A former newspaper editor launched a news startup in a town of 5,000 people. It’s going better than even he expected.
“I can’t stress enough the relationships part of it. You have to get out there and get to know people.”
UPDATE: It’s been six months since we published this Q&A with Philomath News founder Brad Fuqua, so we decided to check in with Brad and see how things are going. Here’s what he told us.
When Lee Enterprises shut down The Philomath Express last year, former editor Brad Fuqua decided to launch something new to serve his community in rural Oregon, population 5,000.
Eight months later, Philomath News is ahead of its first-year revenue targets, and Brad is settling into his new do-everything role as reporter, editor, publisher, salesperson, and marketing lead.
This type of bootstrapped “solopreneurship” is common among LION members, especially in rural communities, so I asked Brad about what he’s learned about running the editorial and business side of a news operation and building an audience in a small town.
What are your revenue goals for year 1 and beyond, and how did you set those targets?
My revenue goal for year 1 has always been to try to hit $30,000, which would put me in the neighborhood of net pay from the job where I had been laid off. I’m in a financial situation where my wife passed me a long time ago on the salary scale (she used to work for the same newspaper as a reporter; she quit and thankfully got into another line of work with a more predictable future).
So $30,000 was the goal. But I also had a more realistic, conservative number in mind that ranged from $14,000 to $18,000. I’ve already surpassed those numbers. When my accountant asked for an estimate on what I thought we’d make this year, I came up with $28,000.
So I’m in the general vicinity on revenue, and I feel that I could do much, much better if I get to the point of spending more time on this end of the business. Deep down, I’m actually surprised at how much I’ve brought in.
How much time are you spending on the business side versus the journalism and editorial? Getting that balance right is often a challenge for founders.
It’s a huge challenge. I tried to steal an idea from another news site to set aside “Money Monday” — a time when I put news writing aside and focus on advertising sales, memberships, bookkeeping, etc. But it’s not going so well. I think I’m going to change it to Wednesdays because that seems to be my slowest day of the week. I’m currently spending less than 10% of my time on this part of the work, so obviously I need to do better.
How does your revenue break down percentage-wise between memberships and advertising? Do you have any other revenue streams?
Memberships and advertising are the only two revenue streams at this time. I have other ideas, but I haven’t had the time to develop them.
I’d say it’s been about 75% memberships and 25% advertising. And that’s with hardly any effort at all put into advertising sales. I keep thinking this is going to be the week that I put some time into it, yet I haven’t been able to figure out how to fit it into my schedule. I realize it’s important and I’ve actually had a fair number of inquiries, but all I’ve really done is send those folks ad options, rates and recommendations for size and placement. So while the memberships have done better than expected, I’m only scratching the surface on advertising.
It’s not the fun part of the job — yes, I’m a career newsman, and in most places we hardly ever talked to advertising reps on the other side of the building. It’s uncomfortable for me to wear this hat, but I realize that it’s something I’ll need to master.
How have you navigated your discomfort with advertising as someone who entered journalism in the days of “firewalls” between editorial and advertising? And how do you talk about editorial independence with potential advertisers?
Navigating through it has been a challenge… but it’s how I need to approach things to make this news site sustainable. I do bring editorial independence up on occasion when the conversation goes in that direction, and I haven’t seen any issues with potential advertisers on that front.
What’s the biggest learning curve you’ve gone through when it comes to running a business, as opposed to focusing entirely on journalism?
Advertising sales is a given here, but also some of the technical knowledge that you need to keep a website running smoothly. I invested in a web host that’s a little pricier than others (WP Engine) with the hope that they’ll be able to help me keep things in order, but I’m operating on a shoestring budget, so something like Web Publisher Pro is just way beyond my current budget and not realistic at my revenue level.
I had to build and design the website from scratch (using WordPress with ThemeForest’s Newspaper X), and I’ve done the same with my newsletter (using MailChimp), which goes out twice per week. I started out at three times per week but I backed off when I reorganized the number of hours I had been working.
Looping back to your revenue model, how did you come up with your membership tiers and set prices for them? And what did it take to get so many members on board right out of the gate?
On the membership tiers, I brought up LION’s member list that had links to each website and went through many of them to get an idea of the going rate. I tinkered with the membership tiers a lot, went back and forth, had second thoughts, had four options at one point and finally settled on the three tiers I’m offering.
A lot of it came down to me knowing these people, knowing the community, and knowing how much they care about news. I knew I’d be able to get my share of $150/year and $350/year memberships.
As far as getting so many members out of the gate, that in my mind comes down to relationships. I was editor of the weekly printed paper here for five years and have gotten to know so many people. I get out in the community, cover a lot of sports (a big deal in a town this size) and gave presentations to the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce.
When Lee Enterprises shut down the Philomath paper and fired me, it upset a lot of people, from the city manager to the soccer moms. People really appreciated the job I did with that weekly paper.
But I didn’t launch the Philomath News until three months after the print newspaper shut down. I did that on purpose, in a way, to provide an example of what it’s like to no longer have news in your community, to perhaps create a hunger in them for it to return.
About a month before the launch, I put out a few teasers on Facebook and tried to get people excited about it. I had 100 newsletter subscribers before I even sent any out. Then I launched and worked the digital approach to getting memberships as hard as possible. I haven’t been able to get out in the community much with COVID, so I had to work it hard digitally. I had my core group of supporters and they informed others of my news site and it just continued to grow.
I love that story. It reminds me a lot of how Block Club Chicago was built from the ashes of DNAinfo Chicago.
I can’t stress enough the relationships part of it. Without having those relationships in the community, I doubt that I would try something like this in a town of this size. You have to just get out there and get to know people and let them into your world. People are more understanding than you might think, and I think that’s been a part of why I’ve sold memberships.
Last question for you: What’s the next step for you from a revenue perspective? Where do you see opportunities for growth?
The obvious opportunity for growth would be in advertising if I could get my act together. I’ve thought about hiring someone on commission, but I keep shying away from that idea. This is a small town, I am the Philomath News, and I think they would want to talk to me; I need to keep my face out there.
Besides, I’m a control freak, it’s hard to give up that responsibility to someone else. And I think there’s plenty of room for more memberships down the road. I’ve only been getting members through social media and folks passing the word around. There are still a lot of people in this town that probably don’t know I’m here. So with the community opening back up post-pandemic, I plan to really get out there and reach people in different ways to bring in more memberships.
I’ve tinkered with the idea of partnering with student organizations at the high school and giving them a percentage of memberships they bring in as a fundraiser for them (and me), ideas along those lines.
Other revenue ideas revolve around products that promote Philomath, which I think could be fairly successful here. I’ve also thought about putting a tip jar on stories and am thinking about putting some of our news photos up for sale — those won’t bring in a lot of revenue, but every bit helps.
Update: How are things going six months later?
Our revenue for 2021 came in at $35,182.66, so higher than anticipated. Just yesterday, I surpassed $50,000 since the launch on Nov. 30, 2020.
- Don’t be afraid to put your needs out there. I provide a monthly email report to my members where I open up about the health and status of Philomath News. In the November email report, I mentioned how my camera was getting old and the lenses weren’t working properly. A week later, a member offered to buy me a new camera and zoom lenses, a contribution that amounted to $3,800. He wanted to remain anonymous, although at least he let me take him and his wife out to lunch. I didn’t include the camera info in the email report hoping someone would give me money for one, but that’s how it turned out.
- Don’t try to do it all yourself. I did exactly that for the first 12 months, but in November I started paying a freelance photographer and within the past few weeks I hired a freelance writer to do a couple features for me. I’m not making tons of money, but I’m doing well enough to secure my photographer and hire out for occasional features that I would not be able to get to because of time management issues and burnout.
- Make your tech stack a priority. Your product will fizzle if you don’t have a digital news site that’s top-notch, and that’s especially important as the internet gets faster and people experience the latest in technology. I’m currently in the process of migrating my news site from a built-from-the-ground-up approach to Newspack. It costs $500/month, but I think it might be worth it in the end if it eliminates most of my tech headaches. Plus, it’s responsive — the digital version will look much better than what I have now when it launches. Designing/building a website on your own is great for a shoestring startup, but unexpected issues can happen, plugins can break, and it’s a challenge to keep up with the latest digital upgrades and capabilities.
- Always work on relationships. The most important factor for making a news site in my small market is the relationships that I’ve developed. When our recurring annual memberships started coming due in late November/early December, I sent a personal message to each member a week ahead of time reminding them that the payment is about to happen and sharing what to do if they need to update a credit card or cancel. Transparency is the best way to go. And I believe that [personalized approach] is why I had at least six members upgrade their memberships to a higher level. (I have 198 members at this time — if you had thousands of members, I’m not sure this personalized approach would be possible).
- Keep good records and stay current with updated books, mileage reports, etc. I spent a couple of days in early January updating my financial records and mileage reports and, since then, I’ve created a spreadsheet to more easily keep track of that information. The most beneficial spreadsheet that I’ve created (through Apple Numbers — I’m a Mac guy) is transferring all my membership information so I can more easily keep track of those details. It’s easy to get lost on that info if you ignore it.
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