Dublin Inquirer: Making Local Journalism Work

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Lois Kapila of the Dublin Inquirer writes about the need for vibrant local media in Dublin that can respond to the needs of the community and outlines the challenges of making local news financially sustainable.

Newspapers have been in trouble in Ireland for a long time, with circulations declining and revenues following.  And small ones – provincial papers, local papers – have been hit hard. So why did my team and I decide in 2015 to launch a local newspaper? And how could we possibly think we can make it work when others have struggled?

Let me start at the beginning.

I’m a news junkie, so when I moved to Dublin a few years back, I tried out all the different newspapers, looking for something I’d love to read, something I’d love to write for. Something like the alt-weeklies I read while living in the United States, which do some really first-class feature writing and investigative journalism, with a local focus.

But in Dublin the big papers are the nationals, and they’re focussed on national issues, paying less attention to city affairs. The locals in the capital, meanwhile, tend to be either aimed at a bit of an older demographic, or focused on arts and culture coverage rather than news.

It seemed, to me, to be a glaring gap in the capital’s media market. So after a lot of talk, I decided to do something about it and wrote a business plan and got to work begging and borrowing to raise some startup funding.

Every grant and support we applied for turned down our application, from the Awesome Foundation to the Local Enterprise Office. I ended up borrowing money from family, putting in my own savings and starting on a smaller budget than I’d hoped.

In May 2015, I rented an office, built a website, and hired two reporters and an advertising salesman. We put out our first issue on 3 June. We had only a tiny budget and a tiny team, and just spread the word through social media, and talking the ear off everyone we met. Last month, about 60,000 people visited our site.

Of course, we’re still spending far more than we’re taking in, mostly on salaries for reporters, and our start-up funding is almost gone. So how do we plan to make money, and become financially sustainable? How do we think a local publication can survive?

Mixing It Up 

We are trying to keep in mind three rules: 1) fit your business size to your market size; 2) develop multiple revenue streams; 3) build community and tell stories that matter.

We’re aiming to reach Dubliners aged 20-45, and there are only so many of them. About 250,000 at last count. So that means our potential revenue is also ultimately limited.

But that’s not a problem. It just means we also have to build an organization that fits that market size. So we have four full-time staffers now and a small office. We don’t see ourselves growing beyond six members of staff eventually, because that’s what we believe the market we’re targeting can bear.

Another thing keeping our costs down is the fact that we’re independently owned, and our shareholders (I’m by far the largest), are interested in producing quality journalism and decent jobs for reporters who are passionate about the trade. There are no shareholders calling for higher profits or dividends. (We looked at organizing as a non-profit, but it doesn’t look to us like it’s possible for a media organization to get charity status.)

We started as a website as a way to keep our costs down while we found our feet and showed people what we were all about. We always planned to launch a print publication after about a year.

So that’s the expenditure side. Now what about income?

We started back in June 2015 with three revenue streams: traditional digital ads on the website; a voluntary membership scheme, through which we invited people to give us money if they wanted to; an e-commerce marketplace selling local Dublin products, with a percentage of each sale going to us; events; and editorial services.

Without millions of hits, we knew that letting Google sell ads on our site would only get us pennies. That’s why we invested in hiring an ad sales manager, to sell ads directly to Dublin businesses. Still, we were a brand-new site, and no one had heard of us, so it was a tough slog for Eddie.

The membership scheme has also worked well. We’ve had a steady stream of donations from generous people who like what we’re doing – most of whom we don’t know. They give anything from €5 to €200, and we’re really grateful for every cent. Not only does it help pay the bills, but it’s a real morale booster.

The e-commerce marketplace did not work. We stuck with it for about six months, and dozens of vendors took the time to post their products on it. But we only sold a few things through it.

In addition to these three major streams, we also planned to bring in revenue by running events and offering editorial services. We held a pub quiz that was very successful, and we’re planning a grime night, debates on city issues and more.

One of the struggles of trying to build many revenue streams with a small team is quite simply a lack of time. I would love to have run more events up to now, I think it’s going to be a key part of building a community – see later! – around the website and ensuring that we’re speaking and listening to readers.

But plans always seemed to be pushed down the line. Now, we’ve teamed up with some experienced organisers, and are reaching out more to existing organisations, which should mean more regular events.

With little bits from different streams, the money started to trickle in. But we need more than a trickle. That’s where the print edition comes in.

My dream would be to be a reader-supported publication, I mean 100-percent funded by readers. There are some amazing publications out there that are making that model work, by sticking to a mission of writing great stories that can’t be found elsewhere, by bringing their readers into the reporting.

Our print edition is a step closer towards that model. By turning to readers for money, we can focus even more on what they want, rather than what advertisers might be interested in.

We’re running a subscription drive now, and we hope to get at least 800 subscribers. That’d be enough to keep us afloat. And then we hope to build from there.

Building A Community

Over the past ten months, we’ve been trying to build a community around Dublin Inquirer. We’ve tried to engage with our readers by asking them what they want us to cover, and asking them to help us cover it.

We’ve been working with a great U.S.-based startup called We Are Hearken. They built this bit of software we added to our website. It asks readers to tell us what they want us to write about. Then, when we have a few ideas, we run a poll on the site, asking which of three ideas submitted by individuals, our readers as a group want us to cover. We don’t get all our story ideas this way, but it’s a really useful process and it’s resulted in some very popular articles.

We’ve also worked with a coder called Mick O’Brien to do some crowd-sourced journalism. He built a great page for us that let cyclists pinpoint where in the city they had had accidents or near misses. And then we went out to those places to have a look, figure out why they were dangerous, and how they could be improved.

In addition to these kinds of things, as I mentioned earlier, we hope to run more events, so we can meet more of our readers – at a pub quiz or a debate on housing issues in the city, for example, or a giant Lego-building party or a grime night.

We hope our readers will come to feel they know us, that we’re working for them, that this is their newspaper, covering things in their neighbourhoods that they care about. We’ve looked at a way to sell shares in the company to readers for a nominal fee (€1 a share or something) to strengthen this connection, but we haven’t figured out the details yet.

Will this combination of building an organization that fits our market, developing multiple revenue streams, and building a community work? You’ll probably know in the next two months: either we’ll have a thriving little print edition, or we’ll be gone altogether.

Lois Kapila is co-founder and managing editor of Dublin Inquirer.

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