A Q&A with LION member Leslie David, publisher of Benito Link in California.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We started researching in 2012 and Benitolink launched in January 2013. Our website covers San Benito County. Although we have major media coverage (San Jose Mercury, for example) not very far away, it is not focused on our county or our interests. We have users from all over the Bay Area, but our coverage relates to the county.
Our local newspaper was going out of business. We have no television, no radio, and a struggling weekly newspaper. Thanks to a private donation and the Community Foundation for San Benito County, we held “listening sessions” with a wide cross-section of the community. We found people were asking for a dependable source of news and information about where they lived. So with the help of a Knight Foundation grant, the Community Foundation and some private donors, we started developing BenitoLink.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I was not the one to spearhead the project in the beginning. That was Julie Morris, who is a writer and worked for the local paper at one time.
I have been a journalist since my first internship in college and my first job in 1977. I have worked as a television news reporter, camerawoman, editor, and field producer, mostly in San Francisco and Sacramento. Then I married and moved to Wyoming and became a freelance newspaper feature writer. During this time, we were running a cattle ranch, and I learned bookkeeping and basic business skills.
Eventually we returned to California where I started working as a radio reporter and producing short video stories. That is when I became a founding board member of BenitoLink.com. My husband and I are still involved in ranching in California.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
When we first started building the site, we were approaching it as the story producers, more worried about ethics and what our goals were in terms of coverage. But gradually we realized we wouldn’t face the financial challenges unless we separated from the Community Foundation, and that required a more specific business plan. Knowing we would be on our own made us more focused, and we are continually updating the business plan. Everything has taken longer than expected, but we have been achieving our goals. The volunteer, non-profit board structure can be challenging.
Our business model is to bring in revenue several ways and still maintain the ethical standards we want to be known for. We want to be trusted. We also have limited numbers of people who have the time to put into the project. So we have to pick the right projects and not spin our wheels. We just had our first community fundraiser, earning $20,000, and got a $20,000 match from the Community Foundation. We also got a very generous donation from an individual who supports our goals. We have just been issued our 501(c))(3) designation. My primary focus is selling sponsorships. We are working on small donor outreach and evaluating a fundraising campaign that would involve San Benito residents who work in Silicon Valley.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
The local newspaper was purchased during our growth period. He owns multiple newspapers and does not live in the county. In some ways we compete and in other ways we have a very different product. Ultimately, it is good for the county to have more than one source of information.
We allow anyone access to BenitoLink to tell their story. We don’t impose our opinions on the community through editorials. We do more listening than dictating. We are more grassroots, but we definitely need to strengthen our coverage in key areas. There is also a locally owned monthly newspaper. We work very closely together and try to help each other survive. I also work closely with a non-profit (CMAP) that does video training and covers government meetings. They help us a lot, and we try to help them.
5. What makes your site unique?
Our site is unique to our residents because they have never had access to media in this way before. When there is only one paper, if they weren’t interested, it wouldn’t get covered. Residents are slowly learning that they can tell their stories their way. It is uplifting to be welcome and take part in the community conversation.
We also have a large population of commuters whom we are trying to reach. They leave at 5:30 a.m. and get home at 7. They don’t have time to go to meetings or get involved.
6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
We spent quite a bit on a development and outreach last year as we prepared to go independent, and in many ways, it was not very productive. I think we could have done basic outreach for a lot less, but it has paved the way for me and sponsorships are getting easier. I think the biggest change that would have helped us was viewing it as a business during the creation phase. Separating from the SBC Community Foundation is what forced us to grow up and make real plans.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
Seeing people really excited that they have a forum to communicate is a great thing. Also hearing very different opinions presented is a pleasure. I like the variety, and I think it is healthy. The conversation on BenitoLink can be very stimulating, and new, innovative ideas come out of simple “comments." We feel that our elected officials are on their toes more and are being observed.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Deeper coverage (and survival, of course). Part of the problem is that we are hyper local and our reporters don’t want to make enemies they have to see every day at the grocery store. I have been looking for mentors and funding help in this area. Also, it is hard to find strong reporters who will work freelance at the rates we can pay. We are learning the hard way that we have to develop loyalty with our freelancers. We now have “contributor’s nights” and we get to know each other and talk about stories etc.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We would like better coverage on elected officials, education, and community issues such as a struggling downtown, or the transportation nightmare people deal with. We want to be hosting political forums so we are associated with helping citizens vote in an informed way.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
LION helps save you from making all the same mistakes people made before you. So just showing up for the first time, I found the LION leaders very welcoming and helpful. Having so many people doing the same general thing all in one room was brilliant, so many ideas and lessons learned.
I really needed the coaching on how to get sponsorships for the site. (Eleanor Cippel’s sales segment at LION's annual conference in Chicago) This was the most valuable topic for me because the timing was excellent. We need sponsors as part of our base-level support. We were paying someone who was having a lot of trouble with it, and it was hurting us financially.
Because of the LION conference, I just think of our sponsors as a working relationship that needs to benefit both of us. I am trying to help them present their business better and we need to stay trusted. I appreciated the myriad of ideas and they are always in my mind as a little index of options. It has helped me hit the streets with confidence and we are seeing signs of it working. In our first year of independence we have a lot to do, but without LION’s tools, we would have really been our own little box struggling without a lot of perspective.