What does it take to be successful in local publishing? If you’re looking for the answer, a good place to start would be by talking to Uriah Kiser at Potomac Local News. Over the past 10 years, Kiser has developed one of the most prominent hyperlocal news outlets in the industry. In honor of Potomac Local’s incredible 10 year anniversary this month, we chatted with Kiser about what it takes to build a sustainable news product and how he’s been able to defy the odds and find financial profitability in challenging times.
Q. Ten years of publishing is a big milestone. What’s been the secret to your success all these years?
A. At Potomac Local, we’re covering a community that’s a news desert. Our area has been highly underserved as far as the media is concerned. I started Potomac Local because I wanted local news to live on in the community that I grew up in, and now we’ve been successful because we have stuck with local. We are solely focused on the can’t-get-it-anywhere-else news that the people outside our area just aren’t covering.
Q. Everyone is always curious about monetization. How’ve you managed to achieve profitability?
A. Digital dimes have never replaced print dollars. We started selling advertising early on. I’ll never forget the first ad I sold. It took us a while to build a reputation. I had to build that trust with the community, and I had to prove myself to advertisers because they had never seen anything like Potomac Local before. So, we had to prove ourselves early on.
We started with a model that was all free, and it wasn’t until 2018 that we introduced a paywall. The paywall was a way for us to offer a premium tier level of content for our readers. We took the money from the paywall and brought on freelancers for the first time, and they started producing longer format stories. Now, in 2020, we have switched over to a new paywall provider in Pico. Since we switched over in April, our email list has grown and we have been able to increase our audience hugely.
Q. What else has worked in your favor, as far as building your audience and generating revenue?
A. We have never had a big board of directors to report to. Nothing that stands in our way when we want to try something to see if it works. We tried sports coverage, and it didn’t work, so we pivoted away from sports. We’ve tried different events. Some have been big, some have been busts. The most successful events that we have done have been integrated with the news. We focus on things that are very local, that no one else is talking about. Being locally focused has, as far as community reporting is concerned, been great for us.
Q. Are there any downsides to maintaining such a narrow focus in what you cover?
A. Back when we were contemplating a paywall, I would sit in front of groups and ask what they wanted to see. What people really want is to know about the fun stuff they can do with their families locally and the new restaurants in town. They want you to tell good stories, no matter if it’s about corruption, murder, or a new burger joint.
Q. What are some of the biggest changes in how you run the business side of Potomac Local now?
A. I really like where we are right now with monetizing the site. We work hard, and we should be paid for our work. I believe that. It incentivizes me to bring on other voices, as far as freelance writers, because I can actually afford to pay them. Subscription revenue has allowed me to bring on more people. Many of our writers are in high school, and they have been writing for me for years. We have been using Zoom and working remotely for years. We’re able to do that, in part, because we live in an affluent area and government meetings are streamed online, so it’s easy for us to report on what’s happening without being present. We want to be a place where we cover the community accurately and fairly. I don’t care if a writer is 17 or 67. We want to be a place where people want to come and participate in an encouraging group setting.
Q. What’s the best advice you can give younger publishers about running a local news site?
A. Find a niche. Really find a niche. If I started today, I don’t think I’d be a general news source. That’s the way I did it at the newspaper. When I built Potomac Local, I did a lot of stuff just because that’s the way we did it at the newspaper. I’ve learned that you can keep your journalistic integrity and still speed up your processes. The web is a very diverse ecosystem with all different types of news and information coming in all different formats. So I encourage people to use different tools, show your reporting, and find your niche. If I was starting this now, I might only write about transportation. Or, I might chase cop cars all day long and cover cases all the way through. I’d say find your niche, and instead of treating your site as a giant news operation, be the beat reporter. The internet is the newspaper, and your site is the section of the newspaper that you want to read.
Congratulations once again to Uriah and the entire team at Potomac Local! We’re looking forward to many more years of your excellent local new coverage.