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Two pioneering online community news entrepreneurs move on

by: Michele McLellan |

Two prominent online news entrepreneurs are moving on.

David Boraks, who operated two local news sites north of Charlotte, N.C., ceased publication June 1. Susan Mernit, who heads Oakland Local in California’s Bay Area, is looking for someone to take over the site or it will cease publication June 15.

Both decisions underscore the commitment it takes to operate a local news start up as well as the challenges publishers face in many markets. Both operations have long been both highly entrepreneurial and highly vulnerable on the revenue side.

Boraks said he concluded he needed to expand his operation to cover two additional towns and the entire Lake Norman area to build a sustainable business. He and longtime business manager, Lyndsay Kibiloski, also concluded that they had neither the time or the energy to do that.

Mernit, meanwhile, co-founded and is CEO of Hack the Hood, a highly successful program that teaches young people tech and marketing skills . Mernit says working both jobs in unsustainable and she wants to focus full-time on Hack the Hood

 Market challenges

 Boraks founded DavidsonNews.net in 2006 and launched CorneliusNews.net in a nearby town in 2011.  He reported revenue in the range of $101,000-250,000 in 2014.

 The publications operated with a couple of critical challenges:

  • Operating in a highly competitive market where potential advertisers have lots of options, including print publications and Facebook ads, most of them offering less expensive options than he could.
  • Inability to recruit a full-time ad sales rep until 2014. The site struggled financially as part-timers proved ineffective.

“We couldn’t find the right person who could work for us for what we could pay They were six-figure persons. The other jobs around here are that. We can’t afford that,” Boraks said in an interview. A full-time sales rep did significantly increase revenue in 2014, but sales and reader donations slumped during the past winter.

In a farewell post, Boraks noted that traffic to the sites was at an all-time high with more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors, making it the largest publication north of Charlotte. 

“We are very proud of what we built. We proved there is an audience for news on the web,” Boraks said. “But we did not get all the way to sustaining it.”

Boraks plans to continue to work as an announcer on a local radio station and look for his next opportunity.

New venture

Oakland Local, meanwhile, has also taken a hit on revenue, as co-founder and editor Susan Mernit has made Hack the Hood her primary focus. The project trains young people to do tech and social media, and they in turn help local businesses improve their web presence. In just a couple of years, it has grown to a $1.2 million operation.

 “I’m proud, six years is a big accomplishment,” Mernit said in an interview.

Oakland Local, launched in 2009, is seeking new management and recently posted a request for proposals to take over the site. Oakland Local operates as a nonprofit. But it has been entrepreneurial in seeking non-philanthropic revenue, including advertising, in an economically challenged market.

Mernit said she hopes individuals or an organization that can focus on revenue development as well as editorial will come forward soon. The site will continue to publish until June 15. The RFP says applicants must commit to raise $75,000-$150,000 to operate the site.

Which narrative?

Some will add these developments to a narrative of failure. (Here's one example from a blogger I respect, and my response questioning his numbers.)

I spend a lot of time looking at news start ups to see if they should be added to my database of promising sites, Michele's List. I interview them about their business practices and I survey them about their revenue. 

I see a narrative of experimentation, innovation, and, yes, disappointment. I see progress on many fronts, stagnation on others. I see a narrative of learning, and this was in evidence this weekend as I followed #lion15, the Twitter feed of a meeting of online publishers in Philadelphia, sharing best practices with their peers.

Boraks and Mernit have been an important part of this narrative. They blazed trails in a dynamic, challenging field. They launched in the great unknown of independent, “born on the web” local news sites. They demonstrated to more reluctant journalist founders that adopting business practices can produce financial results even though a stable revenue model was elusive their highly challenging local markets. They consistently shared what they were learning with other publishers. They deserve our thanks as they move on.

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Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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