel. We determined that in our third year, The Atlanta 100 was responsible for $100k in new revenue for our PR firm. We grew the firm to the point that another firm bought it in November 2017, and we found another PR firm to take over The Atlanta 100 and they are on year three. Oklahoma is in year five.

Residents like The 100 because it gives them local insight as well as three stories from other cities or states that are evergreen stories of business or life tips. We've grown much since then. The Dubai 100 is in its fourth year for instance.

Is one of the hopes for the PR firm that if the newsletter becomes successful enough they can build out an additional revenue stream by selling ads within the newsletter? Or use it to upsell their already existing clients by offering to feature them?

Well, we actually have never published an ad. It's all content. So yes, some PR firms are just happy to have an owned media channel they can control to profile their clients as thought leaders. Others use it to attract new clients and revenue that is exclusive to The 100 in their market. Some PR firms have turned it into a profit venture, but most use it to position the firm as an innovative publisher with a solution to the challenges of placing stories in media that is all-too-often now collapsing.

I think the readers like the ad-free environment, but that's not to say we won't ever entertain publishing an advertisement. Content is often sponsored though.

How did you decide to expand beyond local into industry-specific niches?

So my wife, who worked in my PR firm part-time, has been a travel writer for 20 years. Her travel stories were often the most popular and picked up a lot of engagement online. She served as editorial director for The 100 Companies for the first few years, but then wanted to focus on travel, so we launched The Travel 100 in 2018 and it was immediately successful. It is our largest publication, sent to 400,000 readers. After its launch, we had a PR firm approach us and say they'd like to publish an industry vertical that mirrored their focus and expertise, so we've since launched The Engineering 100, The Association 100 and ones for Franchise and Financial Advisors. Watching the success of those, I decided to take advantage of my database of agency owners and we are launching The Agency 100 in July 2020, sent to 60,000 to 100,000 PR, ad and digital agency owners and leaders with columns from consultants and experts who speak to finance, HR, crisis, leadership, etc.

Are you doing anything different with your model? Are all of these verticals being licensed to a single entity, or are you allowing multiple companies to pay to write for each one?

In most of our markets, The 100 is managed by one PR firm, but in some cities or states, it was shared with two or three firms. We had a city government call us up and ask if they could start one for their economic development ambitions, so we said sure and they are thinking of partnering with other local content contributors for their second or third year. Then a firm which had recruited and placed Registered Investment Advisors for 25 years said they had a list of 90,000 RIAs they'd like to reach, so they launched with other consultants trying to reach the same market.

That opened our eyes to all kinds of possibilities, realizing that we were more than a PR firm network, that we had built an award-winning, affordable, fun-to-read media platform that could connect any group wanting to communicate with another group. We're looking at all kinds of models now – ironically assisted a bit by the pandemic. With industry conferences canceled and Zoom fatigue setting in, we are talking to all kinds of educational and professional groups about starting The 100 in their region or vertical, whether for students, employees, clients or prospects.