Sacramento Press thriving, looking to expand

Like a lot of people, Ben Ilfeld and Geoff Samek were frustrated with the quality and quantity of local news available in their town. And, like more and more entrepreneurial journalists, the duo decided to turn frustration into opportunity by launching a new local news site to fill that perceived gap.

But this is no WordPress blog dressed up to look like a news site. While that is certainly a great way to get started, Ilfeld (an economics and political science major in college) and Samek (a computer science major) had a much bigger vision from the start. Now they are managing a 14-person operation in Sacramento and looking for ways to export the model to other communities who might have similar frustrations with local news in their town.

sacpressSacramento Press features a completely customized technology platform, original reporting by full-time staff and innovative job titles like “journalism support manager” (who works with correspondents and user-submissions). As we are seeing in Dallas, Ann Arbor and Portland, the hyperlocal news operation can move from dream to reality with the right execution.

Sacramento is home to one of the nation’s largest – and most troubled – news publishing companies. McClatchy (my former employer) has its corporate HQ there and publishes the Sacramento Bee and The 800-pound gorilla in town probably views the Sacramento Press as a harmless fly swirling around a dinner plate. But this is an interesting startup with visions of changing the local news business far beyond its Sac-town boundaries.

I spoke with Ilfeld last week to learn more about Sacramento Press. Here is what he had to say:

How did you get started?

In 2003, Geoff and I were just getting done with college and we were really disappointed with what we could fine about our hometown online. If the content wasn’t missing, then it was presented with such polarization; the duality of a left-right argument on every story. We wanted an open, transparent, healthy debate.

We started talking to people about how to launch a local news site (including Mary Lou Fulton) and in 2005 we formed as an LLC. We took on a couple of Geoff’s friends who were excellent coders to build the site and eventually hired those guys who are now part owners. We spent about a year-and-a-half just building the site and then we launched in a very small, almost private beta. The area we covered was about 16 square blocks.

How did the business model and operation take shape?

In late November (of 2008) we started to expand on test trials with a homegrown ad system and started selling real ads for real money in February.  We’re not too worried about the day-to-day, we don’t have to make a profit tomorrow. We worked with lots of equity to get the site built. We told people “do this part-time, but keep your full-time job.” So we hired developers at a fraction of what they would normally cost. They were already invested because they thought it was an amazing project. So we made an exchange in ownership for something they thought was really big and helpful for their community.

Early on we all contributed content because we needed to fill up the site with something. So everyone was expected to write at least one article every week.

What makes Sacramento different than other hyperlocal efforts?

The difference is we’re built specifically for news for Sacramento. You need local ownership to make it work. But if we can provide a business model and revenue channels and a technology platform, then it can work in other places.

In hyperlocal and citizen journalism, it’s exciting to see successes on the business side. There’s no shortage of feel-good content success stories out there. So if someone wants to bring (Sacramento Press) to their community and we can take what we’ve got, get it to profitability, create something that’s easily replicable, then we’re looking for opportunities.

It’s both for profit and fun to talk about from a theoretical level. We just hired some more people and some are for the transition to something that’s replicable, like a CFO, a chief corporate strategist, a someone to work on a national revenue model.

How is the business going? What are some of the things you’ve tried to market it?

We’re rapidly growing our revenue. We wouldn’t take these steps if we weren’t confident that Sacramento Press was going to be profitable. We’ve found that if you put yourself in the middle of the community, there are lots of people who want to do business with you. Some are advertising-related, some are not. It’s not product based.

We are really good at ads on our sites. We have ridiculously high retention rates. We also do targeting really well and we use social media a lot. We are platform agnostic since we realize that not everyone is gong to visit our sites. So we leverage all these free tools to get the word out.

For marketing we’ve done everything from branded Sacramento Press bikes, called shuckers. We used some direct mail. We did physical drops where we hand things out. And we went to lots of meetings to recruit writers. (They also host 3-4 workshops a month for writers and offer free copy editing and research.)

How do you envision growing this and spreading it to other location?

We’re still in the early stages of working that out. But I can see instances of a site operating like Sacramento Press being owned by foundation, for example. We can imagine all sorts of interesting ownership models.

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