Block by Block will be hosting this week its second annual Block by Block Community News Summit (#bxb11), an independent, online local news publishers gathering in Chicago, Sep. 29-Oct. 1. In the days leading up to the summit, we will feature here a short blog series on different publishers in the BxB network, their sites and entrepreneurial journalism experience.
The second installment is by Darren Hillock, publisher of West of the I, covering western Kenosha County, Wisc. Darren is a former legacy media reporter and started the site in April 2009 after he was laid off from his journalism job. His wife, Karen, sells advertising for the site.
By Darren Hillock
I often tell people our business is well ahead of where we thought it might be two plus years after West of the I launched in April 2009. I confess that’s mostly because we really didn’t know where it would be. There were not a lot of guidelines to follow.
Maybe a look back and to the present day of our business can provide some perspective for others.
Editorial This was our strength. I had been a newspaper journalist for over 20 years. I thought I knew what needed to be covered in our neck of the woods.Often I was right; sometimes I wasn’t. But the greatest thing about the site, compared to the old days, was the feedback — from site stats and from the public that I was mingling a lot more with on a regular basis while going about news gathering (I had been an assigning editor most of my career). We learned the time consuming process of covering high school sports didn’t generate the interest that just listening and reporting on the scanner did. Readers didn’t care if a story had a lot of pithy quotes if it transmitted useful info and was a quick read. After two years we cover a lot of municipal meetings, preview and cover community events, leave sports mostly to volunteer contributors and listen closely to the scanner and report anything that people were likely to notice.
Advertising I had sold a few — very few — ads through the years. But my wife, Karen, was going to handle the ad sales and she had never sold anything other than call waiting when she was a phone company customer service rep back in the late 1980s. We decided we needed to start making calls very soon after launch. “Sales is a process” a wise mentor had told me. Might as well get that process started right away. Karen spent a lot of time cranking up courage and explaining just what we are. Two years later, the local business person that has not at least heard of us is very rare, the ones that won’t listen to our pitch infrequent and the ones that actually call us before we call them becoming more common every month.
Business/marketing One of the attractions to starting a hyperlocal news website was the low start-up cost and overhead. That gave us the courage to try. Two years later, we are covering the business’ bills and keeping a roof over our heads every month. That was the main goal all along. Just before our two-year anniversary, we started a new site in a neighboring community. An indicator of our standing as a business is that now we are considering how we finance the greater staffing and marketing that project needs rather than sweating out buying a needed piece of equipment.
But just in the last week I think we experienced the greatest indicators of how far we have come as a business. I had reason to be in an office where I likely would have loved to have worked right after I was laid off by the newspaper back in 2009. The thought of reporting to that environment daily two years later, however, made me shudder. For Karen, just the other day she came in from a challenging day of sales calls and said, “You know, this is what I want to do.”
See the first article in this series, featuring community news publisher Amy Senk, on running Southern California site Corona del Mar Today.