A Q&A with Uriah Kiser, publisher of Potomac Local in Virginia.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
Potomac Local launched in June 2010 while I was still working as a cops reporter at a since-shuttered local daily. I saw the writing on the wall at what, in prior years, had been a successful community daily with a 150-year history. Consistent cuts, furloughs, and the company's unwillingness to effectively market itself to our community, meant the doors of the daily newspaper closed about two years after I left to pursue Potomac Local full-time. I grew up in this area and I wanted to ensure it received the local news it deserves. Potomac Local covers several developing bedroom communities in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Prince William County, population 430,000, is our main focus. We also serve two indepdendent cities geographically located inside the county, Manassas, and Manassas Park. We also cover Stafford County, population 130,000, directly south of Prince William.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I got my start in TV news. I landed my first internship at a local TV station in Bluefield, WV at age 13. I spent two weeks there. But it was on the first night of my internship — the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of New York — I was bitten by the news bug. I was fortunate to attend a high school in Prince William County that offered a robust TV communications program that allowed me to continue networking at a young age. After several years in TV, I decided to learn about the print world and took a job at a newspaper sales assistant. That job blossomed into a full time advertising sales gig at the newspaper. About two years later, a reporter job opened at the company's weekly newspaper in Stafford County, Va. I took it, made significantly less money, but began lying the groundwork for what eventually would become Potomac Local. I was promoted to the daily newspaper as "breaking news" reporter (web guy). I chased a lot of cop cars, worked a lot of long hours, covered the execution of the infamous Washington, D.C. sniper John Mohammed, the list goes on and on. It was the best job I ever had. I made my own hours, did work I was proud of, and never worried about selling an ad. Did I mention the pay stunk?
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We're heavily dependent upon local ads. They're effective, and thanks to our partnership with Broadstreet ads we've been able to deliver a product unlike anything in our market. We continue to see increasing click through rates on our ads, all well above the national average. We are also doing more native ads like promoted content for SEO and link building. Whether news or marketing, Potomac Local is a trusted information source the provides content people want to read.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
It's easy for me to say we've got two weekly papers, plus Washington-area TV and radio to go up against. But, while we strive to break news, they're not really our competition. If they're first with a story in our backyard, we'll link to them and go after details they didn't get. Our true competition is evolving daily, from Google Ads, Facebook ads, text message marketing. Heck, we've had the local school division hire a marketing firm that called our clients and promised a lower advertising rate if they dropped Potomac Local and placed their ad on the school division's publicly run website.
5. What makes your site unique?
Context. I grew up in this community. I've built relationships that have taken years to form. I've watched the area grow from having mostly two-lane roads to now six-lane highways. We're able to tie this background knowledge into the day's news, where applicable. Because we're located outside Washington, D.C. with a transient military population, it's a value to be able to publish information from a true "local's" perspective.
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 wanted Potomac Local to be a newspaper online. I wanted to make it seem like it was larger than it really was. I pushed myself hard to post six to 10 stories a day so I could somehow prove to others I could do it, that I could compete with the daily that was still around. I should've grown my content more slowly, perhaps covering breaking news, crime and courts only as I had been doing at the daily. That would have made it easier to split my time between covering news and selling ads. I didn't spend enough time selling my product in a way potential advertisers cared about. I would always say "Potomac Local was first to this story" or "Potomac Local beat the competition" with this news nugget. The businessmen and women would say "oh, that's nice" and move on. I learned that they weren't demeaning my work, but I also learned that us being first to a story didn't tell them how that could grow their business.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
That we're still here, and growing. We just hired a full-time editor to oversee publication of our site. I will focus more on ad sales and business development. I'll also continue to write some news, especially on the government beat.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
We're at a stage where we need a more effective marketing strategy. in 2014, we published a 48-page guide the community that covered everything from where to pay your local taxes, where to get pet tags, where your parks are, schools, elections, etc. It was the largest marketing piece we've ever done. We didn't duplicate the effort for 2015, though I guess we still could. We're focused on link building, so when Potomac Local has an event — like a afterhours meet up, or like the series of political debate we'll be hosting stating April 11, I've taken to posting our events on community calendars with good SEO juice. These calendars include the Patch.com websites (a few still remain in our area but are now fewer than the five sites that once existed in Prince William County) and our chamber of commerce website.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
I want to continue to build a tool that produces results for my local advertisers. I want them to call me back and buy more from me. This will allow us to invest back into the company so we may cover more news, and invest in new technologies to become a better provider of information fro the communities we serve.
CLICK HERE to see other Q&As with LION member independent local news publishers.
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