A Q&A with LION member Jay Senter, co-publisher of the Prairie Village Post in Kansas, (and shown above, right, with co-publisher Dan Blom).
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We launched June 15, 2010 and initially covered a very small pocket of an already small area, northeast Johnson County, Kan., an area of first-ring suburbs bordering Kansas City, Mo. For the first two years, we covered just the cities of Prairie Village (population approximately 21,000), Fairway (approximately 3,000) and Mission Hills (approximately 3,000). In 2012, interest in the site had grown enough that I teamed up with a former grad school classmate who happened to live in the area as well, Dan Blom, and we were able to expand our coverage to the rest of NEJC. We now cover all or parts of 10 municipalities, an area that has a population of approximately 60,000.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I worked at one of the student newspapers in Madison for three years when I was an undergraduate at Wisconsin, and fell in love with the reporting life. So I went back to school at the University of Kansas a couple years after I graduated to get a master's in journalism. While there, I worked the cop-shop beat for the Lawrence Journal-World, which was getting a lot of attention at the time for its converged news operation, which brought its TV, print and online resources together in the same newsroom. I learned a lot about multimedia journalism and producing content for the web there. After I finished at KU, though, my wife and I moved to San Francisco (where her family lived) and I worked in public relations for a non-profit called Common Sense Media. We joined the Peace Corps in 2008, during which time I kept a blog (panablog.typepad.com) and thought a lot about what I wanted to do when I got back. As it happens, an old high school friend had started working on a new online-only publication called KCFreePress.com that was being financed by a local businessman with an online marketing company, and that seemed like an interesting opportunity. I spent several months working on that product before the financial crisis sapped all the publisher's funding. But in the process of researching ideas for KCFreePress, I'd come across the hyperlocal format, and saw a need in my little corner of Kansas City. I started PVPost right after I left KCFreePress.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We're a hyperlocal news website that's wholly supported by advertisers and sponsors.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
For better or worse we don't really have any direct competition. The reason people have been so interested in the site is that there just wasn't anybody covering our area until we came along. TV sends a crew our way whenever there's a tragedy or a scandal, but that's about it. The Kansas City Star had almost completely cut out coverage of NEJC until we came along. Now they send stringers to cover things here, but it's patchy coverage at best.
5. What makes your site unique?
I think we have among the most diverse inventories of advertising and sponsorship options of any hyperlocal I've seen. We took a lot of time to develop an ad inventory that had options for businesses of all sizes.
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 think we learned the lesson a couple of years in that business development is more than 50 percent of the game when you get started. That's hard when you come from a reporting background, because reporting is the fun part, and it's what you're good at. Most people get into journalism because they want to break big news. But the kind of content that performs best on our site is not in-depth, investigative pieces. It's the "names and faces" kind of stuff that was the foundation of small community papers for decades. So we focus on producing that kind of content, and on bringing in enough sponsors to pay the bills (and ourselves a living wage). Once we've gotten big enough, we'll have the resources to do the more in-depth reporting. But anyone getting into the game needs to understand that revenue is the top priority at first.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
The fact that it's supporting two full-time staffers plus a part time salesperson. I had a day job for almost the first four years the site was running. Being able to quit my job and support my family just on PVPost was a major accomplishment.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Patience. Everything continues to move in the right direction, but it always seems to take longer to hit those big milestones than I initially anticipate. I think that sometimes people expect there to be explosive growth with an online product because that's the story you hear about web companies all the time. But with any publication, it takes time to develop credibility and grow an audience — to establish yourself as a part of the fabric of the community. I would say it took us four full years to get to that point, and we're just starting to see some of the payoff now.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We know that if we don't expand in the next year or so, there's a good chance someone else is going to plant their flag in some of the other good markets around here.
CLICK HERE to see other Q&As with LION member independent local news publishers.
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