A Q&A with LION member John Sinkevics, publisher of Local Spins in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
LocalSpins.com launched in 2012, so we are celebrating our five-year anniversary this year. We cover the music scene in western Michigan, concentrating on the Grand Rapids area and the region west of Lansing, stretching from Traverse City to the Indiana border. I started the website after being laid off from The Grand Rapids Press where I had worked for three decades, with the last dozen years spent writing about the growing music scene. My passion for music and the recognition that West Michigan’s music scene was expanding rapidly convinced me that the market – and audience — was ripe for this sort of arts coverage.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I was a journalist at several Michigan newspapers, including more than 30 years at The Grand Rapids Press covering beats like city hall, municipal governments and the environment, and editing on the city desk. I spent my last 13 years at The Press as a reporter in the entertainment section, mostly covering music. I was one of about 600 journalists laid off in a single day at eight Advance Publications (Newhouse) newspapers in Michigan in late 2011.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
LocalSpins.com is for-profit, hyperlocal and definitely niche. In general, our revenue is a mix of advertising, sponsorship, events/booking and story syndication. I’m the only full-time staff person, but I have a great “staff” of 15 to 20 freelance writers, photographers and videographers who contribute to the website. No one is going to get rich working at Local Spins, but I strongly believe in paying professional creators for their work. My family is very involved as well: my wife, Elizabeth Slowik, also is a journalist and spends a lot of time as an editor for the site; my daughter, Anna, is a concert photographer; and my son, Paul, provides technical expertise and occasional photos/video. The website is the hub of Local Spins, with other necessary spinoff sources of revenue and promotion: I also host two weekly Local Spins radio shows focused on regional music, we provide Local Spins stories weekly (at a reasonable price) to print publications in Holland and Traverse City, we host a weekly Local Spins concert series at a Grand Rapids nightclub and we get sponsorship for a video/podcast series at a Grand Rapids recording studio.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
We are in friendly competition with a print monthly that includes local music as part of its overall entertainment coverage package. There is some overlap in our freelance rosters, but that’s fine with us, as long as they are providing content that is unique to each publication. There are a few other print publications and websites that foray into covering music, but we are truly alone in this geography with a laser focus on the topic. My former newspaper and MLive.com here in Grand Rapids have pretty much abdicated coverage of local music because their staff is so small. We fill the void for readers who are intensely interested in the music scene.
5. What makes your site unique?
As I noted above, we are focused on music. We bring solid news experience and journalistic standards to covering this topic. We see music – and arts and culture and the creative class as a whole – as central to our community’s mission to provide a great place to live. That contributes to economic development. Plus, live music in particular is a community-building endeavor that brings people together despite differences like politics and religion and demographics. We are happy that we have a business that supports and participates in these goals. Musicians, in particular, have embraced the site – and not surprisingly – promote and spread the word about it.
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?
Although the initial start-up cost for a website or blog is minimal, the long-term financial implications and revenue-raising ability of a fledgling site can be overwhelming. It took a year or two to really get our feet under us, and it would have helped to solicit/have some solid financial backing early on to provide more resources and a comfort level that we didn’t have.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
We feel we are truly part of a community-building venture. While we subscribe to the journalistic tenets that served as a foundation for our newspaper careers, we also view Local Spins as serving an advocacy journalism role – showcasing and supporting a vibrant local music scene that is growing by leaps and bounds. Talented musicians deserve attention for their art, and they’re no longer getting that in this region via the traditional media outlets and print publications. Musicians look to us as the shining light for their music and projects and live performances, and the gratitude they – and their fans — express to us every day makes it all worthwhile.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
There aren’t enough hours in the day. Or the week. I spend 60 to 70 hours a week, or more, at this venture, and of course, this doesn’t count all the hours that the rest of the Local Spins team spends on the website for minimal financial gain. Finding the time to devote to raising revenue and doing marketing via the business side versus the content site is a daily struggle.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We plan to expand the reach of Local Spins geographically and technologically, and continue to provide new, fresh content – as well as boost creation and hosting of new events. I’d also love to reach the stage in several years where I can turn over day-to-day operations to a manager with the same passion that I have for the site. We’ll see.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
We have found LION to be great for resources, best practices, feedback, ideas, and basic cheerleading for local websites. Most LION members are general news sites, and as former hard news reporters, Liz and I understand and support their missions. We have many similar challenges and experiences that are translated to our particular niche.
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