A Q&A with LION member Josh Popichak, publisher of Saucon Source in Pennsylvania.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
My site, Saucon Source, launched on Oct. 27, 2014, so its first anniversary is coming up. I launched it after a successful GoFundMe campaign in which I raised more than $7,000 in startup capital and created beneficial "pre-game hype." I'm glad I took that extra step, because it bought me time post-launch to really focus on content before ramping up my sales efforts. I mainly cover Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township — two adjacent municipalities in eastern Pennsylvania, about two hours west of New York City and one hour north of Philadelphia. Hellertown is a small borough and Lower Saucon Township has rural and suburban areas. Together they have a population of about 18,000. I founded my site because I love the Saucon Valley and I knew that publishing my own website was the only way I was truly going to be able to cover it the way I want to. After reporting on the area for about a decade, and with many friends who own businesses or are involved in community organizations, I felt I could make a go of it as an entrepreneur.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
Before becoming an indie news publisher I was a local editor for Patch for three years. Before that I worked in print, as a freelancer, reporter and editor. I've covered Saucon Valley for about 10 years. I'm a graduate of Bates College, where I majored in history … and never took a journalism (or even an English) class. I think studying history and my liberal arts education prepared me very well to be an independent journalist. An appreciation for history helps me contextualize information, and the liberal arts education overall I think has given me a perspective that balances a healthy skepticism with altruism, and egalitarian views. I see my role as that of a community benefactor in some sense. I want to be a force for positive change in my community. And I think not having a J-school background has helped with that, because I've never felt confined to being just an observer. I have always had the desire to go above and beyond for my readers.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
My business is an LLC with two components — the website and my social media management and consulting services. In addition to publishing Saucon Source, I manage social media (primarily Facebook pages) for small local businesses who need an outsider because they're too busy to do it themselves. I've also recently dabbled a bit in graphic design (for a local realtor). I don't have a business background at all, but I know how to research issues, ask questions and rely on trusted advisors when necessary. I think we all need to do that. Before I started the LLC I worried about developing a "perfect business plan," but in the new media arena I don't think it's as critical to do that as, say, if you're opening a frozen yogurt shop. I have no direct competition from other hyperlocals covering my area, and that is definitely a factor in any success I'm experiencing. I have no regrets so far. I'm sure I could be doing some things better but at least I'm doing them.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
There is a small weekly newspaper that has published in the town I cover since the late 1980s, and they haven't changed their business model much since that time. They don't have a website — although they do email the weekly edition as a PDF to their email subscribers — and they have a private Facebook group I'm not a member of. They pretty much do their thing and I do mine. Beyond that, there are two daily newspapers that selectively cover my area, as well as a local TV station. On any given day any one of them might scoop me on a particular story. What I have that they don't is an extremely loyal reader support base, particularly via Facebook. My sources have helped me scoop them many times. For example, when a truck crashed into a restaurant late on a Saturday night a few months ago I had readers transmitting photos from the scene to me almost immediately. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt in the accident. I always try to seize opportunities like these because they are when you have the opportunity to reach many new readers, and in a smaller town like mine you only get that "golden hour" once in a while.
5. What makes your site unique?
My site in a lot of ways follows the formula of the original Patch sites, which was almost all hyperlocal coverage including a lot of smaller news stories. My philosophy is still pretty much a "no news is too small as long as it's local" one, and I try to demonstrate that with my coverage each day. I have a sponsored obituary section, which is something I haven't seen on too many other sites — and that has done well. I also now have a couple of weekly sponsored sports features, including "Play of the Week" and "Athlete of the Week." I have a health/fitness-related business sponsoring each one (and one of them is actually being written by the business owner as well). In terms of the business model I think the fact that I also do social media management in tandem with the website is unique. I haven't run across other publishers doing that, and that kind of surprises me, because I think it definitely has its advantages — and not just from an upselling standpoint. From managing their Facebook pages I have had the opportunity to see what successful local businesses are doing from the inside, and learn from that. I also have developed story ideas. And the friendships I've forged with the business owners are really prized possessions for me. More than just a social media guy, they see me as an advocate for them — which I try to be, when I can.
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 took my time before I launched Saucon Source and I'm glad I did. I don't have any do-over regrets. It know it sounds cliche, but "I just knew" when the time was right to launch. Partly it was because by then there was so much pent-up demand that I couldn't wait any longer. People saw that the GoFundMe had been a success, and they were asking me daily "When is Saucon Source going to launch?" No matter what my advice to anyone who wants to do what I did is to do whatever research you need to do in order to feel confident about launching a site. It could be talking to someone from your local SBA (I did that) or a mentor who's already in the field. In the future I think it would be great if some sort of mentorship network were developed whereby those of us who are already doing this volunteer to help others who are just in the process of getting started. Not that any of us has a ton of time for that…but it really is important, because I truly believe that we are the future of local news. In the ideal American news ecosphere of the future, each town will have its own real hyperlocal (not something that just masquerades as hyperlocal, like Patch became in my area).
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
I would say my biggest source of pride is my relationship with my readers. They know I'm here for them, and vice versa. They thank me all the time for what I'm doing, which feels great.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
My biggest struggle is getting everything done. As I'm writing this I'm struggling to get content prescheduled to post, Facebook pages updated and emails responded to — among other thing s– before going away on a mini-vacation (my first in a year). This is certainly a challenge anyone who's self-employed faces, but I think it's moreso when you're the editor/publisher/primary writer/sales rep/etc. all in one, and you're all online, all the time. I have also trained my readers to expect me to be there for them (that's where a lot of my support comes from), so to tell them "hey I'm going to sign off for a few days — don't expect to hear from me" feels weird and not necessarily good. Managing the business itself is also challenging at times because I don't have an entrepreneurial background. No one in my immediate family has ever owned their own business and I had no formal business education, so I have had to look to friends and acquaintances for advice and support. For the most part I have found it from people in my community, but I still ask a lot of questions and it generally takes me more time to figure things out than I wish it did.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
Some of my future goals include developing a mobile app, adding a classified ad section, adding a real estate section, adding a local deals section, selling photos, trying podcasting and having an office (possibly combined with something else to draw people in — like a gallery) in my town. I also want to sponsor community events, either by myself or with another business as a cosponsor.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
I decided to join LION because I think there's definitely strength in numbers when it comes to indie online publishing. In many ways it's still an uphill battle against mainstream media. That battle is easier fought with the support that comes from belonging to a group. I am very happy that I joined LION. I love the LIONS Den and there is a real sense of camaraderie I get from reading the things others post that I can relate to. Being an indie publisher can be a lonely road in the professional sense, but it doesn't have to be, which is why I would encourage others to consider joining LION.
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