Starting an Online Newspaper
Interview with Entrepreneur Paul Baron
Thinking about starting an online news service? We talk with the founder of HomeTownTimes.com, who has built a successful franchise model for small town news.
The newspaper industry is going through some tough times, but that's not stopping a few creative entrepreneurs from launching news-oriented startups.
One of the news entrepreneurs we've been tracking is Paul Baron, CEO and founder of HometownTimes.com. We recently caught up with Paul to hear more about his new startup.
Paul, tell us about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
Over the past 18 months, we have acquired and built out over 520 community-specific Web domains to serve communities all throughout the U.S.
These HometownTimes.com sites are based on a proven business model created in 2003 in an Atlanta, GA suburban community whose local news coverage was cut off by the established print newpapers covering that area. Today HometownTimes.com online news sites continue to serve that audience with free online delivery of high-value local news, information, and events to drive customer traffic, keep the community informed, and help fellow local small businesses and organizations succeed and thrive. The idea is really to promote communication, interaction and growth throughout our country, at the hyper-local community level, and to also serve national and local footprint businesses seeking to attract and engage local audiences for their products or services.
Given the current economy, this concept is filling the current gap in community and regional news reporting and has really set the standard for the future of online community news. It's a business model that works for businesses, job creation, and the community.
Interesting. With all the local newspapers that are struggling, I'm guessing you're filling a needed void. But what about the content? Who is creating the content for these 520 communities and how do you compensate them?
The content on the HometownTimes.com sites originates with the local publisher/owner, the community, the advertisers, and civic organizations who make their public information and events available for distribution and publication.
The sole source of revenue for HometownTimes.com and our site owners comes from our advertisers and affiliated partners, such as Google, Job Boards, Yahoo, and others. Local owners get to share in both national advertising and affiliated programs and that is one of the values that separate our model and opportunity from all others. But the real income opportunity for writers and owners is from the local advertisers that are attracted to reach the local audience. The hyper-local content will drive traffic to the site, which will ultimately drive compensation for the local owner.
I'm guessing you have a rollout plan for this. On a project like this, how do you go about testing the market to make sure you're hitting the right local needs and that it works for advertisers?
That's a great question and the answer is actually our value that distinguishes and differentiates a HometownTimes.com community site from the many other so-called "local" sites found online. Our success and the success of the local publisher comes from the fact that our site owners have a franchise to their community's HometownTimes.com site – they are the stakeholders with a direct financial and personal interest in delivering quality news and stories, identify the matters of interest because they are active in their community and connected to the issues and people that build the audience. All of this activity combines to engage the community and support local businesses through social networking, mobile, email, and online solutions that continually engage and deliver.
So it sounds like you've created a business opportunity for local folks in the various communities. I've heard of similar business models from folks like Coffee News and some publications that focus on local real estate opportunities? How do you differ from those business opportunities?
The biggest difference (besides the fact that we are reaching our audience exclusively through our online presence) is our ability, as a national organization, to leverage greater audience of millions to serve national players and deliver revenue share to the local franchisee. The value of being part of Hometowntimes.com is that our local owners, readers, and advertisers all benefit by the presence of support from businesses that normally would not be attracted to a small audience by itself. And at the local level, we are able to be the online presence to these industry-specific publications and other print-only magazines or newspapers to reach a larger audience in more ways that fit the individual consumer’s lifestyle. We do this with cooperation, rather than creating a competitive environment, where everyone wins.
Interesting. I'll tell you, it seems like you are a "make no little plans" kind of guy. This is pretty ambitious, don't you think? So what's your assessment of what the biggest challenges are going to be to make this a success? How are you addressing those challenges?
Every creative innovation, where you’re trying to build the better mousetrap, requires a certain level of “buy in” and confidence in the system to realize the goals of all parties. As well as attracting individuals with the “right” profile to succeed. Our biggest challenge will be to identify those qualified local publishers (and there is no shortage of that talent) who will have both the professional/personal skills and initiative, as well as the financial resources to take their time to initially build their local audience and attract advertisers.
While HometownTimes.com will provide all the support, technology, and resources to manage the delivery, the ultimate responsibility to identify the content that matters will be on the shoulders of the local owner/operators. We have already developed the sound foundation and solutions to support those local owners, drive traffic to advertisers, and deliver the news, information, and events in a logical, readable, responsive format all to insure the success of each individual local owner.
Sounds like you've done a good job of identifying your key challenges and have put some good plans in space. I'm curious, given that you are a serial entrepreneur, what's some good advice that you'd offer to the people who visit our site who are thinking about starting a business?
Look around you, your life, your neighbors, your children .. listen to them. What do they want, what do they need? What can you become passionate about that offers others the opportunity to share in that enthusiasm and support the solution to the problem – sometimes a problem they didn’t even know they had, like a fun place to go with your dog on a rainy day, or an affordable plumber or dentist to serve your home or family needs. Whatever product or service, it should fill a void that creates some value in everyone’s lives, enables your customer to have more time or money, at the end of the day, to do the things that are important to them, their family, their business, or their community. Then, like HometownTimes.com, maybe the timing and the solution will be right.
Great advice. Well, Paul, it sounds like a great venture and we wish you all the best as you ramp this up to full throttle. Keep us posted on how things go.
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