This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses. 

By Emilie LutostanskiLocal News Resource Center 

Before the pandemic and subsequent global shutdown, media content platform company TownNews developed News Nirvana, a platform-as-service to help overcome news deserts where no local publications exist. TownNews teams wanted to fill those voids by providing publishers no-cost web hosting and a stripped-down version of its content management system.

“But since our entire world turned upside down in March, [News Nirvana has] quickly become what could be a lifeboat for publishers who may have to consider closing operations because of the businesses that have changed drastically over the last three months,” said Rick Rogers, chief revenue officer at TownNews, which serves more than 2,000 news organizations.

Rogers estimated at least 20 of those partner publications folded since coronavirus-related closures stymied the economy. That is why the basic hosting service has drawn interest from existing TownNews customers as well as other publishers on the cusp of shutting down — an unexpected shift in use from the product’s original intent, he said.

News Nirvana provides a basic, free website that allows local operations to sell two strategically placed banner advertisement slots and keep 100 percent of that revenue. Publishers also split all programmatic advertising revenue with TownNews, according to Rogers, who explains the 50 percent revenue share allows the company to keep News Nirvana available at no cost.

News Nirvana key features

  • No-cost web hosting
  • Light version of the CMS featuring a homepage + 6 sections
  • Retain 100% of all locally sold advertising revenue minus serving fees
  • Retail 50% of all programmatic advertising revenue
  • Go-to-market strategic planning
  • Reader contribution platform
  • Email newsletter (premium feature)
  • Subscription technology (premium feature)

Additionally, publishers gain optional premium access to email newsletter, subscription and contribution platforms. And through the light version of the TownNews CMS, participants receive access to a news content exchange, which includes work from 750-plus local and national partner publications.

The “scalable, turnkey” approach features one caveat: “The design is a dedicated template for all News Nirvana partners and will have limited customization,” Rogers said, explaining each site features a homepage and up to six sections with set advertisement placements.

The first News Nirvana partner, Nick Parker, will expand upon his existing operation, Link 2 Lee’s Summit, thanks to the new service that will push his efforts “into the next evolution of our service to the community.” Parker is a former editor of a local publication, so he knew firsthand the need for news coverage in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

“The News Nirvana program puts all of the digital tools within access to small organizations like Link 2 Lee’s Summit, exponentially increasing our ability to deliver timely local news as well as provide significant revenue opportunities,” Parker said. “The CMS is easy to use and makes it very simple to load our content for delivery. The new site design is very clean and will offer our readers unhindered access to all of the news and conversations about our community. On the advertising side, we’re now able to offer our local sponsors a kind of exposure and reach not possible before moving to this system.”

Parker and other publishers will also benefit from TownNews consulting as part of an incubator-like program, Rogers said.

“We’re going to make sure that when they launch they’re going to be successful,” Rogers said. “And the hope is that they launch and within a year,  they’ve grown to the point where they need a full TownNews BLOX site with all the bells and whistles.”

Rogers calls the Lee’s Summit operation “the perfect kind of example” of what TownNews envisioned when it developed News Nirvana.

“Nick is solely focused on bringing hyper-local news back to that community,” Rogers said. “That’s what this was intended to be. It has quickly become also a possible life raft for some publishers.”

Parker said other publishers should take advantage of low-cost opportunities like News Nirvana to launch and sustain local news operations.

“There is no denying the difficulties community news organizations face in today’s environment,” he said. “The News Nirvana platform provides us with access to editorial and advertising tools our businesses have little ability to afford or find. This levels the playing field and allows us to continue the work of serving our communities by covering local news, driving important conversation and being a watchdog of local governments.”

TownNews intends to share the News Nirvana program with leaders of each state press association nationally. Rogers hopes that effort unveils struggling publishers who would benefit from News Nirvana as a method to keep a news brand alive during difficult economic times.

“This is a chance to transition those papers to this platform, keep the website side of the business alive in a very different kind of cost structure, and allow them time to right the cost structure,” Rogers said.

Journalists interested in starting their own hyperlocal news operation can visit the application page for more information.