A Q&A with LION member Andrew Birden, publisher of Fiddlehead Focus in northern Maine.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
FiddleheadFocus.com launched in June of 2010 with one employee (me) and covered the Upper St. John Valley at the northern tip of Maine, bordering New Brunswick and Quebec, Canada. I created the news outlet because the local print newspaper was providing poor coverage and ignoring the online audience completely. The local population is made up of mostly French Acadians, an ethnic population with strong family pride, a regional French/English dialect, and their own way of doing things. Additionally, the largest town here, with a whopping population of just over 4,000 people, is Fort Kent, which many LION members will recognize as the town where Kasey Hickox, the Ebola Nurse, moved following her incarceration in New Jersey. But our fame is much more than a rural town where an uninfected nurse decided to take refuge. We also hosted the World Cup Biathlon a few times, the most popular sport in Europe that combines skiing with sharpshooting, and our communities host the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races each year.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
My background is in technology, mathematics, public education, and quantum physics. I grew up during the computer revolution, having taught myself programming as a preteen on an Apple II in the '70s and working in a variety of telecommunication positions over the years. When we moved to Fort Kent, I was the primary caregiver for my kids, and I stumbled into reporting as a part-time job at the local paper. I soon had "ink in my blood" and advanced as far as I could over eight years as a journalist, earning several awards from the Maine Press Association. During that time, i wrote the business plan for Fiddlehead Focus. Later I returned to science education. After a layoff at the local school, I dusted off the business plan and decided to give it a try.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We are a for-profit (occasionally) online news outlet. We utilize a paywall, but all visitors to the website may see headlines and ledes, classified ads, and business advertising. Our income streams include subscriptions, long-term advertising sponsorships, week-to-week advertising, and we provide marketing services in the form of press release creation. We are launching a T-shirt line in the next few weeks. We sell and create our own ads.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
Our primary competition is social media. I once thought it was the other newspaper down the road, but it is painfully clear that people are finding inaccurate and prejudiced information online that reinforces their own biases rather than the accurate and timely information that a trained journalist can provide. By putting a price on our news stories, this reestablishes journalism as the "product" for readers instead of using our readers as the "product" we sell to marketing firms.
5. What makes your site unique?
Our site is unique in that we provide other perks besides news. We create digital jigsaw puzzles for our readers using local images, maintain a community calendar, and we have French/English translations of all our content. We also put news stories up within hours of a breaking event such as a fire, accident or crime. Many of our subscribers describe being addicted to Fiddlehead Focus.
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?
I have two pieces of advice. First, the subscription process needs to be seamless and simple to your readers. I would avoid PayPal and use an established system that interfaces with your accounting software. Second, you do not need a desk for every employee. Although we are four people working this project, my journalists and editor do most of their work from their home or in the field.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
We most recently earned the Business of the Year award from our local chamber of commerce and we also earned a Freedom of Information Award from the Maine Press Association, along with seven other editorial and visual awards. For me, I feel the most pride for my team of writers and my editor.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Money. We are underpaid, overworked and constantly struggle to make our income meet our expenses. The second issue, though not necessarily in importance, is always the ethical considerations for supporting the local communities while accurately recording the first draft of the history of our region.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We are upgrading our Drupal site to the latest version of that CMS, repairing our checkout process for subscriptions, and expanding our coverage into southwest New Brunswick and Southeast Quebec.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
A professional community is essential for providing a sounding board and other resources to better understand the challenges that we and others in the field are facing. We are at the forefront of evolving news business models and LION presents our craft in a positive and interactive format that I find useful.
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