Ad-supported news site operating in a blog format.
FOUNDER and STAFF:
Full-time paid: One person — Justin Carder, reporter, editor, ad sales, business manager
Justin started at MSNBC as editorial intern in June 1996. “It’s not a good place to cut your teeth as a reporter. I turned in a lot of bad stories. They always threw tech work to the kid, so I did a lot of production and analytics. I was the Quark jockey,” he says. Two years later, he went to Microsoft proper to work on the MSN.com home page. “It was a really great education,” he says. “What people want to read on a large scale is pretty illuminating.”
Justin worked at Microsoft for a decade and accumulated a “good war chest” to do something on his own. CapitolHillSeattle (CHS) is a proof-of-concept from a startup called Instivate. The company makes Neighborlogs, the CMS that powers CHS and two other news blogs in Seattle area, plus 22 others around the U.S. He earns a small salary from Instivate, because it’s still in start-up mode.
Freelancers: The Neighborlog system is designed to encourage small team operations in a loose affiliation. Its revenue-sharing program is part of that. After registering, anyone can contribute to the site. Justin has editorial control on what stories to feature on the home page, and rewards people based on performance. When a post does well, there’s more traffic to the rest of the site.
Contributors don’t earn significant money. “The range is typically $15 a month; the biggest has been $100 a month,” he says. He tries to consider the increased traffic to the site in determining the amount of money he pays a contributor, but he says he’s “still tweaking the right way to do that.”
Justin hopes eventually to attract more bloggers, and, this summer, he will begin paying a former newspaper journalist to contribute to the site.
COMMUNITY SERVED: 42,000 people who live and work in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
March 2009: Three-month average unique users 17,052; page views 88,213.
2008: 62,000 unique users, 600,000 total page views
Number of posts/day: Justin posts three to four times a day during the week, and once or twice on weekends. Each week, about 10 posts from other contributors make the home page.
Number of days/week posting: Seven days/week
Community-generated content: About 30 percent of the site is community generated — that includes posts, comments, events, and photos.
FOUNDED: January 2006 and Spring 2008, when Justin switched to the Neighborlogs platform.
WHY: “The idea hatched while I was living in a different neighborhood that wasn’t well defined or well represented,” says Justin. When he moved to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, he wanted to continue the site as a hobby. “Capitol Hill is so well documented from news and information sites that I shifted to trivia. News and information was reborn later once I established myself and had a little more of an audience up here.”
Then he met Scott Durham, who owns Instivate. “Scott was building services for newspaper partners to put together community driven sites,” says Justin. Scott convinced him to make the switch over to the platform in Spring 2008. Justin also took over business development for Instivate.
TURNING POINT: None yet.
COMMITMENT TO THE COMMUNITY: 24/7 coverage.
NUMBER OF POSTS OR STORIES/DAY: 5 to 6
NUMBER OF DAYS FEED SITE/WEEK: Seven.
SITE SECTIONS: Main blog page, maps, classifieds, events. Maps are built into the platform. The best stories appear on the map. Users can drill into an address to see everything that’s been written. People can add events to the calendar. Justin lists important community events. People can report events that are commercial in nature, as long as they are relevant to the neighborhood.
MEDIA TYPES: Text, photos, graphics, maps, many links within posts, and links to video. The platform has a built-in video player; the site takes advantage of third-party video services. “I’m lucky to have a professional videographer in the neighborhood who frequently contributes to the site,” says Justin. “In fact, he made this great doc about CHS.”
SOCIAL NETWORKING: People can email the editor, add comments and tags to stories, submit posts, classifieds and events. Neighborlogs will be adding forums soon. No groups or member pages. CHS has a Facebook page and Twitters.
TOPICS COVER: CHS covers everything from observations of life to the local police blotter. “There are topics I under-report,” says Justin. “Food and bar reviews, show reviews. Yelp covers those.” Some things he follows through to their conclusion; some he doesn’t. “I don’t feel like our mission is to tell things no one else is telling,” he says. “Our contribution is to stories about Capitol Hill, writing along with other people. I don’t feel like we have to nail every minute of things. There are definitely uncovered stories. I have to find a way to harness all these people. That’s the other part of new journalism that people don’t talk about enough.”
PERCENT CONTENT FROM COMMUNITY: 30 percent.
Community content is and needs to be a big core of the site, says Justin, whose college degree is in journalism. He says his job is not to make journalists out of the contributors, but to help them tell a story better.
“What I do is definitely journalism,” says Justin. “I edit a community. It’s a really big challenge.” He works with contributors behind the scenes to help them improve their reporting and writing.|
Many contributors post anonymously, and that’s okay with him. By taking the role of community editor — helping people to make their stories complete — he provides a level of accuracy and trust. “The bigger story, the more important it is, the higher need to understand the perspective of the person who is writing,” he says. “From a philosophical standpoint, the most important thing to me is that people understand the contributor in context of the site. It doesn’t matter who somebody is. In practical terms, as editor, it very much matters to me what makes the front page and what doesn’t. People have a good idea who I am. They’ve got that. The site is doing its job as a first-level filter.”
WORK OF A JURNO:
Participatory beat-blogging: Neighborlogs is set up to encourage submissions from registered users. Most of the posts are done by Justin, but there’s a smattering of regular contributors.
Immediate and continuous: Justin posts relevant news from the local emergency response scanner and provides updates.
Contextual: Posts are tagged, and a search function is provided to find posts relating to a particular topic. With so many news sources, Justin doesn’t feel as if CHS is the only source for people in the neighborhood, and he looks for a unique take on a story covered by other media.
Solution-oriented: Moderate. Justin follows some issues, but not others.
Appropriate choice of media: A good mix of maps, graphics, photos and text.
COMPETITION, NEWS: Capitol Hill Times, which is published by Pacific Publishing Company. The Stranger, an alternative weekly. Although it’s not focused on Capitol Hill, it’s headquartered in the neighborhood.
Justin does not regard the Seattle Times as competition, from a content or ad standpoint. “Having them write about the Hill helps me,” he says. They write at a level into which Justin can always go deeper. They can’t target local advertisers.
CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM/HOSTING SERVICE: Neighborlogs, from Instivate. Justin is vice president of business development and has an equity stake in Instivate. Neighborlogs is in private beta, is free to people who want to do a start-up. It provides an entire platform: design, template, maps, advertising structure. [Coming soon: a case study on Neighborlogs.]
INCOME: $1100/month. Justin’s been selling ads since September 2008. “It’ll be a better revenue story a year from now,” he says. “I have a good start on a small business. I’ll see how it can support my part of a family’s finances.”
START-UP FUNDING: With the right local environment — population plus income — and the opportunity to dedicate 100% time to the project, a person can probably start generating enough money to pay someone else to start helping them in six months to a year, says Justin. It’s easier if there are two people: one to devote time to the content side, the other to advertising.
With full effort, the business is likely to break even sometime during its second year of operation. Justin thinks this timeframe could compress with better tools and services — and Neighborlogs may be one solution. But it’s still a long haul.
“To do it truly bootstrap and grassroots,” says Justin, “I would plan for a year where the business is garage-style hobby, then some variant of the above as you achieve velocity to grow into actual part-time or full-time effort.
“Base costs in both scenarios are some combination of technology and hosting, news and information gathering and content, and advertising sales process. Finding ways to shortcut any of those is a big advantage to trying to survive and build anything in this space.”
ONGOING FUNDING: Justin’s wife works full time and provides health insurance for the family.
ADVERTISING: CHS has a self-serve advertising system that’s provided by the Neighborlogs CMS. It lets small business owners own the experience, see how much they get for a certain budget, and make changes at their convenience.
Advertisers: CHS has had 60 different advertisers; at this writing, the site has 30 advertisers. Justin’s goal is to have at least 60 at one time. He contacts people who stop advertising, and has found that some, like the woman who offered typesetting services, didn’t find CHS advertising effective. For some, such as a Capitol Hill handyman, it’s better than a Yellow Pages ad.
Ad plans: CHS ads are sold on a CPM (cost-per-thousand) basis for whatever period an advertiser chooses. The purchase is based on a daily budget the advertiser sets when setting up an account. Advertisers can choose budgets from only a few dollars a day up to the maximum they are willing to pay each day. Each ad placement has a CPM price. This varies on CHS between $5 and $20 for various placements. Inventory is then made available to advertisers based on how much traffic the site is generating, the CPM price in the placement and the various daily budgets of the participating advertisers.
“It sounds more complicated than it is,” says Justin. “The bottom line is a small business knows how much they are paying every day and receives a forecast on how many times we estimate their ad will be shown at that budget level.”
Ad production: Businesses can upload their logo to the Neighborlogs wizard, which makes an HTML version that looks like a banner ad. That lets businesses make an ad without having to pay a designer. On the risk side of that, some ads can look like MySpace. On flip side, a lot of knowledge and education is going into people’s hands.
Other: Neighborlogs takes 30 percent of the ad revenue from ads loaded through the self-serve ad system. If the startup’s owner puts her/his own ads on the site, s/he keeps the revenue.
Justin has done some sales, but it hasn’t been very productive. “The most productive thing I can do is to build a productive site,” he says. “The thing I can guarantee is a good post. Sales are hit or miss.”
Community: CHS hosts semi-monthly meetups – sometimes dinners, sometimes drinks, sometimes gatherings to do fun things like trade books. “These aren’t yet monetized in any way but there is a possibility in the future,” says Justin. “The events would have to have more planning, resources and value before that happens, however.”
Content Management System: Free
Web hosting: Free
Staff salaries: One person
Equipment: An iPhone to post and update the site remotely. A streaming audio application gives access to a local scanner. Justin uses his iPhone for still photos, and, for video, a standard point-and-shoot digital camera that can do video and a Flip video camera. His next investments are an HD Flip and a news bike.
WHAT NEED MOST: Sometimes Justin wishes he had more help. CapitolHillSeattle is a good test for what he and Scott are trying to build for Neighborlogs. He believes that people who do Web-based startups will have to do it mostly on their own.
WHAT WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY: “I would not have eased into it,” says Justin. “I would have leapt into it earlier. The CHS early years were not very focused.”
ADVICE FOR JURNOS WHO WANT TO DO THIS: “I would piece together a good living,” says Justin. For people who want to be journalists now, doing a startup may mean building it while doing other work.