It’s been a busy 2020 for Mandy Jenkins.

The general manager of The Compass Experiment has not only had COVID-19 to deal with, but she’s actually launched a second community website through the Google-backed project.

Jenkins got Mahoning Matters (serving Ohio’s Mahoning Valley) out of the gate in late 2019 and spent a good portion of the beginning of the year ramping up the site and audience. It went well enough that she launched The Compass Experiment’s second site, Longmont Leader (Colorado).

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore new sustainable business models for local news.

Jenkins, who has spent her career in a variety of interesting digital media startups, shares more about how the overall project has gone and what it’s been like to launch new digital sites with consumer revenue components during the coronavirus pandemic.

First, tell us a little about how your first site launch in Youngstown has gone.

We chose Youngstown initially because of the impending closure of its local newspaper, The Vindicator. Though there are other local media outlets in the area, the newspaper had really been the only source for regular beat and accountability reporting on the community, so we saw a need there.

We launched about 40 days after the newspaper closed, with a team comprised of members of that staff. It has taken some time to get a foothold in the community as the area’s only digital-only property, but we have really come into our own in 2020. In December we launched a very popular morning newsletter roundup written by our editor, Mark Sweetwood.

We far surpassed our audience projections for our six-month anniversary, even before COVID came along and drove an incredible amount of traffic our way. I believe this is largely due to our focus on exclusive, enterprise reporting that grabs the attention of local readers and travels by word-of-mouth.

On our six-month anniversary at the beginning of April, we launched our first reader contribution drive. We weren’t sure what to expect in such an economically depressed area, but we have so far received more than $8,000 from our readers. We feel blessed they care enough about what we are doing to be invested in our future.

What’s the community/advertiser reaction been?

We decided early on that we would have to take an innovative approach to local advertising. Our market had not seen a product like ours before, so we expected there to be a bit of a training curve to get local businesses to consider the value of digital-only advertising on a startup property.

In terms of more traditional online advertising, we have shied away from national ad exchanges and programmatic open market ads, as we don’t think those provide a good user experience or speak to a local news presence. Instead, we favor the local approach. We sell local display advertising on our site, which has attracted some smaller local advertisers. We have accepted some direct-sold national advertising in the past, but only to businesses that have locations in our market. We have also started selling sponsored content, which has been high quality and very locally focused. We also have great built-in tools for local businesses, including a verified, brand-safe presence in our business directory and self-managed classified advertising.

We adapted a few initiatives pioneered by our platform partner, Village Media, at their own sites in Ontario. Our most successful has been the Community Leaders Program, where local businesses sponsor local content categories on the site. Our first such partner, Farmer’s Bank, sponsors a section called “Movers and Makers,” which highlights entrepreneurial efforts in the Mahoning Valley. We control the content, and their name is on stories that our readers love to read and share. This has been extremely popular in the community, the advertiser is happy with the results and we get to use that funding to directly pay for an expansion of content on the site.  This approach is more like public radio underwriting than traditional display, and advertisers like that it makes them a huge presence on our website.

We were able to get a good start in the local advertiser community due to the existing relationships brought to the team by our first business executive, Mark Eckert. Mark had worked for The Vindicator for many years and had owned a well-known family business before that. Tragically, we lost Mark in late March to COVID-19, which has been tough on our team. We wouldn’t be doing nearly as well without him.

It is because of those relationships and a model that isn’t dependent on keyword-driven national ads that we have actually gained a few advertisers during the COVID crisis.

Can you share more about how the coronavirus has impacted things?

Like many other local news outlets, we have been profoundly impacted by coronavirus in both positive and negative ways. Early on in the pandemic, Mahoning Matters’ local sales executive Mark Eckert was one of our area’s earliest casualties of COVID-19.

We learned so much from his experience as a COVID patient and from his loss that informed our worldview of the virus. It also established in our team a sense of mission and togetherness that has sustained through the pandemic. We made our work reflective of the questions and needs of our community. As a result, we broke and re-broke traffic records, launched a successful donation campaign from our readers, and actually gained advertisers instead of losing them.

The traffic has come off its peak, but we seem to have brought on a large new batch of dedicated readers that have stuck with us.

What have you learned about this launch, per what you planned to do?

We learned so much in launching Mahoning Matters.

For one, we learned the importance of hiring a team that knows the area well – both on the business and editorial sides. We wouldn’t have made it this far there without those deep local connections.

We also learned the importance of talking to the community – and many aspects of that community – before launching, to have them help shape our coverage priorities. That will be complicated by the current situation, but we have plans to do more virtual events and other engagement efforts to try to replicate that experience.

We also learned how difficult it is to make an impact as a new player in the market. It took a lot of time to get people to know who we are and what we represent. This time, taking over an existing site that shares our values is giving us a bit of a head start.

We also have learned the value of lots of upfront research and testing. We don’t start anything without a plan to measure its effectiveness and we closely monitor progress against our goals. If it isn’t working after a set time, we’ll change it or stop doing it. Everything we’ve started, from reader revenue to new features like our community calendar, was decided after a lot of research to see what other sites are doing and how it is working for them.

After going through this site launch — plus all of your experience — in digital startups, what’s your advice for someone who might be considering launching one?

To be honest, before I got into this job, I thought it would be easier. I had been apart of startups before, but I hadn’t run one from the ground up – there are so many variables to consider and so much that needs to happen all at once. I found it really helped to compile and follow a checklist of tasks and needs. We put one together in advance drawing from the experience of other small local startups and Village Media. It included everything from the legal aspects of setting up a new business and getting trademarks to back-end technology, community relations, and onboarding staff. Over time, we added to and edited the list quite a bit, and now we are using it again for site #2.

One of our biggest challenges was a bit of an unexpected one. If you are going to do display advertising, carefully consider your advertising operations set up. Most ad operations systems are cumbersome, expensive, and largely built for print operations.

Also, you will need to spend way more on marketing than one would think, so budget accordingly. At this point, most everyone knows you can’t just build a news site and expect people to just start showing up. I think a lot of new entrepreneurs think they can organically build enough brand awareness on social media to get started, but that is rarely the case. To make people know we even exist, we had to spend more than we wanted to on Facebook email acquisition campaigns and Google keyword marketing. It has helped tremendously in terms of bringing in the audience, then it was up to us to get them to start coming back.