McHyperlocal: Franchising Community News

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Carll Tucker used to publish community newspapers. He owned and ran the Trader Publications newspapers in New York’s Hudson Valley from 1981 until selling to Gannett in 1992. Now he’s back in the community news business, with a plan that envisions launching as many as 3,000 community news sites — and he’s guessing not one of his local partners will be a newspaper.
“I truly believe in the newspaper business,” Tucker says. “But it puzzles me: why is there room for a venture like ours, since the newspaper is the natural entity to provide community news, no mater what the platform is?”
That venture, Main Street Connect, isn’t much yet — since March, it’s launched a handful of sites in the New York DMA starting with The Daily Norwalk in Connecticut. Yet the ink-blot pattern of expansion has been set in motion, with full-time local reporters generating hyperlocal news that recalls the touchstone of community newspapers for years: lots of local names and faces. “It’s a cross between Facebook and a journalism site,” he says. “Uplifting, reassuring, you see people you know, recreated in a journalistic atmosphere — that is, reliably reported information  — to recreate that uplifting feeling.”
At the beginning of the summer, Main Street Connect disclosed in a regulatory filing it had raised $3.97 million of a proposed $10 million offering from 21 investors. If Main Street Connect is earning credit on The Street, it’s not only because of Tucker’s solid newspaper experience but the company’s other bold-faced names, including his wife, the well-known financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn; its chairman, Peter Georgescu, the chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam; and John Falcone, most recently senior vice president with the big mobile advertising network SmartReply.
The money will be working capital for its idea of bringing a McDonald’s-style franchise business model to hyperlocal news.
“We identify a person in the community, probably an accomplished local businessperson,” Tucker says. “We give them everything they need: CMS (content management system), sales force and protocols — and give them all the training they need to produce a community news site that is profitable. We will be constantly monitoring and mentoring them.”
They’ll be looking not just at the objective numbers of sales and traffic, Tucker says, but the quality of the reporting, headlines and visuals on the site. “When I was starting out in community newspapers, I would have given my eyeteeth to have somebody I could ask questions to and whose learnings I could take advantage of,” he says.
Franchisees will need to invest about $20,000 for six URLs, Tucker says. At a presentation at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in May, Tucker elaborated that franchisees should expect cash flow of $250,000 to $500,000 within 18 months.
By 2013, Main Street Connect figures to support 3,000 with a workforce of 10,000 writers — about one-forth the size of all U.S. daily newsrooms combined.
Big national networks have tried to drill down to hyperlocal in the past — think Microsoft’s Sidewalk fiasco of the 1990s — but Tucker argues the secret sauce for Main Street Connect are all those lessons from successful community newspapers.
Lessons, he says, that even community papers are forgetting these days.
“Community news for the last decade has become worse and worse,” Tucker says. “The newspaper and the customer just sort of parted ways.” Any potential newspaper franchisee would have to organize completely away from the existing newspaper office and staff, he adds.
Main Street’s first site The Daily Norwalk was getting 15,000 unique visitors monthly, with better than 50% of visitors being repeats, the company says. Among repeats, 70% were vesting at least twice a day and spending four and a half minutes per visit on average.
“The evidence,” Tucker says, “is that this is what people want.”

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