A Q&A with LION member Matt Hennie, publisher of Project Q Atlanta.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
I launched Project Q Atlanta in September 2008 to fill an underserved niche in LGBT media. The readers were there, the businesses' support for advertising was there and I have a passion for the journalism. But there wasn't much choice in LGBT media and the "legacy" LGBT newspaper published in the market was beginning to struggle. After 12 years in journalism, I stepped out for a public relations job at a government agency. It wasn't for me, and I missed being immersed in journalism. So I mixed my experience with my desire to re-enter media and the niche I saw, and launched Project Q Atlanta. We cover LGBT news and events in metro Atlanta, which has a population of about 5.7 million people.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I came up through the ranks of local news publishers, first as a crime and education reporter at the three-times-a-week Gaffney Ledger in South Carolina, then as a public safety and education reporter at the daily Rockdale Citizen in Conyers, Ga., and then as managing editor and later editor of Southern Voice, which was the weekly LGBT newspaper in metro Atlanta until it folded in 2009.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
It's a small operation — think solopreneur — with a passion for the reporting and a love of the market I'm in. I produce a bulk of the copy and photography with the help of several freelance writers and photographers. Our business model is overly dependent on banner ad sales, but I'm making inroads on diversifying revenue through sponsored projects. With a small operation – it's me full-time with a business partner who stepped out of day-to-day operations two years ago – it's tough to explore events as a source of revenue.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
For news, I compete against a local LGBT newspaper publisher with a strong online presence. For ad dollars, I compete with that same publisher as well as a glossy weekly publication focused on entertainment and nightlife. All of us aren't direct competitors on all fronts and there's a large enough pie of readers and revenue for all of us to succeed. But there is competition.
5. What makes your site unique?
Our competitors are slaves to their print products and print deadlines, while I get to focus only on the content for my site. We built our audience by being quick (and often first) in reporting breaking news and by being out in the community covering events and shooting photos of people attending them. People love to see their photo and that helped draw them into the site.
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?
The journalism brings in the readers and reputation, which I knew when I started the site. The business side pays the bills and keeps the doors open. I also knew that. But I focused for far too long on just the journalism with the hope that somehow the revenue would show up with little to no nurturing and work. I now understand how much more success I could be enjoying if I focused on the business side with the same energy and passion that I have for the journalism side. Fortunately, I survived my mistakes and am now making strides in growing revenue and bringing the business side up to the same level as the journalism side.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
I'm most proud of Project Q Atlanta's reputation in the community. We're tough, yet fair, and tackle stories that other outlets don't. Every time a reader comes to me with a tip that turns into a news story, I smile. It's validation that they trust us to report the story.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
I struggle most with working on the business instead of working in the business. It's tough to be a one-person operation and push past doing only the basics every day. But thanks to some coaching and pushing myself to grow and learn, I'm getting better at developing a strategy, setting goals and putting the important ahead of the urgent. It's tough to do in the news business.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
I'm working to double my revenue so that I can hire my first-ever reporter. That would help improve our content and allow me to step back a bit from reporting so I can focus more on developing the business. Once that goal is reached, there are other opportunities in the market for local indie news sites I'd like to dive into.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
LION provides the support I was lacking to help encourage me and keep me motivated. It's a blessing to have other like-minded publishers to brainstorm with and lend a sympathetic ear when I need to bend one. Seeing how other members are succeeding and struggling is also instructive. And the willingness of LION members to answer questions and share is amazingly beneficial. Additionally, the organization's work on the business side of local news sites provides a super helpful kick in the pants to get me more focused on making my site succeed.
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